How could the United States Air Force be defeated? Can it be defeated? These are the kind of questions many potential adversaries (China and Iran readily come to mind) ask themselves when they think about a conflict with the United States. This is no laughing matter for them. American air power has proven to be a critical part of America's ability to dominate battlefields. Consider the advantages that the United States Air Force has built up since the Vietnam War. These advantages are boiled down to three words: technology, support, and training.
The United States Air Force has a huge technological edge in its combat aircraft. These planes (revolutionary aircraft like the F-117, F-22, B-2, and the upcoming F-35) have created a dynamic in which the only warning the enemy has is when the missiles are launched and are en route to the target. This means that the decision-making loop has become almost impossibly small for opposing pilots. These planes also carry precision-guided weapons, which mean that one plane can destroy multiple targets per sortie. A flight of F-18s can destroy several targets in one sortie. Another advantage is pilot training (particularly exercises like Red Flag). Pilots in the United States Air Force have, in these exercises, already flown combat - and in some cases have been "shot down" - and have learned lessons from this experience. In essence, the United State Air Force is sending out veteran pilots.
Support is the third advantage. The United States can bring a lot of support assets that can see anything in the air or on the ground, extend an aircraft's range, jam communications, or sniff out electronic signals. This support force includes over 800 C-130s, 126 C-17s, 109 C-5s, 400 KC-135R and 59 KC-10 tankers, 33 E-3 airborne warning and control aircraft, 16 E-8 JSTARS, and 17 RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic intelligence aircraft. No other air force provides anywhere near this level of support for its combat arm. The rare instances of aircraft being lost are cases where the planes were either ambushed (like the downing of Scott O'Grady in 1995), caught up in freak events (like the downing of an F-117 in 1999 during the war in Kosovo), or bad luck (the loss of an F-15E over Iraq). Any operational commander, though, will say that betting on luck and freak events is not a path for success.
What could be successful? One option could be to fight a war of attrition. The goal would be to follow the same strategy North Vietnam did in the Vietnam War, where at one point, it had scored a 10:9 kill ratio against the Air Force, which had been hobbled by restrictive rules of engagement (for instance, a visual identification of aircraft was required). The North Vietnamese also used dog fighting tactics that the United States Air Force had discarded in favor of missiles, and the Communist aircraft were, in many cases, flown by veterans (and Russian advisors) against relatively inexperienced American pilots (Red Flag did not start until after the Vietnam War). The small size of North Vietnam's air force prevented the adverse kill ratio from driving the United States Air Force from the skies, but a larger force could possibly win a war of attrition. China, for instance, has over 1,200 fighters and 500 attack planes (200 of which are Su-30s) it could throw into a war.
That might have been true at one point, but the Air Force has also learned from Vietnam, focusing on getting the best equipment possible for its pilots. Whereas a single F-4 with four Sparrows, four Sidewinders, and a 20mm Gatling gun was considered to have done well to destroy three MiGs in one day, an F-22 from today can carry six AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles and two AIM-9X Sidewinders, missile much more reliable than the Vietnam-era missiles (particularly evident in the AMRAAM, which has a near-perfect combat record). It also has a 20mm Gatling gun with 480 rounds of ammunition. This plane could easily destroy at least six, and possibly as many as ten, opponents. The Air Force will only be getting 180 of these planes. But that would be enough to put a serious dent in China's air force. The other problem is that the United States Air Force is getting as many as 1,700 F-35s, which means the quantitative advantage will quickly evaporate. The American force multipliers of stealth and support also negate that advantage to a large degree.
Defeating the United States Air Force is probably not possible on the battlefield, particularly on a large scale. On the other hand, skillful manipulation of the American media (say, with a captured pilot) can be used to create adverse developments on the American political scene - and can place restrictions on the use of the United States Air Force, or better yet, force it to cease operating altogether. That is probably the only reliable way to defeat the United States Air Force. - Harold C. Hutchison (firstname.lastname@example.org)