Thursday, November 6, 2008

The USAF's Acquisition Crisis and AAMs

Whew! The election is finally over with. Let's hope Obama is more of a Clinton-style triangulator instead of a Carter-ish indecisive vision guy as Todd Zywicki said here.

Regardless, Stephen Trimble yesterday highlighted some great comments from a fighter jock here, that generated a lot of comments. One of the interesting points is the low probability of kill ratio of the AIM-120 against a jamming target. If the USAF is going up against any semi-near-peer competitor, it will not have superiority. Sure, the F-22 is great. But the key to making the F-22, and its Beyond-Visual-Range tactic, work, is the AIM-120. If the F-22 supercruises into the fight, fires the AMRAAMs, and get out of Dodge, he survives. But his target will survive, too, if the missiles fail to lock onto the target due to jamming. And what's that called, if neither side gets a kill? Parity, not Superiority.

This, coupled with the USAF fiscal death spiral that ELP and others have been documenting, means that the USAF needs to change its acquisition strategy right now. If it keeps going down the current path, it will run out of money, people, and fighters. The USAF will get a smaller and smaller slice of the budget pie, along with the rest of the DoD, because that is the American budgetary future. The USAF cannot out-compete the AARP. The USAF is also getting less retention. And it is prematurely retiring its F-teens to bank on the unproven F-35. The USAF will become operationally irrelevant if it keeps going as it is.

The USAF keeps saying that the F-22s (with AMRAAM) will secure the skies and allow the F-35s to do their job, but it doesn't have enough F-22s, and will never get more. The F-35s (and some legacy F-teens) will have to take on air-to-air missions. We know that AMRAAM, as is, doesn't work in a jamming environment. The USAF has to immediately embark on an AMRAAM replacement program right now. Being that even missile programs take more than 4 years to go from the lab to the flightline, the more the USAF wastes its time, the more time it gives semi-near-peers to become peers. The new Advanced AAM Program [doesn't that sound familiar? :] has a simple goal, Give the F-35 a decisive advantage over the current 4.5th Gen fighters (Eurofighter, Su-35+, et al). The corollary effect will give the F-teens and F-22 superiority over everybody else.

In the mean time, the USAF can get some cheap fixes: Put a Sidewinder seeker and an RF homing seeker on the AMRAAM for seeker diveristy in the inventory. Integrate and buy the Meteor to improve the kill ratio and foster cross-Atlantic solidarity. Try the datalink to improve jamming resistance. Or have the AMRAAM talk to other AMRAAMs in its volley to sift through the noise.

Unfortunately, the USAF has been peddling the F-35 as its savior for too long now. Politically, it cannot admit otherwise and change course, without killing many officer careers. The Obama administration seems unlikely to rock the USAF boat, because its focus, and its expertise, is on COIN and the ground fight. The Obama administration may not have the intellectual and political capital to fight the USAF.

If Dr. Gates stays on as DefSec, he might be able to turn the USAF around, due to his USAF background as a missileer and his distance from the F-35 game. However, he is planning on leaving, and there are other people that want the job. All in all, the future looks bleak for the

On the other hand, the USN faces a similar issue with its underpowered F-18. The USN Tomcat association has long lobbied for an AIM-54 Phoenix replacement. The USN aviation budget is in much less trouble due to its volume buy of the F-18E/F, and is in a better position to advocate a new AAAM program. If the USN succeeds in deploying the AAAM, you can be sure that the USAF will jump on board.

It is a sad day when the USAF has to depend on the USN to rescue it from air-to-air irrelevance. However, this analysis is yet another piece of vindication for Inter-Service Rivalry and support for duplication in Roles and Missions.

Sorry for the html. Has to use email submission.

Edit: fixed the html.

Edit 2: I saw the Joint Dual Role Air Dominance Missile. I hope that the Air to Air requirements are sufficiently robust, and that the ARM/AGM requirements take a back seat, as they should be. However, with an in-service date beyond 2020, it is clear that the USN and USAF needs an interim solution, as I've outlined above.

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