Russia’s development of the PAK FA fifth-generation stealth fighter could challenge American air supremacy, especially if Russia sells the PAK FA to its usual buyers of military equipment.
In the U.S., closure of the F-22 production line has severely limited America’s ability to respond to PAK FA proliferation by building more F-22s and potentially selling them to U.S. allies.
The U.S. needs to revise its assessment of U.S. air superiority needs and then explore ways to modernize and strengthen the U.S. tactical fighter force.
With America’s closure of the F-22 production line and the recent debut of Russia’s PAK FA fifth-generation stealth fighter, American air supremacy for the foreseeable future is not as assured as the U.S. Department of Defense once predicted. Indeed, Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, recently departed Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance in the U.S. Air Force, recently made the startling announcement: “For the first time, our claim to air supremacy is in jeopardy.… The dominance we’ve enjoyed in the aerial domain is no longer ours for the taking.”
To preserve traditional U.S. margins of military technological superiority, Congress should review potentially outdated requirements and projections, and policymakers should push defense officials to enact more forward-looking budgeting and acquisition strategies for U.S. fighter fleets. Increased investment in modernization and new partnerships with allies like Japan and Israel will be necessary to prevent the airpower balance from tilting in favor of the Russian and Chinese air forces and to hedge against the potentially destabilizing proliferation of Russia’s PAK FA fighter to unstable actors, non-state groups, and/or terrorism-sponsoring rogue states around the world. For example, if Syria or Iran acquires the PAK FA, it could provide the fighter to the non-state group Hezbollah to form a proxy air force against Israel.
U.S. Air Power Assumptions Challenged
Defense analysts, officials, and industry personnel have long believed that the U.S. F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter would not face serious threats from foreign fifth-generation fighters for the next 20 years.2 In September 2009,
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates repudiated claims of a looming “fighter gap”—a deficit between the services’ fighter aircraft inventories and their operational requirements. “[T]he more compelling gap,” he argued, “is the deep chasm between the air capabilities of the United States and those of other nations.” In an earlier speech, he argued: China…is projected to have no fifth generation aircraft by 2020. And by 2025, the gap only widens. The U.S. will have approximately 1,700 of the most advanced fifth generation fighters versus a handful of comparable aircraft for the Chinese.”
The Secretary’s claims may now be in doubt. With the cancellation of the F-22 and closure of its production line combined with various development delays in the F-35 program—the mainstay of America’s future fighter fleets—U.S. fighter inventories may be significantly smaller in coming years than initially planned. For example, initial operational capability for the F-35A, the U.S. Air Force version of the F-35, was recently pushed back two years to the end of 2015, now changed to 2016 for both the F-35A and the Navy’s F-35C. These delays often increase production costs, forcing reductions in the overall buy. Regrettably, other fiscal pressures will likely squeeze procurement budgets further in the coming years and prevent the expenditures needed to reach planned F-35 force levels.
Meanwhile, Russian fighter and military modernization efforts are proceeding rapidly, defying the expectations of many.
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