The Future of Aerial Warfare
Are Hyper-Sophisticated Fighters Actually Needed? by Barrett tillman
The world’s air forces continue developing and buying extremely expensive fighter aircraft amid a continuing conundrum: Significant air combat has been nearly extinct for decades. Since the last air combats over Vietnam in 1973, American fighter pilots have shot down
merely 54 hostile aircraft. (Of those, six were helicopters and
four were trainers.) That’s barely one a year.
The last time U.S. aircrews claimed 10 hostiles in a day was
1972. The last time anybody downed 20 in a day was the Israelis
in 1982. And the last time anybody downed 30 was the last
day of World War II.
Since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the greatest area of
air-to-air action, by far, has been South America where Honduran, Columbian, and Peruvian pilots interdict drug smugglers.
The total numbers are unknown, but in one 11-year period, at
least 24 drug aircraft were shot down by armed Tucanos and
The situation is not limited to aviation. The U.S. Navy retains
a large fleet structure despite the fact that no sea battle worthy
of the name has been fought since 1944. With the collapse of
the Soviet Union in 1990, the world entered the post-naval era
with no serious threats to maintaining the sea lanes.
None of the foregoing means that we should stop buying
fighters or aircraft carriers. But it does mean that decades of
evidence call into question our military acquisition policy in a
Let’s face it—the military is a huge market. Recent budgets
of the Department of Defense have run about $500 billion
with no end in sight, despite the United States being $20 trillion in debt.
When you talk fighters, you have to talk stealth. The first
stealth “fighter” was Lockheed’s egregiously designated F-117
Nighthawk, a subsonic attack aircraft with no means of defending itself. Next up was Lockheed Martin’s F- 22 Raptor, the first
“fifth-generation” fighter. Originally intended for more than
700 aircraft, the program ended in 2011 with only 195 due to
rising costs, operational problems, and reduced need.
leading the fifth generation
of jet fighters is lockheed
martin’s F- 22 raptor, initiated
in 1986 and operational since
2005. (Photo by John Dibbs/