05 August 2009

Does The National Guard Need Stealth Fighters?

The F-35 is once again on track to be over budget and behind schedule. An oversight body in the Pentagon thinks that the current estimate is $5 billion to low and two years faster than it will actually take. The first flight of the F-35C, the aircraft carrier deployed version, has been delayed to January 2010 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, U.S. Air National Guard director Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt has taken a disappointing approach to the acquisition of fighters for Air National Guard units, which will have to retire 250 F-16s in the near future, many in fiscal year 2010. He had been incorrectly identified as favoring the F-22 in a recent discussion about fighter procurement.

"I am basically platform agnostic," Wyatt says. "I don't care." . . .

Wyatt says he's open to all options, he says "If you can get stealth [in the F-22 or F-35] at the same price, why not?" The general is not in favor of buying a particular aircraft and dedicating it to the [air sovereignty alert] mission; he says the Guard should operate the same platforms as active duty units in order to handle the same missions as their active duty counterparts.

While beggars can't be choosers, and the Air National Guard has historically received hand me downs from the active duty Air Force (in the coming years, this means aging F-15s and F-16s as the Air Force replaces them with F-22s and F-35s), the notion that "the Guard should operate the same platforms as active duty units in order to handle the same missions as their active duty counterparts" is an expensive strategy of questionable military merit. The combined air fleet resources of the active duty Air Force, the Air Force reserves, the U.S. Navy, the Marines, and U.S. allies in large conflicts (which have been present in all recent U.S. military adventures involving military aircraft) are more than sufficient to handle the traditional fighter aircraft mission of the active duty military.

The air sovereignty alert (ASA) mission of the National Guard involves patrolling and defending U.S. air space. Radar defeating stealth technology doesn't enhance the ASA mission; it undermines it. Generally, the Air National Guard wants misbehaving non-military aircraft and hostile military aircraft to see that it is there and back off. Generally, in the patrols near U.S. cities or near U.S. borders that make up most of the ASA mission now, the Air National Guard will attempt to hail target aircraft and parley with it if possible before using force.

The high maintenance requirements associated with stealth technology in general, and with the F-22 in particular, are also well established.

Stealth technology was invented to allow aircraft to make sneak attacks into enemy territory, in the early stages of a conflict, before air superiority is achieved. This isn't, and should never be, the job of the Air National Guard, rather than the Air Force.

And, the hypothetical scenario in which stealth fights cost no more than conventional fighters, even if this were a desireable feature for the ASA mission, is counterfactual. By the time the cost difference is gone, manned fighter aircraft will probably be no more as well.

Naval air power, the active duty U.S. Air Force, and the Air Force Reserves are sufficient to deal with the remote threat of an invasion of enemy military aircraft or missiles from abroad. The Navy is already the lead service in the area of ballistic missile defense by virtue of the fact that its system have passed tests more often than Air Force systems. Realistically, the only country in a position conduct such an invasion across the Pacific (with the possible exception of a conceivable Chinese attack on Hawaii or Guam, or a missile attack from China or North Korea), the Atlantic, or the Arctic oceans is Russia. One could imagine an enemy military aircraft attacking from Cuba or Venezuela, perhaps hosting aircraft from Russia or other countries, a la the Cuban Missile crisis. There are more than enough active duty Air Force bases in the U.S. to scramble and handle these extremely unlikely threats.

In contrast, a 9-11 type threat from a terrorist controlled commercial or general aviation aircraft is ubiquitous. It could happen anywhere and surface moments before action must be taken. This is the kind of threat that has caused the Air National Guard to make regular patrols over major cities like New York and Washington D.C. and events like the World Series and the Superbowl. But, the optimal aircraft for this role is unlike anything in the existing Air National Guard inventory. Even an old F-16 is expensive overkill for this job, but the job doesn't necessarily call for an aircraft designed for close air support and counterinsurgency either.

Instead, the Air National Guard needs an inexpensive, low maintenance, modest firepower, bomb-free, non-stealth, minimal countermeasure, high persistence air patrol aircraft epitomized in the homeland defense interceptor concept, which would be the Air National Guard answer to a Coast Guard cutter or patrol boat.

The additional capabilities of an A-6, A-10, F-14, F-15, F-16, F-18, F-22, or F-35 relative to a homeland defense interceptor concept are a bug and not a feature for a plane that contends with misbehaving commercial and general aviation aircraft within the United States and is operated by pilots who are on duty one weekend a month and one month a year, in addition to the time they spend piloting commercial or general aviation aircraft themselves. In this patrol and law enforcement role (and probably as a supplement to the reconnaissance role served by the civil air patrol, particularly when speed is important), simplicity is a virtue. Fewer features means fewer mistakes. The risk that capabilities like the ability to drop bombs might be used accidentally or by a rare homicidal or delusional pilot (some of whom are retired after many tours of duty in combat zones that have taken a psychological toll that is hard to detect) is a bigger concern than insufficient firepower, when the proportion of patrols that involve actual use of weapons is likely to be as low as it is in U.S. air space. If adopted, it would save U.S. taxpayers $9 billion or more. It would also allow the Air National Guard to replace its aging fleet of F-16s much more quickly.

In the unlikely event that the Air National Guard needs to drop bombs within the U.S. or airspace controlled area acting in a counterinsurgency role against armed individuals on the ground with vehicles that are not heavily armored or civilian buildings, small bombs deployed from drone aircraft no more sophisticated than existing models could carry out the mission, without having to have the elaborate countermeasures to needed to guard against the highly unlikely possibility of anti-aircraft fire - it is much cheaper in terms of both hardware and training to let the first drone get shot down and send in the Air Force for the second run in such an unprecedented scenario than it is to have a system wit anti-aircraft weapon countermeasures in the Air National Guard's inventory. The bombing drones could be multiple purpose aircraft that could also serve in a reconnaissance role or drop aid packages to people isolated during a natural disaster or stuck in a roadless wilderness. Unmanned drones would be even cheaper than the homeland defense interceptor concept aircraft. Some similar drones are already in Air National Guard service.

I defy you to devise any plausible scenario where enemy tanks make it onto U.S. soil in any significant numbers, or insurgents in the U.S. have heavily fortified bunkers that must be breached from the air with bombs on short notice, and the Air National Guard is the only wing of the U.S. military available to respond. Cuba is not going to launch an amphibious armor assault on the beaches of Texas.

Furthermore, a homeland defense interceptor might even have practical uses in the same role in foreign deployments where the airspace is secure but terrorist or insurgent controlled commercial or general aviation aircraft, and drug or arms smugglers in such aircraft are a potential concern. These aircraft could be used in those missions right now in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, while other aircraft served as smart bomb stations for ground based forward observers.

This isn't the only area where I question the notion that the National Guard that devotes as much of its time to disaster response and riot control as it does to war fighting abroad should have the same force structure as its active duty Army counterparts.

For example, the National Guard does not need tanks. We need not worry about Mexican tanks rolling across the Rio Grande, amphibious invasions from Cuba into Texas that are undetected before the active duty military can intervene, Chinese amphibious sneak attacks on Hawaii or California, or an invasion of Canadian armored forces. Even IEDs as potent as those that have been encountered in Iraq are a remote possibility. American tanks are ill suited to contending with civilians, even if they are armed, have almost no use in responding to natural disasters, and are too heavy and too big to cross some country bridges or travel into confined forest and mountain terrains, without doing serious damage to the infrastructure or getting tangled in the terrain.

This doesn't mean that the National Guard doesn't need any vehicles with some kind of armor when facing off against armed rioters or looters, for example. But, tanks are fuel hungry overkill that don't make sense in any plausible domestic mission. We've also already learned from the examples of China and Czechoslovakia, to cite two examples, that facing down civilians engaged in mass unrest with tanks is a sure way to burn an image of your country as a totalitarian regime into the global consciousness for decades. They are counterproductive when it comes to securing domestic tranquility. Any situation that calls for the domestic use of a tank is one where the President's power to put down an insurrection with the regular U.S. military is implicated. It is a civil war.

Every National Guardsman not spending time learning to operate a tank, is a National Guardsman whose talents being put to a more useful end.

In the Iraq War the most urgent need was not for primarily for tank operators, but for civil affairs units and military prison operators, tasks many National Guard members are trained to do in civilian life; but which few active duty U.S. Army units are trained to perform (and few active duty U.S. Army soldiers have much meaningful work experience of any kind in civilian life).

Our nation is better served by a National Guard and Air National Guard that has distinct competencies that fit its particular domestic mission, and sometimes are needed in particular situations in foreign wars, than by a National Guard that simply seeks to round out the active duty U.S. military. Moreover, because the National Guard and Air National Guard have important domestic duties, these forces should only be called up after active duty military and reserve military forces with the appropriate expertise have been exhausted.

National Guard and Air National Guard forces should not be kept at home when we are sending conscripted draftees off to war, as we did in Vietnam. But, these units should be the last resort before it is necessary to institute a draft, buying the nation time to provide some minimal training to its conscripts.

1 comment:

Disaster Preparation said...

I would say it's unnecessary. Our country has so much debt and too many weapons...