The F-22 Program Cancellation—Follow-Up

reaper-drone

A week ago, in “The F-22 Program Cancellation: The Aftermath,” we discussed the recent cancellation of the F-22 Raptor program, and the potential impact on national security and on the aerospace defense part of the economy.

Potential, because it is still too early to evaluate any concrete impact in either area. That doesn’t mean that aerospace defense and economic experts haven’t expressed their views and serious concerns.

We looked at an early assessment by military correspondent David Axe, which was rather positive.

For example:

The “new” U.S. Air Force that Gates is creating will be the most capable the world has ever seen, because it will balance conventional fighter jets for state-on-state war, with lower-end capabilities optimized for battling insurgencies — plus a huge, diverse fleet of flexible aerial drones. These forces will blend into a seamless whole for defeating “hybrid” threats that combine high technology with insurgent tactics.

Axe goes on to list the new types of “Irregular Warfare” (IW) aircraft and aerial drones we’ll be adding to the inventory to defeat the “hybrid” threat; to more effectively deal with “asymmetric threats,” as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates continues to emphasize.

In a future article, we’ll take a look at the views of those who believe that Gates is making a huge mistake.

One of them is retired General Merrill A. McPeak, who was Air Force Chief of Staff from 1990 to1994, and also a national co-chair of Obama for President.

Today, that co-chair, in a Wall Street Journal article, says that the future air capabilities we should build “are based on the F-22, a stealthy, fast, maneuverable fighter that is unmatched by any known or projected combat aircraft.”

McPeak recalls how effective combat air power has been in ensuring that, for more than half a century, “no American soldier or Marine has been killed, or even wounded, by hostile aircraft,” and how during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and in Desert Storm, “Our guys on the ground had hard work to do, but when they looked up, they saw only friendly skies.”

Mc. Peak then says, “For the life of me, I can’t understand why we should wish to change this.”

We’ll return to McPeak and others in future posts.

Today, in the Washington Post, Walter Pincus gives us insight into one aftermath already apparent as a result of the major changes occurring in the U.S. Air Force:

The Air Force will train more pilots to fly unmanned aerial systems from ground operations centers this year than pilots to fly fighter or bomber aircraft, Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz, the commander of Air Education and Training Command, told an audience Friday.

According to the Post, Lorentz’s remark illustrates the major transformation occurring within that service. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Will Fraser told reporters last month: “[the unmanned systems] are delivering game-changing capabilities today, and ones that I’m confident will continue to be invaluable in the future.”

We are talking about the Predators and Reapers that the Air Force is flying over Iraq and Afghanistan “in 35 simultaneous orbits, each of which is a combat mission that keeps an aircraft aloft 24 hours a day. The target is to have 50 orbits by 2011.”

According to Air Force briefings, as reported by the Post, today one ground-based pilot flies one Predator, assisted by two analysts. By 2013 the Air Force expects technology to permit one pilot to fly three Reapers, and to fly four in a crisis.

According to the Air Force, another advantage over manned aircraft is that there is always a fresh crew on the ground. “There are 1,000 Air Force personnel flying these unmanned operations today and none is in harm’s way.”

The Post mentions that there are five launch and recovery units in the Iraq-Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, while the global operations center is at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., with five other centers in North Dakota, upstate New York, Arizona, Texas and California.

According to Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], an unmanned aircraft could be designed to stay airborne for five years, “and I can man it that entire five years with little fatigue.” Now that’s economy of men and equipment.

When asked whether unmanned aircraft will ever completely replace either bombers or fighters, the general’s answer with respect to delivering weapons on target, is “Yes, you bet.” But when it comes to controlling airspace, flying against enemy fighters, the general says that a human brain is still superior in the assimilation of information and responding to it. “Someday we might be able to, but until then, we’ll still have manned aircraft.”

Also, as production and deliveries of the F-35 Joint Strike Figher and of other aircraft ramp up, there will be plenty of “real pilot” training to be done.

Image: Reaper Drone

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist