Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 | 11:30 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 | 11:30 | SYDNEY

Air superiority


Sam Roggeveen


17 February 2009 09:23

Regular readers will know I love The Atlantic Monthly, so I'm reluctant to believe blogger Matthew Yglesias when he accuses The Atlantic of 'shilling' for the military-industrial complex in its latest issue. But the particular article Yglesias complains about — Mark Bowden's piece about the F-22 Raptor fighter — does contain a really odd claim:

The Air Force fears that the dominance of U.S. airpower has been so complete for so long that it is taken for granted. The ability of the United States to own the skies over any battlefield has transformed the way we fight. The last American soldier killed on the ground by an enemy air attack died in Korea, on April 15, 1953. Russia, China, Iran, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and others are now flying fourth-generation fighters with avionics that match or exceed the F?15’s. Ideally, from the standpoint of the U.S. Air Force, the F?22 would gradually replace most of the F?15s in the U.S. fleet over the next 15 years, and two or three more generations of American pilots, soldiers, and marines would fight without worrying about attacks from the sky.

It's the underlined sentence I'm concerned with, but I left in the rest for context, because what Bowden is arguing is that the aerial threat posed by these countries justifies the purchase of the massively costly F-22. Trouble is, Bowden's list can easily be whittled back from six to three (China, India and Pakistan; even that last one is iffy). Let's take the others in turn:

  • In 2007, Russia introduced its first new fighter aircraft for 15 years. Yes, it also has many Soviet-era fourth generation fighters, but these are poorly maintained and pilots get little training — Russian air power is still struggling to emerge from its post-Cold War slump.
  • Iran has a handful of fourth generation fighters, just as Iraq did before the 1991 Gulf War, and just as Serbia did during the 1999 air war with NATO. Bowden's article describes in detail how America's current generation of fighters easily overwhelmed both forces.
  • North Korea also has a handful of fourth generation fighter, so the same logic applies.

As for China and India, the assumption in the article is that the US has to maintain a decisive edge over both. Yet neither is an avowed adversary of the US, and when the US did face such an adversary, during the Cold War, it contented itself with maintaining something much closer to military parity rather than trying to achieve superiority.