Winning: August 24, 2005

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American military forces have had a qualitative edge over opponents in a number of recent conflicts. But not all of the qualitative edges are the same. Where is this edge the most pronounced, and where do the Americans find the gap to be pretty close?

The U.S. Army, for instance, has performed well in a number of operations since Operation Just Cause in 1989, in a wide variety of terrains. The M1/M1A1/M1A2 SEP Abrams tanks and the M2/M3 Bradley infantry and cavalry fighting vehicles are arguably the best in the world. So is the AH-64D Longbow Apache. Yet several other armies have tanks just as good (like the British Challenger 2, the Israeli Merkava, and the German Leopard 2). The same can be said about helicopters (the Eurocopter Tiger PAH.2 and the Mi-28 Havoc). The Israeli Army and the British Army are not that far behind. Both have highly motivated and trained forces, and superb weapons (some imported from America). If there is a close gap, it is here, particularly due to the fact that the British and Israelis have significant combat experience.

The U.S. Marines generally have operated on a lighter schedule. They arguably have a small air force in their own right (the backbone of which is the F/A-18C Hornet and AV-8B+ Harrier II Plus aircraft and the AH-1Z and CH-46 helicopters, the latter of which is slated for replacement by the MV-22 Osprey). The marines rely a lot on their training. That said, outside the British Royal Marines, the South Korean Marines, and the Russian Naval Infantry, no other force even matches some of the capabilities of the U.S. Marines (particularly its own air wing). One other consideration is the fact that the three organizations mentioned combine to about one-fourth the size of the U.S. Marines (6,000 Royal Marines, 12,000 Russian Naval Infantry, and 25,000 ROK Marines compared to 180,000 U.S. Marines).

The United States Navy is the strongest in the world. The backbone of this force is in the twelve large carriers and their escorts (the bulk of this force is in the 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers and the 47 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers), with a large submarine force (55 nuclear attack submarines and 14 ballistic missile nuclear submarines). In this case, the real difference is not just powerful ships that have proven themselves in several minor conflicts (the latest incidents being the 1986 freedom of navigation exercises in the Gulf of Sidra and Operation Preying Mantis in 1988). The United States Navy is arguably capable of taking on and defeating several other naval powers combined. Even some of the excellent navies like the Royal Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, could not hope to survive a war with the U.S. Navy. The gap here is similar to that enjoyed by the Royal Navy in the 19th century the famous two-power standard (where the Royal Navy strength was maintained so that it equaled that of  the next two strongest navies).

Finally, the United States Air Force is probably the most powerful in the world, and is slated for a huge technological leap. The F-22 fighter is entering service this year, and the F-35 fighter-bomber is in development. The B-2 bomber has been proven in combat over Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq. The Air Force also has superbly trained pilots and the backbone of its force, the F-15 and F-16 fighters, are still considered among the worlds best. This edge has proven itself in Iraq twice (where the Air Force scored 37 kills with no losses in 1991), Bosnia in 1995, and Kosovo in 1999. The only air forces that even come close are the Israeli Air Force and the Royal Air Force.

Of the American services, the Air Force has the biggest qualitative edge. The real reason for this is the fact that a massive investment in stealth technology is about to place aircraft with very low signatures in widespread service by the end of the decade. No other air force in the world is going to be deploying an aircraft like the F-22, nor will they approach the projected numbers that the F-35 will be produced in. In essence, the Air Forces dominance is what sets the stage for others to dominate. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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