A Dying Breed: Part 1

“Dear Mom, your son is dead.  He bought the farm today; he crashed his OV-10 on Ho Chi Min’s highway.  It was a rocket pass, and then he busted his ass.  Mmmm Mmm Mmm…”

These words are from a fighter pilot hymn sung in squadron bars across the Air Force every Friday night.  The song, presumably written by FACs (Forward Air Controllers) during the Vietnam War, is an anthem to the very spirit of the combat aviator.

“The fighters checked right in, Gunfighters two-by-two, low on gas and tanker overdue…”

The spirit of the fighter pilot has played a large role in bolstering national pride, enhancing morale in the Air Force, and literally changing the way we do business in both the military and civilian worlds!  When you think of American air power, you picture a fighter jet armed to the teeth with a full complement of air-to-air and/or air-to-ground weaponry.  The image of a capable, armed fighter jet piloted by a strong, confident fighter pilot is good for – dare I say needed by – the Air Force and our country at this critical point in history.  In this series of articles we will discuss why the fighter pilot is seemingly being kicked to the curb, and why we believe the United States needs the fighter pilot now more than ever.

A Hostile Work Environment for the Fighter Pilot

Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a time of tightening fiscal constraints, political power plays, and shifting paradigms that may result in the eventual extinction of the American Fighter Pilot.  This shouldn’t be news to anyone.  Naysayers have been attacking fighter pilots since the first fighter pilot rolled into town, drank all the booze, and took off with all the women.

The fighter pilot community is a tight-knit fraternity – it has to be if you want to know your wingman has your back in combat.  Because this fraternity is made up of like-minded individuals, all of whom exhibit Type-A personality characteristics, it goes without saying that we may have upset some people outside of the fraternity.  The hard-charging, can-do attitude of a fighter pilot is diametrically opposed to socialistic constructs and bureaucracy.  If someone has a confrontation with a fighter pilot, many times they extrapolate that negative experience to encompass the whole fighter pilot community.

Just a few years ago, an offensive was mounted against fighter pilots in leadership positions.  The argument correctly asserted the focus of the Air Force at the time was on the air-to-ground missions in Iraq and Afghanistan; both areas of non-contested air space.  Where the line of reasoning went astray was in blaming the fighter pilot “fraternity” for being resistant to change just so they could preserve the brotherhood.  Many high-ranking officers with fighter backgrounds were blamed for myriad sins they never committed.

The Secretary of Defense at the time, Robert Gates, called for wide-reaching fiscal cuts to manned fighter programs and a shift towards unmanned combat aircraft such as the MQ-1 and MQ-9, and fired several commanding officers.  The American media and blogosphere embraced this crusade wholeheartedly.  In the uncontested air space, UAVs were the cost-effective answer to the problem of close air support and flushing out the Al Qaida fighters.  If anyone said otherwise (you can bet fighter pilots had a thing or two to say), they were scrutinized and dealt with.

(**Editor’s Note: Just yesterday, 23 Oct 2013, former Defense Secretary Gates addressed the Association of the U.S. Army and “suggested that the infatuation with technology had led some politicians and defense experts to believe that the military’s budget can be cut deeply with little harm.”  He seems to have changed his thinking about the fiscal push toward UAVs!)

Cost vs Need

Cost was on everyone’s minds years ago when UAVs entered the scene, and it will continue to be a driving force for the foreseeable future.  The argument against manned fighters says they are too expensive and cost prohibitive when compared to UAVs.  This is the proverbial apples-to-oranges comparison.  Yes, the life support equipment on the manned fighter costs money.  The real cost in a fighter, however, is not the oxygen system and the ejection seat.  Fighter budgets are huge because of the ever-advancing technologies associated with building a weapon system capable of providing air dominance.

On the front end, you need to have high-tech radar capable of seeing and targeting contacts at long ranges despite advanced radar jamming.  There are other sensors associated with emerging technologies that are required to establish and maintain battlespace situational awareness not required by a UAV operator whose job is to find a fix and throw a hell-fire missile at it (which job can be important, don’t get me wrong).  The life support costs of putting a man in a jet are minimal compared to the sensor and weapon requirements of a fighter – requirements that remain regardless of whether you have a pilot in the cockpit or not.  And I guarantee if you literally have skin in the game, the pilot will work a lot harder to bring him and the aircraft (not to mention all the money invested in it) back home!

So what about the need for fighters?  It would seem the media have bought the idea wholesale that unmanned drones are the answer to the question of air dominance.  I don’t think the media understands that if we were not operating in a permissive, non-contested environment (one devoid of an air defense system and manned fighter aircraft) the drones wouldn’t have had the combat success they’ve had.  Lt Gen David Deptula, a fighter pilot and an advocate for technological advancements such as UAVs, once said that if unmanned combat aircraft were to fly in contested airspace they would “start falling like rain.”

If we ever find ourselves again in contested air space, we will want to have a manned fighter present.  The technology does not yet exist (nor may ever exist) that would allow pilots to fight BFM (dogfight) from anything other than the cockpit.  Ask any pilot who has flown BFM in the simulator and they will tell you the lack of somatosensory inputs (the “seat of the pants” feeling associated with turning and pulling Gs) makes the pilot rely more on looking at displays for dogfight cues which means less focus on maneuvering in relation to the bandit (one of the tenants of BFM!).

So, my friends, the outlook is dismal for the future of U.S. fighter aviation. Our next article in the series will go beyond the fiscal and tactical consequences of taking the fighter pilot out of the fighter jet, and will move into the realm of leadership and force sustainability.  We’ll talk to David Radcliffe, an advocate for the fighter pilot and member of the Nellis Support Team, and get his take on why a civilian wants to keep fighter pilots around.  We hope you’ll join us on our crusade to preserve the fighter pilot and the tradition of excellence associated with this “dying breed”.