Stealth. Since the development of Northrop's Have Blue prototype in the 70s the Air Force has fallen in love with the concept, and has bought 4 types of stealth bomers and fighters since. But at what cost to capabilities? Stealth is an extremely valuable resource, but today and for the next 10 years we will be fighting an asymmetric war against third world terrorists, rather than large conventional wars on the plains of central Europe. The question I ask, has stealth destroyed the Air Force and naval aviation?
Exhibit 1: The A-12. The A-12 Avenger II was supposed to be a stealth bomber successor to the tried and true A-6 Intruder. The A-12 was canceled in 1991 due to cost and weight overruns, and problems with the radar system. Because the A-12 was supposed to replace the A-6 , the Navy canceled the A-6F Intruder II which would have had new engines, electronics, and 2 extra hardpoints for carrying ordnance. However, since the A-12 was supposed to replace the A-6, the Navy turned Grumman's proposal down. Then when the A-12 was canceled in 1991 the Navy was left without a tanker aircraft and bomb truck. And because the Navy placed all it's bets on the A-12, it was forced to use the F-14 as an attack aircraft, and purchase the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The Super Hornet, while an excellent fighter, is acceptable in the attack role, but is not meant for it. Conclusion: Because the Navy relied too much on new technologies (read A-12) that had kinks to be worked out, lost their deep strike and tanker capability.
Exhibit 2: The F-22 Raptor. The F-22 Raptor has become darling of the Air Force, as it can enter a dogfight with any type of aircraft and come out on top. However, in recent months the F-22 has had problems with it's oxygen system resulting in one pilot killed and a six month grounding for all F-22s. That does not include it extreme cost at 350 million dollars each, which has only been surpassed by that of the B-2 Spirit at 2.1 billion dollars. The damage to the Air Force done by the F-22 is not as obvious. And rather than manifest itself in loss of capability, it shows itself in quantity. With only 187 combat aircraft produced, the Air Force is forced to rely on a small number of extremely capable platforms. Not only that, but the Air force will be reluctant to risk a 350 million dollar piece of equipment in hostile airspace, simply because of it's cost and the technical secrets which the enemy would obtain. Conclusion: Because the Air Force was set on buying the newest, coolest airplane, they lost several good legacy fighters for each F-22, rather than buy better, new build fighter fighter like the F-16E of F-15SE.
Exhibit 3: The F-35 Lightning II. The F-35 is the latest and greatest of Air Force programs, and is the planned replacement of the F-16, F/A-18, and A-10. The problem here is the number of F-35s to be purchased. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are planning to to buy ~2400 F-35s of all types. I agree with many that the F-35 is a good fighter, but we simply cannot afford to buy enough to cover all the services. The Air Force has stated that they alone need 2200 fighters of all types, subtracting the 187 F-22s that leaves 2013 fighters that the Air Force needs. Subtracting the 680 F-35Bs and Cs the Marine Corps and Navy are buying, the Air Force is only buying 1233 F-35As, leaving a shortfall of 800 fighters. And the idea that the F-35 will replace the A-10 in the CAS role is a pipe dream (see example here, point made?), simply because the F-35 cannot absorb the punishment or carry the ordnance an A-10 can. Conclusion: The F-35 is a good bird, but at the moment it is not what we need, as it is too expensive, and it's mission can be performed by new legacy fighters. However, that does not mean it should be canceled, rather it should shelved for the moment until a need arises.
The other issue that hasn't been mentioned, is that are we willing to deploy stealth fighters into hostile airspace? The F-22, and F-35 are cutting edge fighters with some of the newest technologies in the West on board, and if lost would hand a technical goldmine over to enemy forces. Back in 1999 an F-117 was shot down, and it is almost certain those stealth materials fell into enemy hands. While obsolete by our standards, the F-117 is cutting edge for the rest of the world. Frankly, the Air Force or Navy would probably not risk stealth aircraft in hostile airspace like Iran, simply because of the rick of valuable technical secrets being lost.
Stealth is here to stay, that is a fact. However, in our current fiscal condition we cannot afford the number of stealth fighters or bombers we need to maintain our commitments worldwide. We also must be willing to risk our stealth aircraft in hostile airspace, even if that risks technical secrets falling into enemy hands. Even if we are willing to risk stealth aircraft in enemy airspace, we still don't have the money to afford enough stealth fighters. To answer the question posed at the beginning of this post, yes, stealth has destroyed the Air force and naval aviation.
The solution? The F-16E/F and F-15SE. The F-16E/F is the latest version of the venerable F-16, and is already in production. The F-15SE is a stealthier version of the F-15E, with conformal weapons bays (CWBs) rather than the conformal fuel tanks (CFTs). Both types are cheaper than the F-35 at around 80 and 100 million each. They are not the most advanced fighters in the sky today, but have two advantages.
We can afford them in the numbers we need, and they are proven in CAS and air-to-air combat. As to the Navy and Marines, the Marines would have to keep flying AV-8 Harriers off of helicopter carriers, and use F/A-18E/F Super Hornets for land-based aircraft. The Navy is another story, the A-6F needs to be resurrected, and a new cheap naval based fighter developed.
The problem for so many years has been that aviators across the board (with the possible exception of the Marine Corps) have become fixated on buying new aircraft. The "if its new, if its high-tech, we need it" mantra has killed the Air Force and Navy at a time when tried and true beats new and unproven. That is what has gotten us into this mess.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy and USAF