Toward a Sustainable US Defense Posture: The recent evolution of US air attack capabilities

Carl Conetta. Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #42, 02 August 2007.

At the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, less than 8 percent of America’s combat aircraft – USAF, USN, and USMC – had the ability to deliver guided weapons autonomously. Since then, this capability has generalized throughout the combat air fleets, including large bombers. (The capacity of America’s fleet of 97 mission-authorized bombers to precision munitions makes it, in this regard, the equivalent of more than 7 wings of tactical aircraft.)

Although the Government Accountability Office (among others) have challenged the most ambitious claims made for precision-guided munitions (PGMs), a non-controversial conclusion is that they allow a five- to eight-fold reduction in bomb expenditure to achieve a target effect similar to that achieved by the best non-guided methods. (The advantage may be somewhat less for area targets.) Also contributing to increased combat capability since 1991 has been the generalization of night-fighting and all-weather capabilities throughout the combat air fleets and significant improvements in target acquisition and data fusion and sharing.

In light of the advances in US air attack capability, it is not surprising that the 2003 Iraq war involved only one-third as many combat aircraft sorties as its predecessor and less than nine percent as many air-delivered munitions. Notably: the proportion of air-delivered munitions that were precision-guided grew from 8 percent to 68 percent. The number of fighters and bombers deployed by the United States declined from approximately 1,100 for the 1991 Gulf War to 655 for the 2003 war. And deployed aircraft were worked much harder in 1991 than in 2003: about 1.3 sorties per day per plane versus 0.9.

Looking forward to 2010, the advances in US guided-weapon attack capability will continue as the combat air fleets add all-weather munitions of substantially longer range, smaller size, and greater accuracy with more numerous and “smarter” submunitions. Over the next five years we will see the introduction of (or more general use of) extended-range, jam-resistant JDAMs, the Sensor Fused Weapon, the Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser, Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missiles, and the Low-Cost Autonomous Attack System. Perhaps most significant is the introduction of the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) which, as noted by Defense Industry Daily, will “dramatically increase the strike capability of every combat aircraft in the US inventory.” Indeed, theoretically, the SDB will increase the PGM carrying capacity of America’s combat air fleets five-fold – from 8,000 weapons to 40,000.

In 2010, America’s combat aircraft will possess twenty times the interdiction capability — on average and unit for unit, as their 1990 counterparts. Currently planned US air forces will be smaller, however – resulting in an aggregate capability somewhat less than 15 times greater than in 1990.

By comparison, traditional conventional adversaries have not nearly kept pace with US developments. Already in 1997, the Defense Intelligence Agency had noted a 20 percent reduction in armor threats. More generally: the United States moved from spending only 80 percent as much on defense as its potential adversaries did in 1985 to spending 250 percent as much in 2001. Since then the gap has widened further. Today the United States accounts for more than 60 percent of all military modernization spending worldwide, while Russia and China, for instance, together account for less than ten percent.

The dramatic growth in the capability of US combat aircraft does not imply that a commensurate reduction in fleet size is advisable, however. Quantity of platforms remains an important factor in that flexibility increases with the size of air fleets and risk declines. The United States would not want to put its “eggs” in too few baskets. Still, some significant reduction from the presently planned fleet size is possible.

How much is enough? We can gain some insight from America’s recent wars. During the past 15 years, the United States deployed air armada’s of various sizes to fight its wars: 1,100 combat aircraft in 1991; 300 for Operation Allied Force (plus 200 allied); approximately 250 for Operation Enduring Freedom; and 655 for the main combat phase of Operation Enduring Freedom. The average number of combat sorties flown each day varied widely: 1,400 for Desert Storm, 140 for Allied Force, 82 per day for the first 78 days of Enduring Freedom, and 700 for Iraqi Freedom.

Given current capabilities and those new ones now emerging and being introduced, the United States might handle comparable contingencies with combat air packages comprising 200 to 500 fighters and bombers. With a future all-service force of 1,920 mission-assigned fighters and bombers, the United States could surge as many as 1,250 combat aircraft at one time – a sufficient number to handle multiple war and deterrence tasks.

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