Decade-old notions about US tactical aircraft strategy and planning have come under a sustained assault from academic institutions closely linked to military and government power structures. The attacks have been timed - perhaps coincidentally - in a period of transition.
Within the last month, separate analyses produced by Rand and the Center for Strategic and International Studies have been leaked or released into the public domain even as long-term plans are due to be questioned and revised by the first new president to take office since George Bush in January 2001.
The Rand and CSIS reports both deliver sharply critical outlooks for the future of US airpower. The first suggests that the superior technology of next-generation US fighters are no match for superior numbers and geographic advantage. The second, entitled America's Self-Destroying Airpower, concludes failures of strategy and planning have made the US military-industrial complex its own worst enemy.
The 80-slide Rand briefing on the Pacific Vision wargame, dated in August and publicly published first by Flight's The DEW Line blog, attacks the US Air Force's steadfast reliance on stealth and technology, showing how a mix of Lockheed Martin F-22s and F-35s could be defeated in the Taiwan Straits by an opposing Chinese force with vastly greater numbers of aircraft and missiles.
The F-35 has so far been the target of intense scrutiny about the Lockheed-led industry team's ability to deliver on the programme's ambitious performance goals. The Rand study, however, appears to challenge whether the performance goals are relevant in a future conflict, even if Lockheed's design and production system can achieve them.
In one Pacific Vision scenario, three regiments of Chinese Sukhoi Su-27s overwhelm six F-22s - the maximum number, according to Rand, defending the Taiwan Straits at any one time - by skirting their defensive screen and shooting down the USAF's orbiting tankers.
In the same briefing, a series of three back-up slides never presented publicly by Rand created an international crisis for the F-35 programme, as government officials in Australia, the Netherlands and the USA were forced to answer highly critical comments that the Lockheed F-16 replacement "can't turn, can't climb and can't run" when matched against even legacy fighter aircraft.
Rand has disavowed the critical remarks about the F-35 as not intended for public release and, unlike the main presentation, not peer-reviewed. Additionally, Rand says: "Recently, articles have appeared in the Australian press with assertions regarding a war game in which analysts from Rand were involved. Those reports are not accurate. Rand did not present any analysis at the wargame relating to the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, nor did the game attempt detailed adjudication of air-to-air combat. Neither the game nor the assessments by Rand in support of the game undertook any comparison of the fighting qualities of particular fighter aircraft."
© Lockheed Martin
Maj Gen Charles Davis, programme executive officer for the JSF, also dismissed the Rand briefing as irrelevant to the F-35's actual combat abilities. "We talked to the individuals involved in the wargame, and looked at the scenario. It did not involve an air-to-air scenario," Davis says. "Three days of full-time work analysing the wargame and we found exactly nothing relating to the programme. The exercise involved basing capacity around the Pacific Rim. It was a logistics and deployablility exercise, not a battle."
Despite reassurances from Rand and programme officials, Australian defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon was forced to defend the programme from criticisms based on Rand's briefing. Australia has selected the F-35 to replace its General Dynamics F-111s, but is also considering follow-on orders of Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets if there are further delays.
Tom Burbage, Lockheed vice-president and general manager for the F-35, says: "It is clear [Rand's analysts] don't understand the underlying requirements of the F-35 programme, the capabilities needed to meet those requirements or the real programmatic performance of the JSF team."
Even so, the USAF is likely to face difficult choices about future tactical fighters even if the programme's promises about the F35's performance, cost and schedule are accurate, says the CSIS analysis, which was authored by Anthony Cordesman and Hans Ulrich Kaeser.
"Major questions exist as to whether key aircraft procurement programmes will be 'force shrinkers' rather than 'force multipliers'," Cordesman and Kaeser write. They go on to describe widespread breakdowns across the US military's acquisition system for developing and fielding modern combat aircraft.
"There now are far fewer programme alternatives if any key programme runs into trouble, failed methods of cost analysis are still in play without adequate cost-risk analysis or use of regression analysis, and the pressure to 'sell' programmes by understating cost and risk have all combined to push air modernisation to the crisis point," the authors say.
The report cited recent aircraft inventory figures reported by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. The combined US tactical fighter inventory - including USAF, US Navy and US Marine Corps fleets - declined from 5,783 in 1992 to 3,542 in 2008 - nearly 39%. The sharpest fall was during the first eight years, as the inventory plummeted 31% up to 2000. Several aircraft types, such as the EF-111 and Lockheed SR-71, were retired during this period and not replaced. The report also notes that similar reductions took place for transports, tankers and helicopters.
"Current plans for aircraft modernisation are not affordable unless aircraft costs are sharply reduced, deliveries are delayed years longer than planned, or funding shifts to lower cost variants or upgrades of older types. The only alternative is a major increase in real defence spending," Cordesman and Kaeser write.
"There is an ill-concealed struggle to solve the problems in a failed procurement system by either raising the defence budget or somehow getting more funding at the expense of other services and programmes. The US defence procurement system has effectively become a liar's contest in terms of projected costs, risk, performance and delivery schedules," they add.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has introduced a different set of priorities for modernisation of combat equipment across the board. Rather than emphasising next-generation fighters capable of defeating "near-peer" threats, Gates has tried to shift the focus to a range of current threats, especially counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism missions. If a new USAF leadership heeds Gates' call, unmanned air vehicles might take budgetary priority over air dominance assets, such as more F-22s.
"The current focus on the counter-insurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Gates's emphasis on irregular warfare and increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability, either requires major trade-offs within current aircraft and other procurement programmes or major increases in the size of the entire defence budget and future defence programmes," the CSIS report says. "His 'strategy' is not really a strategy. It is a mix of concepts and doctrines unrelated to a clearly defined force plan, a modernisation and procurement plan, any form of programme budget and cost analysis, and any measures of time and effectiveness."
The report adds: "The debate over seeking the most advanced systems possible to deter and defeat any peer threat versus giving priority to irregular warfare and IS&R has not been resolved, and is certain to be revived when a new administration takes office."