In July, the Air Force launched a program to buy 100 small, inexpensive, “light” fighters for “strike, armed reconnaissance and advanced aircraft training in support of Irregular Warfare.” The attack planes will be part of a new, counterinsurgency-optimized wing that can rapidly dial between bombing bad guys and training local pilots to defend their own countries. As Gen. Norton Schwartz, the air service’s top officer, said in April, there is a “legitimate need” for lighter, smarter forces in the traditionally techy Air Force.
But the Air Force should have realized this, four years ago. From 2005 to 2007, there was a flood of papers and studies from the Air Force’s academic institutions, advocating the adoption of light fighters and other forces for small wars. Air Force generals’ myopic focus on the F-22 stealth fighter blinded them to the signs, emerging from within the air service, that smaller, cheaper planes were what we really needed.
The Air Force’s delay in buying light fighters echoed the Army’s and Marines’ heel-dragging on adopting the blast-resistant MRAP trucks that have saved so many lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some front-line soldiers and Marines were begging for MRAPs as early as 2005. It took two years for the Pentagon to finally fund the tough trucks.
The Air Force’s internal light-fighter advocacy seems to have begun with a December 2005 paper written by Maj. Arthur Davis, a student at the Air Command and Staff College in Alabama. Davis’ paper, “Back to the Basics: An Aviation Solution to Counter-insurgent Warfare,” examined “past examples of the use of air power in counterinsurgent warfare” in order to shed light “on the United States’ current failings in both equipment and doctrine as it wages this type of war.”
In short order, several officers followed up on Davis’ paper. Maj. Brett Blake found today’s “F-15Es and F-16s … simply not cost effective” for current wars. David Peeler, now a lieutenant colonel, examined which light fighters might be most effective and affordable, and compared their price and performance to the A-10 close-air-support jet. Maj. Max Weems chided the Air Force for its “nasty habit of forgetting the hard-learned lessons of irregular operations.”
Despite the growing body of research and advocacy, the Air Force brass all but ignored the need for a light fighter. “Given the Air Force’s pre-occupation with procurement of the F-22A advanced fighter aircraft, little attention is placed on obtaining a platform with specifications aimed at counterinsurgency operations,” Peeler wrote.
But then came Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Last year, Gates fired the officials who were the F-22’s biggest supporters, ended the F-22 buy at 187 copies, and freed up nearly a billion dollars for new counterinsurgency planes. In short, Gates finally acknowledged what mid-ranking Air Force officers had known for years: that the air service needed to think and act differently to win today’s wars.