Warplanes: Russia Loses the Quantity War

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February1, 2007: Air supremacy. Without it, one cannot hope to win on the battlefield. So, between the United States and Russia, who has a better chance to grab control of the air and hold on to it? The winner is the one who would win a conventional war.

One might ask, why is control of the air so important? The answer is best described in terms of logistics. Armies travel on their stomachs, to paraphrase Napoleon. They need fuel, ammo, and food, among other things to carry out their job. These supplies are mostly delivered by land and sea, often in large, slow-moving ships and trucks. And the one weapon that has proven to be highly effective taking out these ships and trucks loaded with supplies has been the airplane. Surprising? Not really, when one looks at history. In 1943, Japan sent a convoy of eight transports and eight destroyers to resupply a forward outpost. This convoy was sent into the teeth of Allied air power. They didn't just lose all of the transports and most of the troops on board, they lost four destroyers. It was a decisive victory for the Allies.

So, if you are going to control the air, one not only needs the pilots, but the planes. If you stand still in the area of technological development, life can get very ugly. Again, look at Japan. In 1940, they had what was arguably the best carrier fighter in the world, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Against planes like the Brewster Buffalo, it dominated. But by the time 1944 rolled around, the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair were in the skies, and Japan was on the short end of the technological stick. That imbalance led to a one-sided engagement that year called the Marianas Turkey Shoot. Months after the Turkey Shoot, the Japanese Navy was finished off as an effective fighting force at Leyte Gulf.

With those lessons from history in mind, let's turn to the question as to who would have won the air war between the United States and Russia. The Russians went with aircraft that could be produced quickly and in large numbers. This was based on the belief that "quantity has a quality all its own. Before the Cold War ended in 1991, Russia and its allies produced over 10,000 MiG-21s and 5,900 MiG-23/27 fighters. The United States tended to build better planes, and had a technological lead on the Russians. Perhaps one of the best examples was looking at when planes. The F-4 Phantom entered service in 1961. The MiG-21, a much simpler plane, entered service in 1960. The MiG-23, which was roughly comparable to the F-4, did not start flying until 1967. The F-15 entered service in 1974. The Su-27, the Russian answer to the F-15, did not enter service until 1984.

The best example of the American technological lead is stealth technology. The F-117 (really a light bomber) entered service in 1983. The Russians still have not deployed a comparable aircraft, while the United States has deployed a strategic stealth bomber, the B-2, since 1996, and a stealthy high-performance fighter, the F-22, since 2006. A stealthy multi-role fighter, the F-35, is slated to enter service in 2012.

The importance of the American lead in stealth technology cannot be understated. In order to destroy an aircraft, one must be able to hit an aircraft. In order to hit the aircraft, one must be able to see it, be it on radar, via infrared emissions, or visually. If you cannot see the airplane, you have no chance of reliably hitting it. An axiom from fighter pilots puts it best: Lose the sight, lose the fight.

Furthermore, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has not only been unable to pursue new weapon designs, it has also been forced to cut back on production. Some 800 planes from the Su-27 family have been produced, including those manufactured under license by India and China. Compare that to over 1500 F-15s of all types. Russia has produced over 1,600 MiG-29s, roughly equivalent to the F-16 (over 4000 produced) and F-18 (1478 produced). Planes like the Su-37 and Su-47, upgraded Flankers, are still just prototypes.

Russia would have had a hard time trying to control the air when it was able to produce thousands of jets that were behind the Americans on a technological basis, relying on quantity to overcome American quality. Now, Russia would likely be outnumbered and facing airplanes that would be at least on par with theirs. Russia went from having a decent chance of winning air superiority in a war against the United States to none. – Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)



 


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