Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:16 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:16 | SYDNEY

Air power: The quality of quantity

26 May 2011 15:22

Andrew Davies is Director of the Operations and Capability Program at ASPI.

Jim Molan chides the JSF for being not good enough, as well as late and over budget. I'm not convinced that's true (even the US Government Accounting Office doesn't seem to have an issue with performance) but I am convinced that it's not especially relevant.

Too much debate on air power is to do with 'platform on platform' performance, and way too little to do with combat weight, persistence and numbers. The RAND Corporation's 2009 study about a war in the Taiwan Strait gave the US forces a 5:1 exchange rate over their Chinese adversary. But even with that advantage, China won the war more often than not, due to sortie rates aided by the proximity of their runways and thus numbers to the battle.

When defending Australia, the same advantages would work for us. And in that scenario, the JSF or even more Super Hornets would likely do us just fine.

I think the focus on the platform rather the campaign has led Western air power down a seductive but possibly wrong path. Here's how I put it at last year's air power conference:

Modern western air forces have evolved into small collections of amazingly capable platforms. They have sensors, weapons and networking of a type that allows them to fight without loss (or with very few losses) in a great many circumstances. But it’s entirely possible that we have blind-sided ourselves by concluding that the future will look like the past few decades, in which western forces have faced smaller, less competent versions of themselves. In that case, better is better, and the cost of better is largely irrelevant. (Although we might be getting closer to hitting the wall on that front too.)

Instead, we might spend some more time thinking about cost-effective ways of fighting the wars we actually fight. Counter-insurgency operations can be greatly facilitated by armed low-cost, low and slow platforms, manned or otherwise. (Australia has) precisely none of those.

And, when we run those ideas together, an interesting observation emerges. The ‘silver bullet’ approach to combat aircraft actually leaves you short of useful capability at the low end and short of useful capacity at the top end.

Photo by Flickr user Cross-stitch ninja.