Washington, D.C., Sept. 1—Matching US global strategy as defined by the Administration would require a force strength of fifty-four wings, each consisting of seventy-two fighters, on the part of USAF’s tactical airpower, according to the most recent assessment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the current total is only 34½ wings, with strong prospects that Congress will reduce that total by one wing next year, according to Gen. W.L. Creech, Commander of Tactical Air Command.
In a recent breakfast meeting with several Pentagon correspondents, General Creech pointed out that the Air Force determined in 1973—when it mustered a force of thirty-three tactical fighter wings—that there was a clear-cut need to build up to a level of forty wings by FY ’81. That buildup, for a variety of reasons, was halted, with the result that over the intervening nine years the Air Force was able to gain only an additional wing and a half, of which, in the near future, TAC a likely to lose one wing by congressional fiat.
The current Air Force growth goal is to build toward forty wings—scaled back from the forty-four wings proposed when moves toward a defense buildup were gathering steam about two years ago—by the end of this decade, according to General Creech. But the rate at which the Air Force is acquiring new aircraft would seem to relegate that goal to never-never land. The Air Force’s rule of thumb is that to offset attrition and force ageing it takes “6.5 times the number of tactical fighter wings [in the inventory] in order to determine how many fighters must be bought each year to maintain that force,” General Creech said.
The Air Force’s buy rate lags grossly behind these requirements. In FY ’82, the Air Force’s buy of tactical fighters is held to a total of 176 aircraft, of which thirty-six are earmarked for strategic air defense, leaving 140 units for the tactical air forces. This figure is significantly less than half the number required for attainment of the forty-wing force goal by FY ’89. With totals in FY ’83 and FY ’84 fixed at 180 acquisitions each, General Creech remarked wryly, “It doesn’t look terribly promising for our goal.” The Soviets, on the other hand, are building more than 1,300 tactical fighters each year, of which between 850 and 900 units go to Soviet forces. The remainder are for export, according to General Creech.
Explaining that this total is down from 105 squadrons in the 1950s, he said that in his judgment the Air Force is “at rock bottom” in terms of its ability to carry out “peacetime air sovereignty and the limited warfighting we are responsible for. We have to maintain twenty-six alert sites around the United States with two aircraft on five-minute alert just to maintain air sovereignty.”
In order to bolster strategic air defense, the Air Force is deploying OTHB (Over-The-Horizon Backscatter) radars on both the East and West Coasts. These radars detect approaching Soviet bombers over long distances. At the same time, coordination with Canadian Air Defense forces is increasing, and there is the prospect of the Air Force’s buying additional numbers of E-3A AWACS to strengthen strategic defense. There are also plans to upgrade the Reserve Forces—which perform about two-thirds of the strategic air mission—with F-16s equipped with the high-performance AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile) after the latter enters the inventory in either 1987 or 1988.
While the US has no advanced fighters in development—and USAF’s Advanced Tactical Fighter program is in limbo—the Soviet Union is bringing four new designs into its inventory, according to the TAC Commander. Limited numbers of a fighter version of the MiG-25 reconnaissance aircraft, codenamed Foxhound, have been deployed. (Other sources indicate that this aircraft is also known as the MiG-31.) This aircraft, termed the world’s fastest, highest-flying, fastest-accelerating fighter by General Creech, is equipped with a “very sophisticated radar [and] a new, sophisticated air-to-air capability.” As a result, the Mach 3-plus Foxhound has a first-look, first-shoot advantage over the F-15. Foxhound, he said, is “faster, flies farter, and out-accelerates the F-15” while carrying similar armament “so far as radar and infrared guided missiles are concerned.”
The Soviets, he added, “now have matched us in radar plus some.” The Soviet radars have greater range than the US systems. Also, the new Soviet radar missiles have greater reach than the AIM-7, General Creech said. In addition, there is evidence that the Soviets have developed, although not yet operationally deployed, “an all-aspect IR missile.” Soviet technology in the tactical arena is not moving “much more rapidly than ours, but [they are] putting their technology in the field so much more rapidly than we do.”
Lastly, the Soviets are expected to deploy a SU-AWACS (a Soviet version of the US E-3A AWACS) derived from the II-67 Candid transport. While stressing that the US lacks details about the state of Soviet look-down plus Doppler technology, he said there is “ample reason to believe that it will be similar to the E-3A which, after all, represents fifteen-year-old technology.”
The short-term response to the Soviet first-look, first-shoot advantage, according to General Creech, is the expeditious development and deployment of AMRAAM. Even the older models of the Soviet MiG-123 Flogger can fire “four to six missiles against the F-16 and stay out of its range” so long as the latter is confined to heat-seeking missiles. This disadvantage is exacerbated by the fact that the Soviet airplanes can “outrun” the US fighters.
Rising to the defense of the AGM-65 Maverick that has been under attack by some national media and in Congress for allegedly typifying the Air Force’s infatuation with high technology systems, General Creech pointed out that of all firings since Maverick was first introduced, “about eighty-five percent turned out to be direct hits. That is probably the most effective weapon we have ever developed.” The Israeli Air Force, he disclosed, found the electro-optically (TV) rate that it considered deploying the weapon without a warhead, relying instead on kinetic energy to disable tanks and other mobile targets. (The Israelis are wont to minimize damage to expensive enemy weapons with an eye on capturing, refurbishing, and reusing them.”
Turning to the lessons the Air Force gleaned from the recent war between England and Argentina as well as from the confrontation between the Soviet-equipped Syrian Air Force and the largely US-equipped Israelis in Lebanon, General Creech suggested that fundamental was the refutation of USAF’s critics who claim that sophisticated equipment won’t work in combat. US supplied AIM-9L all-aspect missiles turned the British Harrier “into a credible air-to-air performer … something that is not easy to do since [that aircraft] simply is not designed for that,” General Creech said.
The Israelis have three F-16 squadrons numbering seventy-two aircraft and 1½ F-15 squadrons, with thirty-seven aircraft. According to information available to General Creech, the Israelis deliberately exposed all their units to combat in order to “give everybody a chance to participate.” It follows, he suggested, that the F-15 shot down a proportionately larger number of Syrian aircraft than did the F-16. He reported that less than seven percent of the Israelis’ kills were scored with guns. The bulk of the missile kills—involving AIM-9Ls in the case of the F-15—were by radar.
The Israelis lost only two aircraft and one helicopter to ground fire and SAMs. They encountered both older SA-6s and the more modern SA-8s. Although acknowledging that “we don’t have precise figures,” he suggested that the Syrians “probably fired more than 100 SAMs” for each of the three kills.
The Israeli experience in Lebanon, according to information made available to General Creech, underscored the high reliability of modern US weapons. Citing the case of the F-16, he stressed that all seventy-two aircraft in the Israeli Air Force’s inventory were in commission 100 percent “every morning.” The US Air Force, he said, can maintain equally high readiness rates “because the equipment is very reliable,” provided sufficient spares are available. The Israelis, he added, “were smart enough” to maintain an adequate supply of spares.
The Administration is obligated to present its plan for a permanent basing mode to Congress no later than December 1 of this year. The White House is understood to oppose release of the basing mode decision before the November elections to avoid unnecessary political entanglements. Opponents of the MX in Congress will presumably exploit the fact that the Administration is asking for the appropriation of funds for a weapon system whose most critical aspect—how it is to be based to assure resilience against a first strike—has not yet been announced. While the positive conclusions reached by a host of experts concerning the effectiveness of CSB justify a degree of guarded optimism, it will take a concerted, vigorous campaign by the White House on Capitol Hill to obtain full funding of the MX program.
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