USAF and the air war of the future

In 1975 the United States Air Force created a program called ‘Red Flag’.  This was in response to an exchange ratio of 2.2:1 in the previous few years.  The exchange ratio is the number of enemy planes shot down, compared to the number of friendly planes lost.  Red Flag trains pilots in realistic combat situations, and has successfully kept the exchange ration heavily on the US side.  I could mention the movie ‘Top Gun’, but you get the idea.

Nobody really cares about the exchange ratio.  The real issue is not the loss of hardware, but of personnel.  In the days when fighter plane equals one pilot, exchange ratios matter.  Not any more.

The USAF and every other military in the world, including China, are gearing up for the air war of the past.  Build mega-dollar planes, and trade them 6:1.  That is how wars used to be won.

Admittedly, the US has some aging hardware.  Many of our fighters are relics, and it shows.  They still fly, but they are not as far ahead as they used to be.  So the Air Force wants the F-22, which is a mistake.  This is a mistake because the air war of the future will be won by cheap hardware.  Planes that cost a tiny fraction of the F-22 and lose air battle after air battle.  1:6 or 1:20 losses will be acceptable.  Because our cheap new fighters will be unmanned.  We can afford to lose a couple dozen drones in a battle to bring down one manned fighter, and still call ourselves the winner.  Even if we cannot come ahead on cost (twenty drones are cheaper than one F-22) we still win based on the loss of no American personnel.

Drone fighters exist today.  If they are not quite ready to go toe to toe with the F-22, then we should direct our resources to get them there.  Spending money on an F-22, which will surely be obsolete soon, is just foolish.  We cannot waste our resources that way.

This transition will not be easy.  Air Force generals are pilots.  They think like pilots, and they believe that the future belongs to pilots.  They need to find the way.