Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Swarming Scenario: Threat or Hype?

Two of America's most expensive aircraft acquisitions, the F/A-22 and the F-35 (aka Joint Strike Fighter) have run into major problems during development and procurement. The F/A-22 is now pushing twenty years old and should have been operational nine years ago. Upon its conception in 1986, the F-22 was supposed to guarantee America air to air superiority against the Soviets. Initially, the military envisioned buying 750 F-22s. That number has been cut to 178 and is continuing to drop. Although the JSF is a much younger program (started in 1996), many are predicting a similar outcome to the F-22. JSF reported a Nunn-McCurdy unit cost breach to Congress in 2004 when its unit cost rose 19.4%. The military envisioned buying 2800 JSFs but will most likely not be able to buy anywhere near that number by the time the program is finished.

All of this is concerning when you begin to think about how competitors may challenge our air dominance in the future. One tactic may be to swarm our fighters. John Tirpak points out that
"initial squadrons sent to a crisis zone may be outnumbered in the air by a factor of 20. Facing such swarms, and flying against a new generation of advanced, double-digit surface-to-air missiles, Air Force fighters will have to be not merely superior but far superior to prevail in the early days of a future conflict."
This would be a challenge American pilots have never fully experienced.

Ultimately, however, if our future enemies attempt to swarm our F/A-22s and JSFs, I think they will meet a harsh end to their own surprise. The sitational awareness (radar, visual detection systems, avionics) of these "fifth generation" fighters are vastly superior to other fighters. These aircraft are super fast and stealthy meaning if they got into real trouble they could disengage and escape. Finally, our pilots are the best in the world. No doubt taking on additional aircraft would be challenging but our pilots would be up to the task. While a swarming threat sounds like something to be scared of, we should not stay awake at night worrying. Our pilots and technology will still be able to dominate the skies.

No comments: