Warplanes: The New, And Last, Ace

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December 5, 2008: For the first time since the Vietnam war, a U.S. fighter pilot has become an ace (someone who has shot down at least five aircraft). But that's only because a pilot (U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland) had a 1952 air-to-air MiG-15 kill over Korea recognized last year. Before Cleveland got recognized, the last pilot, of any air force, to qualify as an ace was Jalal Zandi of the Iranian Air Force, who shot down 14 Iraqi aircraft in the late 1980s, while flying a U.S. made F-14. Zandi may be the last pilot to become an ace, as the next generation of fighters may be robotic, with no human pilot onboard.

Meanwhile, American fighters, and their pilots, remain the best in the world. That's not preordained, or an accident, it's the result of a lot of hard work, willingness to learn from mistakes, and a whole lot of money. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force (and naval air) realize that no one had successfully challenged them for control of the air in over half a century. Dominating the air has its downsides, as American air combat commanders (both Navy and Air Force) worry about future threats, and how well prepared U.S. pilots will be to deal with them.

All this has to be considered in light of the fact that shooting down enemy aircraft is not the primary mission of an air force. Aircraft became a factor in military affairs 90 years ago when they demonstrated their superior ability to see what the enemy was up. Most of the use of air power at the beginning was about reconnaissance, and preventing the enemy from seeing what you were doing. Between the world wars, the idea of using air power as an offensive weapon developed. This proved to be more of a factor at sea, than on land, where the reconnaissance was still the most useful service air forces provided.

Strategic bombing was greatly misunderstood by air forces during, and after, World War II. Tactical bombing (and strafing) was more useful, because the fighter-bombers were providing reconnaissance at the same time they were attacking the enemy who were in the way of friendly ground troops. The U.S. Air Force, however, was not a big fan of "tac air" (tactical air power), because they believed they could be more decisive with strategic bombing.

The problem with World War II strategic bombing was that it was a blunt instrument. A lot of damage was inflicted, but it was, for all practical purposes, random. So while millions of German and Japanese workers were diverted (because they were dead, or had to deal with damage to homes and businesses) from the war effort by the bombing, there was no decisive effect, as the air force generals intended. This was because of a problem the air force had then, and continues to have. It's called BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment). This is the business of figuring out what to bomb, and what the impact on the enemy is after you bomb.

The U.S. did a thorough survey, of the impact of strategic bombing on Germany and Japan, right after World War II. It was discovered that the impact of the bombing was far different from what BDA during the war had indicated. But that was largely ignored because, right after the war, it was believed bombing with conventional bombs had become obsolete. Nuclear bombs had made strategic airpower decisive, because pinpoint accuracy was no longer a factor.

But during the Korean war (1950-53), it was realized that no one really wanted to use nuclear weapons again, especially if the other side had them. Thus nuclear weapons became a threat, while conventional bombs were again the weapon of choice.

But as experience in Korea (1950-3), Vietnam (1965-72), Kuwait (1991) and Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2003) and Lebanon (2006) demonstrated, the enemy on the ground continued to have an edge when it came to deceiving the most energetic BDA efforts. The only proven technique for beating the BDA problem was to have people on the ground, up close, checking up on targets. The U.S. Army and Air Force have developed special equipment and tactics to have teams of Special Forces troops on the ground to do this sort of thing. That's why air power was so successful in Afghanistan in 2001.

But the really big breakthrough was the development of cheap smart (guided) bombs. Guided bombs were first developed during World War II, and were quite useful hitting targets at sea and on land. These were radio controlled bombs, that required an operator to use a joystick to guide the bomb to a distant (out of range of defending anti-aircraft fire) target. The Germans were the first to use them in 1943, when they sank a battleship with one. By 1945, American smart bombs were taking down bridges in Asia, and sinking Japanese ships in the Pacific with radio controlled bombs.

Because of the belief that nuclear weapons made conventional weapons obsolete, research on smart bombs stopped until, in the late 1950s, everyone came to their senses. By 1965, the U.S. Air Force had a laser guided bomb in service, and was using it to take out heavily defended targets in North Vietnam. These are targets, like bridges, that had resisted numerous attacks with unguided bombs (because of thick anti-aircraft defenses).

The first laser guided bombs cost over a million dollars each, and by 1991, the price had come down to under $100,000. That was still a hundred times the cost of a dumb (unguided) bomb. However, in 1991 it was noted that the 'smart bombs' were doing a disproportionate amount of the damage Later in the 1990s, the GPS guided bomb was developed. This was a major breakthrough. The GPS guided bomb was much cheaper (about $25,000 each, as it was actually a guidance kit attached to a dumb bomb). But the GPS bomb did not need someone to shine a laser on the target (for the bomb to home in on). Just punch in the GPS coordinates and drop the bomb. Mist, rain and sand storms could interfere with lasers, but nothing stopped a GPS bomb. Air power was, for once, rally all powerful. There were still BDA problems, but now the air force was more enthusiastic about putting small teams of elite troops on the ground, who could be defended by GPS guided bombs, and eyeball exactly what damage the bombs were causing. That actually happened in Afghanistan, where more than one Special Forces team defeated much larger enemy forces, by calling in GPS guided bombs.

Air power still has its limitations, something the professionals understand, but the rest of us don't. This was demonstrated in Lebanon in the Summer of 2006. Everyone, except the people running the Israeli air force, expected Israeli air power to shut down Hezbollah, and the Hezbollah rockets being fired into northern Israel. The Israeli air force spent most of their time taking out economic targets, as they knew that most of the Hezbollah rockets had been hidden in places the Israelis were unaware of. They knew this because they had been watching for six years, as Hezbollah hid their 12,000 or so rockets in hundreds of locations (under schools homes and mosques, in caves or just about anywhere throughout southern and central Lebanon). The Israelis had tried bombing suspected rocket locations many times since the Iranians sent large quantities of these rockets to southern Lebanon after 2000 (when the Israelis abandoned their security zone in southern Lebanon, in return for a peace deal that was supposed to disarm Hezbollah). The Israeli air attacks before 2006 had failed, and the Israelis knew the only way to hunt down the Hezbollah rocket caches was to send ground troops in. But the Israeli government did not want to risk hundreds (or thousands) of dead Israeli troops in a ground campaign with Hezbollah. Israeli voters would not stand for this.

Israel tolerated thousands of Hezbollah rockets falling on northern Israel. That's because the rockets were mostly of the 122mm, unguided, variety, and only had a range of twenty kilometers. It took about a hundred of these rockets (and a few larger ones), to kill one Israeli. The Israelis used mostly smart bombs in Lebanon, so they almost always hit what they were aimed at, and caused about one civilian death for every 5-10 bombs or missiles used.

Because the Israeli air force is superior to that of any of its neighbors, most Arab nations are investing heavily in missiles. Israel has defenses (Arrow and PAC-3 missiles) against the larger, guided, ballistic missiles. But unguided rockets are such an ineffective weapon, it really doesn't pay to employ a system to knock them down. There is a laser system (SkyGuard), developed by U.S. and Israeli firms, that can stop these unguided weapons. But it would cost a billion dollars to install it along the Lebanese border. At the moment, SkyGuard is under consideration to protect U.S. airports from portable anti-aircraft missiles.

Meanwhile, air power continues to change, as unmanned, and often robotic, aircraft are replacing those with crews. The UAVs (Unmanned aerial vehicles) have been around for over half a century (as cruise missiles), and in that time they have become a lot cheaper and reliable. UAVs now do most of the reconnaissance work, and will begin replacing fighters and bombers in the next decade or so.

Without being recognized as such, smart bombs and UAVs are the most revolutionary developments in air power since World War II. Air power will never be the same because of these two innovations. Just as things were never the same as the U.S. began its long run as ruler of the skies in 1944.

 


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