The Advanced Tactical Fighter 1
is needed to assure the ability of the US Air Force and Navy to establish air superiority over tomorrow's battlefields.
1 US Air Force Manual 1-1, p. 2-12.
Air superiority remains a critical military mission. It is central to a full range of military capabilities, including projection of sea and land forces, close air support, air interdiction, and freedom of maneuver for US ground forces. In future conflicts, US air forces will face sophisticated Soviet and non-Soviet aircraft and air defense systems that are capable of challenging current-generation US fighters for air superiority. These systems have been exported in substantial numbers to nations that oppose US interests. At least in the initial phases of a conflict, US fighters may well have to fight outnumbered. The challenge is compounded by the development of a new generation of Soviet aircraft that will exceed the capabilities of today's US fighters.
The ATF will restore unambiguous US technological superiority in fighter aircraft. Its advanced engines and aerodynamic design will result in unmatched speed, acceleration, maneuverability, and range. Its stealth technology and advanced avionics will allow US pilots the `first look/first shot' of the battle, even against next-generation enemy aircraft. Its reliability and maintainability will require less logistics support. The ATF thus will allow US air forces to achieve surprise, take the initiative, prevent opposing air forces from regenerating their operations--and maintain air superiority in the 21st century.
Over the past year, defense decision-makers have been on an intellectual roller coaster. The federal deficit has Congress and the Administration scrambling to find programs, both domestic and defense, that can be cut without serious political ramifications. The amazing, almost daily changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have fed the perception that US defense needs have abated dramatically. Now the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, placing that nation's dictator a tank ride away from controlling half of the world's oil reserves, has led to the biggest commitment of US forces in a generation.
These developments complicate efforts to resolve questions about the future requirements for US military forces. What threats must they counter? How big should they be? What kind of weapons do they need?
No weapons program is more profoundly affected by these deliberations than the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF). The ATF is being developed as the next-generation air superiority aircraft to replace the F-15 fighter. The Navy version of Advanced Tactical Fighter (the NATF) will start to replace the F-14 several years later. These planes are intended to fight and survive in a very high threat environment, typically deep into enemy airspace, seeking to destroy enemy air assets and disrupt enemy air operations. `High threat environment,' in the case of the ATF, has often been read as `Europe' and `enemy' often defined as `the Soviet Union.' The argument is now made that if the Soviets have withdawn from Eastern Europe, arms contol agreements reduce or eliminate Soviet numerical advantages in aircraft, and the chance of a war in Europe seems so remote, then the ATF is unnecessary.
While this contention is plausible on the surface, it is incorrect. To see why involves a clear understanding of the role of the ATF, the threats the nation and its military forces must still meet, and what new capabilities the ATF will bring to the field that are needed to fulfill its mission. The following points stand out most clearly:
The ATF will perform as essential military mission--air superiority.
Threats have evolved, and continue to evolve, that will require the application of military force.
Continued technological growth of adversarial aircraft jeopardizes the ability of current US aircraft to perform the air superiority mission.
The ATF will restore unambiguous technical superiority to US aircraft and with it the ability to perform this essential mission.
The mission of the ATF is, simply stated, to achieve air superiority. Air force doctrine defines air superiority as `the capability to use the enemy's airspace to perform our combat missions and to deny the enemy the use of our airspace. . . Sustained aerospace and surface operations are predicated on control of the aerospace environment. As a primary consideration, aerospace forces must neturalize opposing aerospace forces, including both aerospace and surface threats.' It continues unambiguously: `[air] superiority . . . is prerequisite to the success of land and naval forces in battle.' 1
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney recently argued that `if you look at history . . . [and future] scenarios . . . our ability to maintain superiority in the air is absolutely crucial, not only from the standpoint of the air battle but also what we do with our naval and our land-based forces.' 2
2 Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, April 26, 1990.
Air Force doctrine and Secretary Cheney's remarks point up the common misunderstanding that air superiority as a mission has little or no connection with other military operations. In fact, air superiority is key to virtually all military operations.
This has been brought into sharp focus by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the US deployment to the Persian Gulf. Early in the Gulf crisis, conflict scenarios envisioned the almost exclusive use of air-power to stop--or counter--an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia. All were based on one key assumption--absolute control of the air when and where US forces needed to establish it.
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It is important to note that forces, both air and ground, are most vulnerable in the initial phases of deployment. The Saudi Arabian army and the initial contingent of US ground forces deployed to the Gulf region were massively outnumbered by the Iraqi army in and around Kuwait. US and friendly military forces were vulnerable to Iraqui air, missile, and chemical weapons strikes. Ground forces, by themselves, were incapable of stopping an Iraqi armored attack. In this situation high quality air superiority forces, able to fight and win in the air while outnumbered, as well as ground attack aircraft were critical.
Without the ability to control the air, deployment of soldiers to the region would have been very dangerous, difficult, and potentially very expensive. The hundreds of airlifters going in and out of Saudi Arabia would have been held at serious risk by Iraqi fighters, except for the cover provided by US and Saudi air superiority forces. Not surprisingly, among the first US forces deployed to the region were squadrons of F-15C/D air superiority fighters and a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division to protect them.
On warning of a ballistic missile or air attack, air interdiction forces could have been called on to attack the delivery systems as well as chemical and other munitions sites. Air superiority fighters would have destroyed enemy aircraft attacking friendly forces and helped allied interdiction aircraft penetrate to their targets. In the event of an Iraqi armored attack, air superiority would have allowed ground attack aircraft to disrupt Iraqui supply lines--principally the flow of fuel, water, and munitions--that would have fed Iraqi tanks. Denied air cover and short of critical supplies, the attack would have slowed, and tanks in the middle of the desert would have been choice targets for futher attacks. If Iraqi ranks or infantry closed with friendly ground forces, air support could have been called in for the troops under attack.
In the wake of the Gulf crisis, noting that there are continuing threats to US interests might seem superfluous. These threats can emanate from any number of sources. Israel remains at risk to its radical Arab neighbors. Despite recent conciliatory gestures, North Korea remains a belligerent, Stalinist state, and a serious threat to South Korea. Conflict could arise unpredictably in unexpected areas. Almost no one would have guessed that the British would fight a war in the South Atlantic against Argentina in the 1980s, yet they did, and the British inability to rapidly establish dominance in the air cost them dearly.
Few of the potential military threats are simple to meet, and the US military must be prepared to defeat well-equipped forces virtually anywhere in the world. This size, sophistication, and potential lethality of the Iraqi military is simply illustrative of trends in other third world military forces that US forces may have to face in the future. Small nations with large ground forces can pose huge regional threats.
Small and/or poor nations also have access to sophisticated planes and air defenses. Iraq's air force, for example, is composed of 701 tactical fighter, ground attack, and reconnaissance aircraft, including top-of-the-line MiG-29 fighters, and Su-24 and Su-25 ground attack aircraft, along with the Mirage F-1, MiG-25, MiG-23, and a variety of other older aircraft that retain at least some combat effectiveness. Other nations boast comparable aircraft and air forces. It is these modern forces that the US Air Force may have to meet and defeat, outnumbered at least in the initial phases of conflict.
A number of nations have, or are striving earnestly to acquire, chemical or nuclear weapons--or, like Iraq, both. Iraq's chemical warfare capability is documented, and it can deliver chemical munitions with aircraft and ballistic missiles as well as other delivery means. These weapons of mass destruction accentuate the threat to the initial phases of US military deployments. They also point up the critical nature of air superiority aircraft that must prevent delivery of these munitions, by killing enemy aircraft that carry them and by protecting ground attack aircraft that would strike at munitions stores, ballistic missiles, and other critical military targets early in a conflict.
While unfashionable these days to say so, there is also still real cause for caution concerning Soviet military power. Political conditions in Europe have taken a dramatic turn for the better, and the Soviet Union seems more benign than at any time since the end of World War II. The Soviet Union, however, is now buffeted by terrible instability, and its eventual political status is not clear. The Soviet Union will remain, even after conventional force reductions, by far the most significant military power on the Eurasian land mass. The Soviets, for all their economic problems, continue to produce high quality military hardware in extremely large numbers. This includes not only an impressive nuclear arsenal and mammoth conventional land forces but also very sophisticated tactical aircraft. The prospect of a politically unstable Soviet Union with large military forces equipped with first-rate weapons is not a comforting one.
Military threats to US forces, and US air superiority forces in particular, are compounded by the proliferation of high technology military systems. The Soviet Union exports its top-of-the-line fighters to third world and other countries in potentially unstable regions. More than 200 MiG-29s have been sold or given to nations that are not aligned with the US and its allies. This number is virtually certain to increase. The demand will remain as long as regional conflict persists. Furthermore, the weak Soviet economy needs hard cash. The Soviets have very little they can sell overseas. They are likely to be willing, perhaps anxious, to sell their world-class military hardware to eager customers. As more of these fighters make their way into second- and third-world arsenals, and these militaries become more practiced in flying and maintaining them, their effectiveness will grow.
Nevertheless, diminished East-West tensions virtually assure smaller US forces in the future. Indeed, since the US deployment to the Gulf, President Bush has repeated his contention that US forces twenty-five percent smaller than today's can meet our security needs of the future. US force structure and access to foreign bases will decline. Thus, if the US is to respond militarily when potent armed forces are used to threaten US interests, it must rely on rapid power projection. This in turn will place a premium on the forces and weapon systems that permit the US to project military power--tactical and strategic air forces, airlifters, rapidly deployable ground forces, and naval forces.
Smaller forces will also highlight the need for high quality weapon system. If US forces do have to fight they must win. To do so, power projection forces must be protected in the vulnerable early phases of deployment. Top notch fighters will be required to do that, fighting outnumbered against technologically sophisticated aircraft.
At the same time, as US force structure declines and the technolgy of adversarial aircraft continues to improve, the quality of US forces will have a direct impact on the likelihood of conflict. US strategy presumes that adversaries are prone to being deterred when faced with the likelihood of defeat. The adequacy of preparation--the state of weaponry, training, and logistics--is measured against the array of forces that the US military may have to face. Inferior weapons reduce the probability of military success and concomitantly increase the likelihood that the US will face an undeterred aggressor.
Air superiority is a vital element of balanced military operations. Without it, victory is far more difficult, and it can be a decisive edge. Air superiority thus will remain an integral element of US doctrine, an essential ingredient of success on the future battlefield, and a key component of the deterrent formula. US fighter aircraft and other military systems must be responsive to extant threats as well as those projected well into the future.
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Technology built into new foreign fighters and other military hardware now challenges the technical supremacy enjoyed by the US Air Force for many years. This challenge emanates principally from the development and procurement of advanced Soviet aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. Although the Soviet threat is perceived to have abated, Soviet systems are widely distributed to its allies and other third world countries and continues to be produced in large quantity.
Since 1980, the Soviets have introduced three front-line fighters 3
to complete for air superiority and protect their ground assets. The 1981 MiG-31 was based on the MiG-25 interceptor. But both the MiG-29, an F-16 equivalent introduced in 1984, and the Su-27, roughly comparable to the F-15 and introduced in 1986, are new. The Soviets produce these aircraft in large numbers--about 150 MiG-29s per year and 100 Su-27s per year. The Soviets have produced 620 Su-27s--about four fifths of the total of all the F-15s that the US has produced since the beginning of its production run in 1974 and over 1000 MiG-29s.
3 Descriptions of current and projected Soviet fighters and surface-to-air missiles are based on unclassified US Air Force briefings and testimony by Defense Secretary Cheney before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
Both the MiG-29 and Su-27 are sophisticated fighters that pose a serious threat to the US ability to maintain air superiority with current generation US fighters. They are roughly aerodynamically equal to their US counterparts. They have outstanding maneuverability, a key attribute in close engagements. and they carry advanced air-to-air missiles. Both, in fact, can perform maneuvers that US fighters cannot.
They are also equipped with look-down/shoot-down radars. The low altitude sanctuary US fighters and other aircraft have often used to evade Soviet radars is now seriously degraded. In 1985, four percent of Soviet fighters had look-down/shoot-down radars. That figure is 41 percent today and will reach 73 percent in another five years.
Soviet radars are now capable of detecting US fighters at the horizon--when they come into the line-of-sight of the opposing radar and the same time that US fighters can see enemy planes. This essential equality undermines the ability of US planes to surprise their adversaries. This combination of factors--large numbers of Soviet fighters, very maneuverable, armed with modern missiles, and equipped with very capable avionics and radar--in itself poses a serious threat to the ability of US air forces to establish air superiority.
The threat to US air superiority is compounded by very capable Soviet surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The Soviet SA-10 and SA-12 are both mobile and incorporate improved target engagement capabilities compared to their predecesors. They are both able to engage targets at very low as well as high altitude, and the Air Force considers the Soviet SAM threat lethal down to 100 feet. Just as advanced Soviet aircraft are being widely sold, the SA-10 is expected to proliferate throughout the third world.
US air superiority forces will be further jeopardized by next-generation Soviet weapon systems. The Soviets are expected to introduce two new tactical aircraft and a new SAM, possibly by the end of the decade. The new aircraft--the Counter Air Fighter (CAF) follow-on to the MiG 29 and the Air Superiority Fighter (ASF) follow-on the the Su-27--will incorporate improved engines that will cruise supersonically without fuel-eating afterburners, some low-observable (stealth) technology, and improved aerodynamics that will enhance maneuverability. Both will embody superior capabilities compared to the F-15 and F-16 fighters now in the US inventory. The future SAM threat will be from the SA-15 and SA-X-17. Both will be mobile and highly resistent to electronic countermeasures. While Soviet economic problems may delay deployment of these systems somewhat, the deployment question is `when,' not `whether.'
The Soviets are also building two large aircraft carriers. While they have built smaller carriers in the past, the new ones will carry a large complement of aircraft (approximately 70). What aircraft these large carriers will deploy is not certain, but it is certain that the Soviets will be able to project air superiority assets in regions they never could before.
These systems will provide the technological basis for providing the Soviets and those equipped with Soviet hardware with the means to achieve air superiority in a conflict with US forces. The situation now--`essential technological parity,' according to Secretary Cheney--offers the advantage to the force with better training (the US) or with greater numbers (the Soviet Union or those distant countries equipped with advanced Soviet systems). In any event, the air superiority situation today is tenuous.
The new Soviet ASF and CAF are, according to estimates, only about three or four years behind the ATF in development. Traditionally, Soviet aircraft have lagged eight to ten years behind the US. The F-15, for example, was first deployed in 1974; the Su-27 went into production in the mid-1980s. The Soviets are now narrowing this lag time. The enhanced capabilities in the new Soviet systems will significantly degrade the advantages of the F-15 and F-16. If the ATF is delayed significantly or terminated, air superiority could devolve to the Soviets and Soviet-equipped forces.
Finally, it must also be noted that the US may face non-Soviet aircraft in future conflict, US forces in the Middle East and British forces in the Falklands campaign have faced French military hardware sold to Iraq and Argentina respectively. The European Fighter Aircraft (EFA), the French Rafale, and the Japanese fighter aircraft (FSX) will probably have capabilities in some measures superior to the US F-16 and F-15.
To recap: capabilities embodied in new Soviet Fighters undermine US dominance in information management (from improved, look-down/shoot-down radars, now essentially equal to US fighters), maneuverability (from better engines and advanced airframe design, now about equal), speed and acceleration (from improved engines, now about equal), and sustainability (from large numbers, and improved third-world performance with Soviet exports). These developments will, in turn, reduce the ability of US air superiority aircraft to seize the initiative and achieve surprise (because of the essential equality in information management and speed and acceleration) and undermine the persistence of US forces (because of higher attrition of US forces and greater survivability for adversarial aircraft). The declining ability to seize the initiative, achieve surprise and mass, and persist in operations will limit the Air Force and Navy in performing their offensive and defensive counter-air and SEAD operations. The development and deployment of next-generation Soviet, European, and Japanese aircraft will further degrade the competence of current generation US fighters. The ability of the US to establish air superiority in future combat is in jeopardy.
The Advanced Tactical Fighter will restore unambiguous US technical superiority. ATF technologies are well within reach, and the ATF prototype program offers very high confidence that no major unexpected technical hurdles remain.
Each of the enhanced capabilities embodied in the ATF will play a key role in overcoming the threats posed by adversarial fighters and SAMs:
Low observability will permit the ATF to achieve a `first-look/first-shot' capability. The ATF will be able to see enemy planes before they see it, by virtue of capable radars and its own very low visual and radar cross section. Seeing the enemy planes first will permit the US planes to take the initiative, achieve tactical surprise, and get in the first shot--often the decisive one--of the battle.
While both the F-15 and Soviet fighters are detectable at the horizon, the ASF and CAF, by incorporating low-observable technology will be able to see the F-15 before it sees either of them. The advantages of first-look/first-shot will confer to those aircraft.
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Supersonic cruise without the use of fuel-hungry afterburners--the capability known as `supercruise'--will provide faster transit to the battle area, permit longer loiter time while there, and improve range. Survivability will be enhanced by the ability to accelerate out of danger, fly to relatively safe haven, and return to battle at an opportune time.
Supercruise also reduces the vulnerability of the ATF to enemy SAMs, by reducing the amount of time the aircraft remains within the missile's lethal zone. In combination with stealth, the lethal zone of enemy SAMs can be reduced by 95 percent.
Maneuverability enhancements allow the ATF to defeat enemy fighters in a close-in battle and to defeat enemy air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles by outurning or out-jinking them. According to published reports, the ATF will have `superturn' capability, that is the ability to turn tightly at supersonic speeds. 4
This ability, in combination with supercruise, will allow the ATF to achieve tactical advantage over enemy aircraft and engage and disengage an enemy as the tactical situation demands.
4 See `Aerospace Daily,' 7/3/90, p. 9.
Improved reliability and maintainability will allow the ATF to fly the same number of sorties with much less support and maintenance. * * * One of the new engines being developed for the ATF has fifty percent fewer hot parts and forty percent fewer total parts than previous engines. This improves reliability and reduces the logistics support required.
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Existing aircraft can be improved, but because of inherent limits in older designs they could not match the ATF in low observability, aerodynamic performance, avionics, or reliability and maintainability. They would thus remain more vulnerable to detection, less able to achieve surprise and initiative, and more vulnerable to enemy aircraft and SAMs. Development of these alternatives would take years and billions of dollars while providing less capability.
Military threats to US security emanate from a combination of both political developments, which lead nations or groups to oppose US interests; and technical developments, which result in military hardware that allows those nations and groups to undertake military actions against US forces. Recent events clearly show that these threats cannot be ignored.
The ATF, on its present schedule, is twelve years away from its first operational deployment. Preparing for the future always requires vision, and with the long development times for new systems, extraordinary foresight is demanded of our leaders. Keeping vital objectives in mind is not easy. But the logic is clear:
Threats to US interests remain.
The US must retain the ability to deter those hostile to US interests, and to defeat aggressors if necessary.
Air superiority is a key mission, vital to the success of US military operations.
Other nations are developing aircraft and military systems for their own use and for export that threaten the ability of the US to maintain air superiority during conflict.
The ATF is the only alternative that provides the US with an unambiguously technologically superior aircraft capable of maintaining air superiority over current and projected military threats.
Without the ATF and the NATF, the US will be in jeopardy of losing the `high ground' above the battlefield and oceans. Losing this vital capability will in turn place in peril the ability of all other US forces to perform their missions. This must not be allowed to happen. The ATF must remain a top priority for the US military and the nation as a whole.