Modern Conflict & the Future of Fighters

By Scott Spangler on May 12th, 2010

Several days ago I read a New York Times Op-Ed piece, Leading With Two Minds. In it, David Brooks described how the US Army, in five short years, had reshaped itself to fight insurgencies with something other than overwhelming force.

jsf-family-variants Thirty-five years ago I was on the USS Blue Ridge. It was steaming toward its San Diego homeport after serving as the command ship for the evacuation of Saigon, the true end of a decades-long conflict which proved that insurgency works.

Then I saw the Orlando Sentinel story about the cost overruns on the new F-35 strike fighter.  Given the changing face of international conflicts—insurgent forces don’t have air forces—and the 57 percent increase in the F-35’s cost, it seemed to me that it may well be America’s last dog fighter.

Even the Defense Department tacitly agrees that there is little need for a dogfighter. Like the F-18, the F-35 is a strike fighter. In other words, because it is unlikely to meet an airborne foe, other than a missile, air support of ground troops is its primary mission.

Curious, I searched for recent reports of jet-v-jet battles. Let’s see, there was the turkey shoot of the Iraqi air force during Gulf War I (1990-91). In 1986 F-14s fought over the Gulf of Sidra’s Line of Death, and in 1982 there were the Falklands matches between Harriers and Argentinean A-4s.

Those who cling to the past may say we need fighters to counter the sudden aggressiveness of a nation with the economic horsepower to field an air force. There aren’t many of those, and America does business with most of them, and armed conflict is unlikely because it is bad for business.

Sea Avenger Looking at the trend of world conflicts over the past 35 years, they will continue to get smaller and more focused, and the weapons used to fight them must do the same, whether it is a squad of special operations warriors or a unmanned aerial system that’s on duty all day.

The US Navy has just ordered a version of the armed Predator C. Called the Sea Avenger, it “fulfills the Navy’s need for a carrier-based [UAS] system that offers long-endurance, proven  [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] and precision-strike capabilities.”

The future of flight, it seems, is becoming ever more clear. For at least the rest of my life, pilots will still occupy the airplanes they fly. But like those who drive today’s B-52s, those airplanes may be approaching twice the age of their pilots. – Scott Spangler


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6 Responses to “Modern Conflict & the Future of Fighters”

  1. Greg Morris Says:

    It isn’t stated explicitly but the thrust of this article seems to be that it is acceptable for the US to give up the goal of achieving and maintaining air superiority given that there have been so few air to air kills over the past twenty years. There is a chicken and egg problem with this argument. If the US hadn’t been able to establish air superiority so effectively in both the 90-91 Gulf War and OIF in 2003 the picture of the ground war and the air to air losses would have been very different. Without air superiority in the first Gulf War would the ground war have lasted only 100 hours with massive numbers of Iraqi troops surrendering at the first sign of the coalition? Mr. Spangler also missed a significant number of air to air kills since 1980, including over 100 by the Israeli Air Force ( and US kills over Kosovo ( Air superiority is crucial in these small conflicts as well as in hypothetical conflicts with larger powers. The Israelis know this. By law the IAF has the first pick of all Israelis beginning their compulsory service, with only about 10% of those that start the selection process receiving wings.

    I do agree with Mr. Spangler that a large scale conflict with a power like China is unlikely, thus eliminating much of the need for aircraft such as the F-22, but he missed the point of the design of the F-35. It is a strike fighter, just as the F/A-18 is, but so is the F-22. One of the missions it is tasked with is replacing the F-117’s deep strike capability with JDAMs. With the cost of modern weapons systems no aircraft can afford to only perform a single mission.

    It is clear that unmanned aircraft are a crucial component of the battlefield today and in the future. For the highest risk missions, such as SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) or the beyond visual range (BVR) portion of an air to air engagement a system such as the Predator C is outstanding, namely because it doesn’t matter if it is shot down. One idea evaluated for the F-22 and F-35 was to have it act as a UAV controller, with one manned aircraft controlling two or four unmanned ones.

    Forces of the future will probably rely less and less on new airframes and instead update electronics packages to add capability, the F-16 has already demonstrated this. An aircraft designed as a day, VFR dogfighter has evolved into an all weather day and night strike and air superiority aircraft. I would expect that this pattern will be repeated in the future, so while you may not see the manned aircraft changing much, its unmanned partners, who will be exposed to the highest threats, will be updated regularly.

  2. Mike Friesen Says:


    You may be right in your analysis but I suggest caution. During the development of the F-4, the conventional wisdom was a fighter no longer needed a gun because we had entered the age of air-to-air missiles and all dogfights would be beyond visual range. This assumption proved false as attested by the gun created to bolt onto the F-4.

    All the best,


  3. Scott Spangler Says:

    Giving up America’s air superiority would be stupid, on par with taking guns out of fighters during Vietnam. My point is that the face of air superiority is changing from the large-scale aerial battles of World War II to the increasing use of unmanned systems today.

    When you factor the cost of conflict, and the weapons used to fight it, into the world’s economic landscape, the flying machines we fight with today are going to be around for a long time. And that’s not a bad thing, given their cost.

    Whether America builds a manned or unmanned replacement for the F-35 depends on our elected officials, the conflicts then troubling the world–and what’s left in the national piggy bank.

  4. Rob Mark Says:

    I remember an episode of the original Star Trek series where two countries played war electronically.

    Neither had superiority except in their thinking, or so they though. Why spend lives and cash on weapons when computers could play a version of war chess for essentially little or no cost.

    The computer would decide the winner and an appropriate number of civilians would just be vaporized … no muss, no fuss, no destroyed infrastructure.

    I was not a pilot during my Air Force time, just an air traffic controller. But I feel for fighter pilots and the need for the air superiority mentioned in Scott’s article and both Greg and Mike’s comments.

    We need to face facts though that if the military can figure out a way to send three – or more – predators into battle vs. one F-35, they’re going to do it.

    We’re already in depth up to our hips in this country and a significant reason for that is the nearly 20% of our budget that makes its way to the Pentagon each year.

    Yes, we may have far fewer aces as in previous conflicts, but something must and will change in the next decade.

  5. GreggB Says:

    Back in 1957, the British declared manned aircraft dead. Funny how the rest of the world ignored that and the British lost a decent aerospace industry by default.

    I’d be cautious about declaring fighter aircraft DOA. All of the commenters above present good reasons for not expecting that to happen for a long time yet. For one thing UAV’s haven’t done much (if any) air-to-air combat yet.

    You missed the Great Iraqui Turkey Shoot duning the first Gulf war, by the way. A few Iraqui fighters did turn and fight, in futility as it turned out.

  6. Scott Spangler Says:

    I’m not saying that manned fighters are dead, I’m suggesting that they are not as important as they were in say, World War II, because true air-to-air combat is an infrequent contest in modern conflict. Yes, I missed the “Great Iraqui Turkey Shoot,” but that took place when, two decades ago?

    My point is that our adversaries today and in the future do not and will not field air forces. Those nations with those necessary resources are our economic allies in the global economy. Our financial livlihoods are so intertwined that armed conflict is a last resort, because it’s bad for business.

    Ultimately, we will have manned fighters and other aircraft for the foreseeable future, but the F-35 may well be the next B-52, still in service when the design is a century old, because it gets the job done better than any other aircraft flying. The same goes for the DC-3.

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