From the title, I must be about to write about wing loading. Yes–too bad this concept won’t spread, because unless it does we will eviscerate American land-based and sea-based air forces.
Yesterday in Foreign Policy Robert Haddick continued the long-running assault on the usefulness of aircraft carriers. Since Gen. Billy Mitchell used army bombers in 1921 to sink the German battleship Ostfriesland to shill for strategic bombing there have been arguments made that aircraft have made navies obsolete. Haddick trots out the “proliferation of cheap but deadly long-range anti-ship missiles” as the newest reason we need to get rid of the U.S. Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers. Never mentioned is that anti-ship cruise missiles aren’t a new threat–during the Cold War the U.S. Navy deployed on surface vessels the Aegis Combat System/RIM-66/67 Standard missile, RIM-7 SeaSparrow missile, RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile, Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) 20mm cannon and on airborne fighters look-down/shoot-down radars to enable carrier-based F-14s and F/A-18s to shoot down the massed Soviet anti-ship cruise missile armadas arrayed against the fleet. The fact that ocean-going merchant vessels still represent the primary means of transporting goods between nations and the U.S. Navy has a vested interest in protecting all surface ships (military and civilian) from missile attack conveniently slips the minds of authors when they write about maritime cruise missile threats.
But more curious to me is Haddick’s first option to replace carriers–intercontinental heavy bombers.
The Air Force’s long-range bombers, by contrast, with two pilots and room inside to stretch, have routinely flown intercontinental missions lasting over 30 hours. Recently, an Air Force B-1 bomber wing continuously maintained at least one of its big bombers over Afghanistan during a six-month deployment to a base in southwest Asia. While on station over Afghanistan, the B-1s responded to over 500 requests for close air support from troops in fire fights.
First of all, I’m surprised Haddick doesn’t mention the names of the two bases heavy bombers stage out of in that area–Andersen AFB on Guam, and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Both bases are islands, and have similar vulnerability to cruise missile attack as surface ships. What is the likelihood both bases sport significant air defense missile batteries?
Second, he completely gets it wrong when he says the U.S. Air Force was “happy to cede this crisis-response role [to aircraft carriers], because then it could focus on its own priorities.” Haddick writes a Second World War history of the aircraft carrier in his piece, there really isn’t any excuse not to be aware of the Revolt of the Admirals following the creation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947.
But this really caught me attention.
Ironically, just as the value and utility of its long-range bomber forces was increasing, the Air Force has spent the past decade focused on its F-22 and F-35 fighters, which, like the Navy’s carrier aircraft, have to operate from vulnerable close-in bases and whose combat ranges are too short for the Asia-Pacific theater’s vast expanses. But, after much bureaucratic resistance and delay, the Air Force is finally moving ahead with a new stealthy long-range bomber to supplement and eventually replace the legacy fleet that has withered over the past decade.
Followed with Haddick’s second “solution:”
There is another alternative. In a recent article in Proceedings, defense analyst Daniel Goure articulated a vision of aircraft carriers equipped with unmanned reconnaissance-strike drones, which, with mid-air refueling, could fly far longer and farther than jets with a human crew. Assuming the Navy could work out the considerable threats to their communications links (a problem the Air Force must also solve), drones could keep aircraft carriers in the fight even if they had been pushed back by anti-ship missiles. The Navy’s carrier drone program is very active and well ahead of the Air Force’s new bomber program. But even that success could backfire for carriers. If the Navy can perfect long-range drone missions, why not intercontinental drone missions? And if that’s the case, a land base would work just fine. All of which could set up a new round of inter-service brawling inside the Pentagon.
The thought process of these writers (Haddick mentions Daniel Goure) always turn to drones as the solution. Drones have become big business in the last decade, and the most common refrain is “they’re longer-ranged.” Haddick lumps U.S. Air Force fighters in with this, noting they too are much shorter-ranged than bombers. Instead of continuing Billy Mitchell’s assault against the very idea of the navy, he has also adopted “the bomber will always get through” ethos also from that era. After all, the bombers always do get through…especially if you have more bombers that the enemy has fighters and anti-aircraft guns (and the Eight Air Force still needed the protection of P-51s).
I started this post with the mention of wing loading. I did that on purpose, for this reason–fighter aircraft must have low wing loading. Wing loading is essentially the percentage of total lift an aircraft uses for level flight compared to the total lift available. High wing loading is ideal for transports, bombers, reconnaissance and most drones. It maximizes fuel efficiency, yielding longer range and loiter abilities. Fighters, on the other hand, require low wing loading, which facilitates maneuverability and higher energy states ideal for aerial combat. Both also have drawbacks–high wind loading cannot maneuver as well, because extra lift isn’t available. Low wing loading costs fuel efficiency and range.
I mention wing loading because two misunderstandings persist with many writers. One is the premise that drones should replace manned carrier aircraft (which are almost exclusively fighters). Drones generally are designed with loiter in mind. Therefore, they have the added benefit of long range. But they also can’t outmaneuver a cloud. In aerial combat, they will be (and have been) eaten alive by enemy fighters. They require the airspace to be sanitized–cleared of aerial threats by friendly air superiority fighters first, including threatening surface-to-air missiles. But if drones are designed with low wing loading to enable aerial combat, their loiter time and range will correspondingly drop. It isn’t the human that reduces the range–it’s physical wing design.
A common response to defending the concept of air superiority fighters is air-to-air missiles, modern countermeasures and stealth have made fighters obsolete. History warns about this. Air-to-air missiles didn’t kill off fighters during Vietnam–instead it spawned TOPGUN, Red Flag, and the Fighter Mafia. As for countermeasures and stealth, nothing available can completely obscure an aircraft’s exhaust signature and naturally it remains visible to the mark one eyeball. Here, a Cold War saying comes to mind: “if you can see it, you can hit it. If you can hit it, you should kill it.” Highly maneuverable air superiority fighters all mount 20mm-30mm cannons…
The other common misunderstanding is the special case that has been the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many writers fail to understand that the lightning quick conventional phase in 2003 Iraq and nonexistent conventional war in 2001 Afghanistan were anomalous. There were massive conventional battles in both conflict zones–just the Afghanistan battles were between 1979-89, and Iraq learned quantity does not always equal quality in 1991 during Desert Storm. Just because there were a dearth of aerial or naval threats in both subsequent wars does not indicate there won’t be aerial and naval clashes in future conflicts. Quite the opposite: future wars almost undoubtedly will call upon the full force of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy to seize control of the air and maintain control of the sea.
Unlike writers that attack almost all conventional forces because they believe all war in the future will be counterinsurgency, Haddick and Goure fall into a group that repeats another error–they see air superiority as antiquated. They commendably recognize naval threats exist, and don’t automatically count out manned combat aircraft. But they fail to grasp that bombers can’t act as fighters, and neither can long-range, high wing loaded drones. Fighters are integral to all air forces, land-based and naval, and without a doubt when it comes time for heavy bombers to destroy Chinese anti-ship batteries before sending in the fleet, air superiority fighters will be protecting them while (or after) F-16CGs smash the Chinese SAM networks.