Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2002 / 10 Shevat, 5762

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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Toward a stronger defense at a lower cost -- SHERLOCK HOLMES once solved a mystery by noting that a dog didn't bark. We could have a stronger defense at a lower cost if we paid more attention to what wasn't in the skies over Afghanistan.

It is easier for the victors than for the vanquished to ignore the lessons war teaches. The U.S. Air Force appears to be doing its best to ignore the lessons of the Afghan and Kosovo wars.

This seems odd, because the foremost lesson is that air power has become everything its most enthusiastic visionaries hoped it would be. Breathtaking advances in aerial reconnaissance and aerial bombardment have brought about a revolution in military affairs more sweeping than anything since the invention of gunpowder.

During World War II we had to drop, on average, 400 bombs to be reasonably certain that one would strike the target we were trying to destroy. Today we can drop just one bomb, and have the same likelihood of success.

More than 26,000 members of the Eighth Air Force were killed flying missions over Nazi Germany. In the Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghan wars combined, a total of one U.S. military jet was lost to hostile fire. The pilot was rescued.

We were able to conceal from the Nazis the destination of the Normandy invasion force, and to convince them of the existence of a phantom army that was going to strike at the Pas de Calais.

Today, thanks to satellites and drones like the Predator, we can detect the movement of individual enemy soldiers, 24/7, in good weather or bad. We can be surprised militarily only if we are extraordinarily careless.

But Air Force leaders aren't as proud as one might suppose, because it was the wrong kind of airplane that contributed most.

The Afghan war gave the Navy bragging rights in its perpetual conflict with the Air Force over the viability of the aircraft carrier. Many critics (including yours truly) have said the proliferation of sea-skimming cruise missiles means that aircraft carriers are of diminishing utility.

But if we had had no aircraft carriers, we'd have been in a world of hurt, since we did not initially have basing rights anywhere near Afghanistan from which to launch Air Force fighter-bombers.

The Air Force played second fiddle to the Navy until almost the end of the Afghan war. And the Air Force planes which contributed most were the B-1B and B-52 bombers based on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

The Air Force is run chiefly by fighter pilots. They like fighter-bombers because they look neat and are fun to fly. The two most expensive weapons procurement programs in the defense budget today are for the Joint Strike Fighter (of which there would also be Navy and Marine versions), and the F-22 Raptor, an air superiority fighter.

Which brings us to what wasn't in the skies over Afghanistan: enemy fighters.

The Air Force and the Navy are arguing about whether we should have more Air Force fighter-bombers, or more Navy fighter-bombers on aircraft carriers. The right answer is to have fewer of both, and more heavy bombers.

The chief argument for a fighter-bomber over a heavy bomber is that a fighter-bomber more nimbly can avoid enemy fighters and surface to air missiles. But if the enemy doesn't have any fighters, and the bomber can deliver precision-guided weapons from beyond the range of SAMs, the argument for an Air Force composed chiefly of fighter-bombers evaporates.

Bombers are our most valuable weapons, but we don't have many of them. Production of the B-2 Stealth bomber was capped at 20 when the Cold War ended. The fleet of 93 B-1Bs will be reduced by about a third to save money.

The mainstay of the bomber force is still the venerable B-52, which entered service half a century ago.

The Air Force wants to spend $62 billion to buy 339 F-22s to guard against a threat no nation is presenting. We would be better served if we reduced substantially that buy, and used the money saved to build a new bomber.

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© 2002, Jack Kelly