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Fighter Aircraft: To Have or Have Not?

By: Col. Ross L. Meyer, USAF (Ret)

An F-16C Fighting Falcon from the 64th Aggressors Squadron, Nellis AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jake Carter)

Fighter aircraft are obsolete! Drones, AI, directed energy weapons, guided missiles, perhaps even robot-controlled machines will render these massively expensive and soon-to-be impotent relics distant memories, candidates for Arizona’s massive boneyard. Or then again, maybe not! 

Here are a few thoughts to ponder. But first, two definitions of fighter aircraft: 

“Military aircraft such as the F-16 and Joint Strike Fighter, which are designed to perform air-to-air combat operations, are the primary means by which armed forces gain air superiority over their opponents in battle.” 

“Fighter aircraft are fixed-wing military aircraft designed primarily for air-to-air combat. In military conflict, the role of fighter aircraft is to establish air superiority of the battlespace. Domination of the airspace above a battlefield permits bombers and attack aircraft to engage in tactical and strategic bombing of enemy targets.”

The second definition is the one that mostly guided my thinking as I wrote this paper. 

From a practical standpoint, difficult to imagine the disappearance of future air-to-air combat between human pilots flying advanced aircraft.  Might it begin at ranges even more distant than seen today using current weapons and technology? Probably. But what about enemy aircraft that are so stealthy they evade our sensors or ones that appear from unexpected directions? Maybe our adversaries will develop and employ multiple high-speed decoys that computer software will not be able to distinguish from real aircraft. Will fighter aircraft be needed to escort aircraft that do not have an offensive capability to defend themselves, e.g., AWACS, tankers, and gunships? Air Force One? And not to be left out of the discussion, the Navy and Marine Corps envision a continuing need for fighters. Both Services are currently designing futuristic fighters that will enhance the capabilities of their continuing and future missions. The U.S. Navy quietly has stood up a program office to begin figuring out what the sailing branch needs in a new manned fighter jet. The Navy wants the new Next-Generation Air-Dominance plane, or F/A-XX, to be ready in time to replenish the remaining Super Hornet squadrons once the newer F/A-18E/Fs start wearing out in the 2030s. 

The previous definitions of fighter properly omit ground attack aircraft such as the A-10, the AT-6E, and attack helicopters. Yet, these aircraft types are virtually certain to remain a vital segment of our fighting forces for years, if not decades hence.  As such, won’t they need protection from enemy aircraft and unmanned threats?  What better way to provide that protection than fighter aircraft with sophisticated equipment and flown by highly trained pilots able to respond quickly and effectively? 

If the US continues to have bases and other facilities worldwide, they will need protection from enemy attacks. As stated in a report by the Rand Corporation, “The growing cruise and ballistic missile threat to U.S. Air Force bases in Europe has led Headquarters U.S. Air Forces Europe to reassess defensive options, including active ground-based systems that are currently assigned to the Army. The gap between the cruise missile threat and the U.S. joint force’s capacity and capability to counter the threat is particularly worrisome.” The weapons noted in my first paragraph will likely be vital in protecting these sites from ground and missile attacks, but will they be enough?  Relying on computer and AI systems exclusively would seem lacking, perhaps even derelict. As “smart” as software has become, it’s yet to be superior to well-trained pilots who have the use of sophisticated equipment, who can make immediate decisions. While these decisions will be aided by ever-increasing technology, the pilot’s eyes and brain will remain one of the best ways to counter enemy airborne threats.  

Then there’s the matter of protecting our homeland. Other than foreign and domestic terrorists, our country’s greatest threat comes from technologically advanced countries employing ICBMs or other forms of unmanned airborne weapons. That, however, does not negate the possibility of advanced, ultra-stealth bombers attacking in multiples of aircraft, perhaps even after a first strike. At least in the foreseeable future, we will always need to identify, perhaps engage, unidentified aircraft approaching our borders. In the aftermath of the 9/11 catastrophe, fighter aircraft were essential. They flew CAP missions; they intercepted and followed a hijacked airliner; they were ready to engage additional aircraft that might have materialized, intent on further destruction and loss of life. 

So, are fighter aircraft necessary for the missions of the United States Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps? Or will our nation develop technologically advanced systems and weapons that will preclude their need? I am not privy to the ideas of those working on futuristic programs and equipment being developed. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that our best and brightest military and civilian experts do know, and they are ardently studying and weighing options. In the interim, advanced fighter aircraft armed with state-of-the-art weapons and flown by highly trained pilots are not only necessary, they are essential.