Friday, September 21, 2007

With 2,400, You Get Egg Roll

The Air Force wants 2,400 F-35s to ward off China:

Michael Wynne, who runs the Air Force as its top civilian, rejected a
prominent research group's call to consider slashing by as much as half the planned purchase -- the Pentagon's costliest weapons-buying plan.

"How big do you think China is?" he said, pausing for effect. "Twenty-one B-2s. Think about that," he said referring to the limited number of advanced Northrop Grumman Corp bombers in the U.S. arsenal.

"I need the Joint Strike Fighter to come along," Wynne told a forum organized by the private Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which called for the possible deep cuts on the ground the F-35 lacks the range needed to fight a potential foe like China.

Pentagon planners, in a strategic road map last year as part of a once-every-four year review, singled out China's rise to great power status as a potential threat to U.S. military predominance.

I'm not terribly worried about the range issue. The F-35 has a combat radius of over 600 nautical miles. How much "over" that is unknown. The F-16 it replaces in the Air Force has a combat radius of 700 nautical miles (assuming 1/3 of range). The F-18 Super Hornet it replaces in the Navy has a combat radius of 400 nautical miles. The Marine Harriers it will replace have a comparable combat radius. So what are critics saying? The fighter-bomber lacks the range of our long-range bombers? Um, ok. I agree.

Planes never have sufficient range. That's why we have tanker aircraft. That's why we capture or build bases closer to the enemy in war. Indeed, that's why we have some long-range bombers.

Nor is China the only threat we face. I say buy them in the numbers our military wants. Our planes are getting old and we need to replace them in sufficient numbers to be able to actually lose some in combat and still win. We can't expect to always face enemies with irrelevant or no air forces.

UPDATE: The Navy, quite naturally as Robert Kaplan explains, sees China as the most likely potential foe:

Because basically, what I found out, embedded in the military months at a time every year for the past few years, there are two overarching themes to our military deployment. One is the global war on terrorism, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and the other is facing up to the challenge of China as a new future peer competitor. Now that doesn’t mean China wants to go to war with us, it doesn’t mean the military is warmongering. But the military has to play the role of the constructive pessimist. So it has to accept the fact that China, for instance, is both buying and acquiring new submarines at five times the rate that we are, that it’s developing anti-GPS satellite technology, that it’s concentrating on missile technology that can hit moving targets at sea. The Pacific Ocean, Hugh, has been an American lake for the last sixty years. But the next sixty years, the American military, and particularly the Navy and Air Force, are going to have to adjust to a more multi-polar environment in the Pacific. And what this all boils down to is that the exercises, the constant combat exercises that are run on destroyers and submarines all the time, when they talk about Country Orange, or Country X as the adversary country, it’s almost always China, though they don’t admit it as such.

This focus doesn't mean that we will fight China. Until World War I, a lot of our planning assumed Britain as a likely foe.

UPDATE: Strategypage reminds us that a nation like China could require us to fight for air supremacy and not just assume it:

Future wars, nevertheless, will still come down to who has the most stuff, and who is best trained to use whatever they got. China is beginning to go down that road, obtaining first rate warplanes, and spending the money to let pilots fly often enough to become lethal.

Call it the tyranny of numbers.