As I expected, in the comments for my last post someone recommended that the battleships be brought back from retirement. We all love the battleships. Armored to the point of (near) invulnerability, graceful, powerful, and loaded with 16″ guns. A battleship broadside delivers a mind numbing amount of shells on target. We dig that. It’s a spectacle. And of course, naval support of Marine landings is an important role. But how useful is it?
Step back a bit. There is a reason that battleships were relegated to a subsidiary role. And that reason is air power. The primary consideration is not that the airplane can deliver more firepower more accurately, because until very recently the accuracy bit was sorely lacking, and there is no way that a teeny, tiny airplane — or even many teeny, tiny airplanes — can deliver the weight of fire that a battleship can. I imagine that a single gun from a battleship weighs as much as a plane.
The reason that the carriers and their air wings achieved primacy in battle is the range and speed of the aircraft. Airplanes are faster than boats. Now, much faster. That is what allows a carrier to control a bubble hundreds of miles in diameter, while a battleship is limited to, essentially, line of sight.
Here at MO, the commenting-American community is often attacking the esteemed air arms of our military for their addiction to air power as a means of conducting warfare. I have seen many complaints that the battleship — and artillery for the Army — are slighted in favor of highly expensive fragile airplanes that deliver itsy little bombs. And it is true that the more, uh, –focused” among air power advocates seem to believe that air power is the cure for all ills.
Yet, while we (and especially Dfens and James) might legitimately and with the certain conviction that we are in the right argue that the way that the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and even the Post Office procure, design, screw up and eventually buy combat aircraft that are tragically expensive and often not really suited to the roles that they need to fill; the fact remains that an aircraft will always be more flexible, faster, and cover a greater range than any battleship or Crusader self-propelled gun.
The flexibility of air power is a gift from the almighty — load the bombs or missiles you need, and any target within a thousand miles is doomed in a space of hours, or less. Doesn’t matter if it’s a building, a bunker, a bridge, a boat or a tank column. Artillery, no matter how puissant (talking guns here, not rockets) is not hitting beyond a couple dozen miles, and neither is a battleship. And both move at 40 mph or less.
With the coming of precision guided bombs, the effectiveness of our planes has drastically increased. Once it took a thousand bomber raid using tactics of questionable morality to get an even chance at taking out military targets. (Combat air support was usually a bit more effective than strategic bombing, but still had limitations.) Now, with the wonders of modern technology at our service, we can actually take out that bridge. Or that building. To the point that the primary limiting factor on the employment of air power is not the accuracy of our weapons, but of our intelligence. (In more ways than one.)
A plane can move at speeds of hundreds of miles an hour over a range in the thousands of miles and destroy anything we can detect, with near perfect reliability. The constraints are the ability to detect targets, and the bomb loads of the planes in question.
The fault, then, is not that we have foolishly mothballed battleships or canceled artillery programs. It’s that we are buying airplanes foolishly. It is natural for the Air Force and Naval, Marine and Army Aviation to go for the biggest, most expensive and technologically sophisticated aircraft they can build. We can sort of forgive them for that. We want the coolest toys, and our contractors love the money they get for designing and mismanaging high technology weapons programs. It’s also completely wrong.
Where we’ve screwed up is in buying two dozen billion dollar stealth bombers instead of a hundred less capable, higher capacity bombers. Look at the service we’re getting out of the B-52, still. The F-22 is ridiculously expensive, and seriously flawed as many have pointed out in the comments here. It’s invisible to radar. It can kill any other plane that dares to leave the ground. Bats can’t detect it. Yet, it can only carry one medium sized bomb and it’s gun has less rounds than a police revolver. It’s utility is therefore limited by the small number of credible enemy fighters for it to destroy.
The fact that the air heads are always pushing for multi-role aircraft as a –savings measure” is frankly retarded. The planes end up costing more than twice as much and aren’t as effective in either role. What we need is ground support, in quantity, to make up for two things: the fact that artillery delivers a heavy weight of fire, and the fact that my kid’s scooter is faster than most artillery.
Let’s buy a couple squadrons of F-22s, we can use them for the really tricky stuff when we go to war with China. Same with the B-2. Fine, the Air Force can be happy with that. I’m sure the naval version of the F-35 will be an adequate interceptor. Stealthy-ish and fast, it is probably more than a match for any potential air threat. Let us buy a few. Keep the research fires burning so that we can take advantage of any new tech that comes down the pike. But let’s not buy a thousand planes at a hundred mil a pop for no damn reason.
As much as I love and covet advanced technology, we need to back off just a bit. The capabilities of our potential enemies just don’t require it, and in pursuing it, we deny ourselves capabilities that we know we need, and that can be used against any enemy, large or small. A relatively small force of very high technology planes will serve to assert and maintain air superiority. Likewise, stealth bombers of various types are the kind of doorknockers we need to take out air defenses and hit high-value targets deep inside enemy territory. But using an F-22 for CAS, or relying on a billion dollar stealth bomber to loiter over an insurgency is not an optimal solution. Instead, let’s build airplanes that suit our needs.
Like that new version of the A-10 that coolhand77 suggested in the comments. Something tough, simple, and capable of carrying a double buttload of very, very smart bombs. And, of course, the modern avionics to make best use of those bombs. And why don’t we give it to the Army while we’re at it. Forcing the Army to use helicopters regardless of whether they are fit for the task is slightly daft. Modern bombs are very effective indeed — clustered munitions, smart bombs, precision guided munitions of all kinds — delivered in quantity by cheap, high-payload attack bombers will be what we need to provide support for infantry on the ground.
And let’s build a naval version. What we need — to make restoring and then crewing vastly expensive battleships unnecessary — is a replacement for the A-6. A carrier air wing that has, say, a navalized, new model A-10 capable of carrying a substantial amount of ordinance could perform the role of naval support for amphibious landings that an Superbugs and F-35’s simply cannot thanks to their limited payload capacity.
For the Air Force, a B-52 replacement based on a commercial or military cargo plane would be a cost effective way to deliver, when needed, large amounts of ordinance in a environment where control of airspace is more or less a given. The advent of stand-off weapons like the J-SOW even means that targets can be serviced from a distance even when control of the air is not complete.
For the price of one $200mil F-22, we could have twenty or so A-10s, each capable of delivering many times the weight of bombs. The A-10s we have in service have been or are being modified to better use smart weapons, but we need more, not less of this type of plane. The naval need for this sort of aircraft is even greater. Likewise, the $2bil cost of a B-2 bomber would likely give us eight B-767 bombers, each with about three times the bomb capacity of the stealth bomber.
Air power is useful, cool, and lethal. Our addiction to buying the state of the art prevents us from actually employing air power to maximum advantage.
crossposted at the Ministry of Minor Perfidy