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The Myth of American Air Superiority

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In a new piece published on POGO’s Straus Military Reform Project site, Roger Thompson, a defense analyst, professor, and author of Lessons Not Learned: The U.S. Navy's Status Quo Culture, dispels in amazing detail the notion that the United States fields the best fighter pilots in the world.  

First, Thompson begins by analyzing America’s WWI ace pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker:

America entered the war at the last moment, and was in need of heroes. But not just any kind of hero. No, they wanted a superhero, and so they created one and his name was Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a fighter pilot. Rickenbacker was credited with 26 kills and became a national celebrity. Most Americans will recognize the name even now, and many of them consider him “the ace of aces”. Unfortunately, that is not true. Don't get me wrong, Rickenbacker was a very good pilot, but he was not especially great when you compare him to other allied aces. As historian Pierre Berton observed, an allied pilot named Donald Maclaren had his first dog fight on the very same day that Rickenbacker did, in February 1918, but Maclaren went on to get 48 kills, nearly twice as many as Rickenbacker.

Next, Thompson dispels the notion that America maintained air superiority during the Korean War:

Fast forward to the Korean War, in which American pilots claimed a kill ratio of between 10 and 12 to 1 against enemy fighters. American pilots in their F-86 Sabres fought well against Chinese and North Korean MiG-15 pilots, but that ratio, and the notion that the air war over Korea was a one-sided American victory has been called into question in recent years.  Indeed, as Dorr, Lake and Thompson said “An air-to-air kill:loss ratio which appeared to be in the order of 10:1 after the war now appears closer to 2:1.” In addition, they point out, “a 1:1 ratio [is] conceivable if F-80s and F-84s were brought into the equation.” The reason for the skepticism is that we now know that Soviet pilots, many of them experienced veterans of WWII air combat, flew covertly in the Korean War also, and they contest the American boasts as well.

Finally, Thompson highlights Air Force pilots’ inability to defeat Vietnamese aviators early in the Vietnam War:

The resulting deficient skills of American fighter pilots became painfully clear in early Vietnam combat. Air-to-air losses were excessive and victories all too rare. Both Navy and Air Force crews performed poorly in combat against antiquated North Vietnamese MiGs, because like the French, the top North Vietnamese pilots stayed in the cockpit without rotating to other jobs--and clearly knew how to dogfight. And just like the Fairwind IV exercise with the French, actual combat quickly forced the Americans to adopt visual identification as an ironclad rule of engagement, particularly after several early beyond visual range missile engagements resulted in friendly losses.

Ultimately, Thompson hones in on several reforms that, if implemented, could vault American fighter pilots to the top of their game.  The first and most serious impediment that Thompson identifies is the ‘Up-or-Out’ promotion system, in which fighter pilots must advance in rank or else risk being forced out of the service:

Up-or-Out was imposed by Gen. George C. Marshall at the end of WWII as an attempt to produce younger senior commanders and to have in place a large cadre of multi-skilled officers ready to lead a rapid draft mobilization for the next world war. That Up-or-Out promotion system may have seemed promising at its inception, but has now produced an officer corps lacking in deep combat skills, top-heavy with at least 50 percent more generals than necessary, and obsessed with promotions. 

Other reforms identified by Thompson include drawing a lesson from a Chuck Spinney recommendation to alter the active/reserve ratio and learning from other nations how to better train American fighter pilots.  Click here for the full text of Thompson’s piece. 

Thompson’s analysis raises important questions for today’s Air Force.  The service’s most expensive fighter aircraft, the F-22 Raptor, has never flown a single combat mission.  According to the Government Accountability Office, the total price tag for the Raptor comes in at more than $80 billion (a lot of money until you consider that the Pentagon’s more recent aircraft procurement program, the F-35 Lightning II, is expected to cost $392 billion to acquire, according to current estimates). 

At almost $420 million a plane, American taxpayers might expect that F-22 pilots have a tremendous advantage over our allies or potential adversaries whose fighter jets cost a fraction of the F-22’s price tag.   But as history shows, it is pilot quality, not aircraft cost, that drives success in air combat.

While Air Force officials maintain that the F-22 fights well in training exercises, a report published last year in Combat Aircraft Monthly showed that the Raptor did not out-perform cheaper, non-stealthy European fighter aircraft during combat training exercises.  This and other anecdotes about Raptor losses in other exercise engagements lends support to Thompson’s assertion that too many American pilots have been forced to lower their standards of excellence in the art of air-to-air combat. 

Of course, even the best-trained pilots cannot overcome technological deficiencies built into an aircraft’s design.  POGO has long highlighted safety issues with the F-22 that have resulted in pilot deaths, and which the Air Force has shamefully blamed on the aviators themselves

What is paramount is that we must do all we can to protect those who serve our country, and that includes ensuring they have excellent training.

Photo credit to Flickr user MATEUS_27:24&25 for original photo used.

By: Ethan Rosenkranz
National Security Policy Analyst, POGO

Ethan Rosenkranz At the time of publication Mr. Rosenkranz was the National Security Policy Analyst for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: F/A-22 Fighter Aircraft, Aegis Destroyers and Crusiers, Department of Defense (DOD)

Authors: Ethan Rosenkranz

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