I commend this essay to my colleagues, and ask that the full text of the article be printed in the Record.
The article follows:
The Navy has decided it needs an `AX' medium-attack aircraft to succeed the ill-fated A-12. Since the AX will probably be the only all-new tactical aircraft development program the Navy can afford in the next 10 to 15 years, it represents the future of naval aviation. But a `son of A-12' medium-attack aircraft optimized for the long-range strike mission is not the plane we should develop.
Why? Because we need a new fighter even more urgently than we need a new strike aircraft. Since we can buy only one all-new aircraft, it clearly must be multi-mission. Because airframe-engine performance requirements and modern weapon-sensor capabilities make it much easier to adapt a fighter design to the strike mission than vice versa, it must be a multi-mission fighter, one that also can perform the strike mission.
The first requirement for a successful air campaign, including long-range strike missions, is air superiority. While strike aircraft can contribute to air superiority by attacking surface-to-air defenses and airfields, the key player in the air-superiority campaign is a fighter force capable of sweeping the enemy fighters from the air, as U.S. fighters have always done--most recently in Operation Desert Storm. It is imperative that Navy air wings have a front-line fighter capable of pacing the threat in the 21st century.
By 2010 the tactical fighter threat will include large numbers of fourth-generation fighters an perhaps a significant number of even more capable aircraft--versions of the French Rafale or the European Fighter Aircraft. We can expect to face fighters incorporating stealth technology, enhanced maneuverability, and higher cruise speeds.
If we build a medium-attack AX, what airplane will Navy fighter squadrons be flying against these threats? Answer--the F/A-18E/F, an airplane that will clearly not give us the capability advantage we have always enjoyed. While the Hornet is an excellent strike fighter and a good match for current fourth-generation air threats, it will be too slow and insufficiently stealthy, and may lack adequate range to serve as the Navy's front-line fighter in the 21st century.
The future of fighter aviation lies with the technology incorporated in the Air Force's F-22 advanced tactical fighter (ATF). By combining stealth technology, `super-cruise' (supersonic cruise at about Mach 1.4 without afterburner), and outstanding maneuverability, this airplane will revolutionize air-to-air warfare. If the Navy is to stay ahead of the fighter threat, it must have an aircraft with ATF capabilities. Not only would an ATF variant (call it VFAX counter the future fighter threat, it would also provide the range and mobility required for fleet air defense against future bomber-antiship missile threats.
But what of the long-range strike mission? First, we must recognize that cruise missiles will claim an increasingly larger share of this mission as their capabilities improve. While manned aircraft will continue to be needed for some targets deep in the enemy interior, this mission is no longer of sufficient importance to justify building a dedicated aircraft, especially when it will be the only new airplane we can afford.
Second, a VFAX derived from the ATF concept would be capable of performing the residual strike and other air-to-ground missions that will continue to require the inherent flexibility of manned aircraft: interdiction, close air support, and suppression of enemy defenses. While I am not aware of any cases in which an attack aircraft design was successfully converted to a fighter, there are numerous examples of fighter designs serving successfully in an attack role, e.g., the F-15E, the F/A-18, the F-16, and the F-4. This is true because fighter capability is still driven by airframe performance, while strike capability is driven largely by weapon system performance, and survivability in the strike mission is actually enhanced by fighter-type airframe performance.
To the argument that an ATF-based VFAX would have insufficient payload, I would answer that weapon delivery accuracy has reduced the requirement to carry several tons of ordnance; four- to six-thousand pounds of payload should be sufficient now. While it is true that more is almost always better, a large air-to-ground payload is no longer of sufficient importance to drive the design of our only next-generation tactical aircraft. We should be willing to give up some payload to get a true multi-mission aircraft that will keep pace with the fighter threat.
As to the argument that a multi-mission airplane would be too expensive, it would be much cheaper than two separate development programs, especially when numbers of aircraft to be bought are considered. Furthermore, the shrinking of deployed air wings and the unpredictability of future missions dictate that we must give the battle group commander deck full of multi-mission aircraft.
If we share the long-range strike mission with Tomahawk and decline to develop a dedicated follow-on strike airplane, will we weaken the rationale for aircraft carriers? Not in the eyes of those who truly understand the modern role of carrier battle groups in sea control and power projection ashore. Long-range strike is but one element of power projection, and success in both missions starts with control of the air. Maritime interdiction operations, protection of friendly shipping, and support of noncombatant evacuations or ground forces ashore are all likely carrier battle group tasks that do not necessarily involve deep land strikes.
The Navy should abandon the long-sacred tenet that long-range strike is the raison d'etre for aircraft carriers. Clinging to such reasoning will ultimately sink the carrier because it fails to recognize that cruise missile-technology offers a much cheaper, lower-risk, effective way to conduct many long-range strike missions, and does not recognize the other critical missions that carrier battle groups perform.
The Navy should scrap the AX concept in favor of a VFAX--naval strike-fighter variant of the ATF. To build a single-mission medium attack aircraft would squander naval aviation's declining resources on a shrinking mission, and consign Navy tactical air wings to second-class status for a generation.