Airpower really is useful. We should get some.

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


  1. Murdoc – While we know in our heads that an aircraft carrier can deliver more firepower farther than a battleship – seeing a real battleship at sea evokes a more basic response. It’s like seeing a full-grown male tiger or lion up close – there’s a presence and power that awes. A Marine friend of mine likes to tell the story of how he rode to the Gulf in 1990 on an amphibious assault carrier – at one point, the USS Missouri blasted past them at over 30 knots. The Marines stood on deck and just stared at ‘50,000 tons of whup-ass,’ as he puts it. Whenever Reagan wanted to make a statement, he had an Iowa-class battleship sail into an foreign port to show the flag.

  2. As for good, low-cost bombers – The A-6 and A-7 were great bombers / strike planes. They could both deliver a huge amount of ordnance, and absorb ground-fire if necessary. Advanced, relatively cheap upgraded versions of both were canceled by the various services in favor of smaller, more expensive new planes.

  3. Air power is useful, cool, and lethal. You forgot ‘fragile’. The key is balance. Don’t over rely on any given technology or it becomes your weak spot.

  4. The advantage of the A-10 was that it was at least less fragile than most other combat aircraft. Notice that I’m not saying get rid of artillery and guns on boats – just that the flexibility of air power makes it so useful that we can take the fragility of individual planes in stride to accomplish more. What I didn’t talk about was UAVs and rockets/missiles. The MRLS and similar systems are perfect for medium range – beyond the range of conventional guns. And with the new gizmos we’re inventing for guidance, more flexible and accurate. These systems, I think, are a solid basis for more experimentation and should be pursued vigorously. Missiles have many of the advantages of planes, without the risk of losing a pilot. However, they aren’t as flexible, and they are single use. UAVs are in a happy middle ground between missiles and manned aircraft, and I think there is little doubt that we will be seeing many, many more of them in a myriad different roles. An advantage, too, is the fact that since the pilots aren’t actually flying them, they seem to have less insistence on making them into F-22s in cost and complexity. Single role UAVs are the rule so far, and that’s largely a good thing, I think. Eventually, we might need missile barges, or jeep carriers designed to operate swarms of UCAVs. Who knows? We need to start early, and make sure to keep the robots as our friends.

  5. B, Why not re-visit, resurrect the idea of the floating missile dirigible? The heavy lift capabilities of such vehicles are well documented, so quantity of munitions isn’t the problem. We have all sorts of top-shelf fighters to achieve air dominance, so the enemy air force is not a danger. We can even have them pilotless- we’ll them networked and operated by a single rat brain floating in a nutrient-rich juice back at Langley. There you go. Floating fire barge. Problem solved. Next?

  6. Being me I should point out a weapon system that has the flexibility of air power with the destructive force of 16 inch rifles. Thor. Rods from God. Bundles of tungsten telephone poles with steering vanes. Park them in orbit, call them down when needed. And boy oh boy wouldn’t it be cool to be the FO on that fire mission. Kill tanks, blow up bunkers. Nail specific city blocks anywhere in the world. We can make bigger kinetic weapons with the impact of nukes but none of that nasty fallout. There is a drawback – to ensure adequate coverage we’ll need a lot of them. However if you want a thriving launch industry (ahem) this is not so much of a drawback.

  7. Everyone is always looking for ‘the thing we need’. The thing is, Brian is right, ‘the key is balance.’ We need battleships and slow rumbling bombers because there is a time and a place for them. The same is true of artillery both powered and dragged. How many times have people predicted that we no longer need infantry, and every single time they’ve been wrong. Even swords, what is a bayonet if not a sword mounted on a gun? That piece of crap M-16 doesn’t hold one worth a damn. Why is that? It was never designed to be a weapon because it was designed for a soldier who was considered obsolete. It is just as wrong to deduce that if we need low tech weapons then that means we don’t need high tech weapons. Our enemies aren’t sitting on their laurals, and neither should we. What we need are weapons that are more high tech than what we’ve got now, not less. Cost should not be a factor in deciding what we need. Cost should be a factor in deciding how and how many of what we need. Finally, I think Bram makes an excellent point in bringing up the ‘putting the fear of God in your enemy’ aspect of not only the battleship, but in all of our weapons. We buy too much hardware today that are pussy weapons. That damn popgun we arm our soldiers with is a prime example. If you’re going to spend a bunch of money on a weapon it should look bad ass and have some numbers to back up the looks. We buy pussy bombers, pussy fighters, pussy ships, pussy guns, then wonder why terrorists come to our shores. I’ll tell you what, no one wants to take a hit from a .50 cal anywhere. Not even in the damn pinky ’cause it might just tear their whole hand off. No one gives a damn about being shot with a .22. The same logic applies to why our airplanes should be fast and hit hard with many huge ass bombs. That’s why we need big ships with big ass rail guns or whatever the hell else we can put on them that’s big and causes huge pieces of the earth’s surface to become vaporized. We should stop fighting like pussies too. Go in with the high tech stuff first and knock down the defenses, then go in with the heavy stuff and level some cities and kill some people, and I don’t give a damn if they are women and children. War is hell. If you don’t have the guts for it, then stand aside and let someone who does do what has to be done. When did we become a nation of pussies?

  8. Hallelujah brother ! You’re preaching to the choir. This is what I’ve been sayng for years, and the subject of my new book. Marry the high-tech bombs to the low-tech platform. They thought the carrier would be a sitting duck in the 1930’s to the battleships guns. They werw wrong! Now its time for the carrier and her kin to step aside for the new weaponry: the smart bombs, uavs and, cruise missiles. Let the weaponry drive the strategy, not our obsolete view of warfare.

  9. While we know in our heads that an aircraft carrier can deliver more firepower farther than a battleship’ Yes at range a carrier can deliver more firepower then a battleship, but a battleship can deliver more firepower (non-nuclear of course)on an immediate basis, on a continuous basis, without respect to weather at far less risk and with a smaller logistics train, then a carrier within the battleships range. And that is comparing current tech carriers vs 50’s battleships. A modern battleship, would have a far greater range – 200 miles without major effort.

  10. Quantity has a quality of its own.’ I have always liked this quote and think it appropriate when considering our airpower assets. In WW2 the US won because of superior numbers and not necessarily better aircraft. The same is true for the Soviets on the eastern front. The Germans had the best planes, guns and equipment, but were unable to produce the necessary quantity and were overrun. I am not advocating mass producing Cessna 172s. But quantity should defintely be considered in the design and acquistion of an aircraft. What good is placing all the money in the F-22 when you can only buy 200 aircraft? With that small a number, it will be hard to keep birds in the air continuously due to accidents, attrition and other maintenance concerns. Our military rarely gets the chance to fly a one-off mission like the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility. Instead, our naval air and air force usually have to fly round the clock patrols over no fly zones during peace time, or round the clock air cover during wars like Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, you need to have an adequate supply of planes to keep up the tempo.

  11. Yes, in WW2 the British had limited quantities of the top of the line Spitfire that took a long time to build, and many Hurricanes that were more easily built. They used both to their advantage in the Battle for Britian. Similarly we need the high tech, cutting edge stuff, but should not neglect the low end, get ‘er done weapons too. Unfortunately we seem to be all about the high tech weapons, and don’t even really do those as well as we should. If we made defense companies have to really compete to win contracts you’d see quality go up and price go down. You know, just like our capitalist fore fathers used to do.

  12. Yes I advocated bringing back the BB, but NOT in its current form. You’ll notice my suggestion was to keep at least one 16 inch turret (three guns) as a low tech backup to the replacement hightech (and just as well armored) rail gun technology. Don’t forget, every gun system has teething problems, and the ‘more complicated you make the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain’. Use the BB HULL as a test bed for all those wonderful, high tech, EXPERIMENTAL, DDX toys. Hell, we have all those hulls sitting there waiting to get scrapped and recycled, why not use the ‘scrap fleet’ hollow out the usable hulls and build your DDX tech demonstrator on those? And again, the F22 is nice, but an updated, vectored thrust F-15 would be more cost effective.

  13. I think you’re right on with that, Coolhand77. I think Brian hit the nail on the head. We need a broad specturm of weapons. Let’s face it, we still teach our special forces guys to kill with their bare hands. Is there anything any lower tech than that? We need to give up this notion that our high tech weaponry makes the low tech stuff obsolete. We also cannot give up on our weapons research and development because history has shown that to be a sure path to destruction too. We have this huge push for these one size fits all solutions – because it is going to save us money (what a laugh) – when in fact we’ve seen the value of diversity, quantity, and technology demonstrated in every war thoughout history. 2 A-bombs might have finished off WW2, but without hundreds of thousands of airplanes and millions of troops, bombs, and bullets those 2 A-bombs wouldn’t have won anything.

  14. Shipmates, I fully support scrapping the prohibition of the Army having fixed wing attack aircraft. That’s a pussy political law that’s only seen guys get killed. The Army needs it’s own fixed-wing assets, especially an up-dated variant of the A-10, or something similar. It’s crazy to me that the Army not only has to depend upon the AF for CAS, but has to have AF Combat Controlers along with them to call in support and coordinate it. If the Marines can have their own dedicated CAS, the Army ought to have it as well. I also think that a Navalized variant of the A-10 would be hot spit. That bad boy can take a lot of damage, sling a lot of ordnance, and can tank up in flight. plus, that can opener of a gun would be very handy against aluminum-hulled vessels. The problem with expensive haircraft is their limited numbers. Not only mechanical problems, but in combat especially they will take hits, and then it becomes a war of attrition, and the side with the larger force nearly always wins that game. We need a modern Sturmovik for the military. An armored, maneuverable, dlying tank that will kick ass and take names. We need them in quantity, and we need them now. Respects,

  15. Thats why I recommended upgrading the F15. Its been proven to take unbeleivable levels of damage (IDF ripped the wing off one during training manuvers …and landed it. The A4 that ripped the wing off wasn’t so lucky), and still be somewhat flyable. Had an additional thought on the BB refit. Replace the back deck with a VSTOL pad…the whole thing, including the gun turret. Maybe put your VLS in the old turret housing. Then arm the sucker with transport, ASW and attack versions of the osprey or something similar. Turns the BB into your ‘littoral’ combat ship and arty platform. Pair it up with an off shore carrier and a replacement for the F-14 and A-6 and you have it made.

  16. I’d like to see the F-18 replaced with an F/A-23. In the past I worked on a concept airplane call CSA or Common Support Aircraft. It was to be a subsonic cargo airplane that could be morphed into other rolls, such as ASW and AEW. I thought at the time, and still believe that such an airplane would make a great ground pounder kind of bomber. You’d replace the S-3, C-2, E-2, E/A-6, and A-6 with a single airplane. Granted I’m not in favor of a one size fits all solution most of the time, but there’s a lot to recommend commonality on board an aircraft carrier. Also when you look at the many roles the C-130 Hercules has performed over the years, it really argues in favor of an aircraft that starts out in the COD role, then grows into these other areas. It is conceivable that such an airplane could support roll-on, roll-off modules so it could adopt a new role from mission to mission. Hmm, how about an AC version of this COD airplane I’m proposing? You could mount a 30mm gatling gun in the cargo bay. Might be just the thing if you were off the coast of Somalia being swarmed by little boats full of HMX.

  17. Heh… you must have seen this. Coolhand, What you are talking about was proposed back in the early 80s… If you want to see a model of what it would have looked like look Here.

  18. Never saw that model…though I did watch starblasers too much as a kid. Only think I would change is change out turret one for a rapidfire rail gun and stick a VLS in the forecastle. Hell, thats exactly what I was talking about, especially the carrier flight deck on the back end. Stick a nuke carrier powerplant and screws on her and she would go like a bat out of hell.

  19. Hey, Dfens, how reasonable would it really be for the F-23 to come back? Assuming the Navy was able to get approval for a stealthy air-superiority fighter, and funds were made available, what would keep the F-23 from turning into another F-22? Sure – I thought at the time that it would have been a better choice than the ’22, but we’re still talking defense contractors, low rate production and a redesign for a navalized version, and someone would likely insist that it be a two-seater into the bargain. Wouldn’t it end up costing 200 mil a pop, too? Mind you, an F-23 taking off a cat would look really damn cool – that was one awesome looking plane. I think your CSA concept is right in line with what I was thinking. We need a bit of the high tech, like the edge on a knife. But we need the rest of the knife, too, and that’s the lower tech quantity stuff like A-10s, CSA, B-767, etc.

  20. The YF-23 had far superior aerodynamics to those of the F-22, but you’re right, that doesn’t make it cost less. The fact of the matter is, until we start providing economic incentives for defense contractors to hold the line on cost and schedule, we are going to continue to pay through the nose. Even if we were to change the system today, we still have the consequences of 30 years of paying more for failure to overcome. That means many of the company executives and leaders need to be either retrained or fired. Systems for building things need to be redirected. Even so, I look at the Lockheed funded C-130J program, which put new avionics and engines on that airplane for half of what the US taxpayer funded C-5 AMP & RERP programs are costing on the development side. It gives me hope that if we changed the way we provide incentives we could expect things to get cheaper by half immediately. The same company is doing both jobs in the same plant using many of the same people and doing the job with public funding costs twice as much. I think CSA could work, but I think the Navy would have to go into it with the idea that they are looking for a new COD airplane first, then if and only if it were good enough to take on the other jobs would they fund the follow on programs. The problem is funding bureaucracies today take on a life of their own. Once you got a program like that started it would be hard to kill even if the airplane they produced was crap, just like the F-18. It really sucks to work in an environment where technical quality counts for nothing and politics is everything.

  21. Cheap solution for the Navy…they already did the design studies. Its called the F-21 Supercat or Super Tomcat, IIRC. Basically its an updated 14, with thrust vectoring, improved avionics, etc. Basically it was almost like the Hornet to Super Hornet thing except without the increase in size.

  22. One of these days, the world is going to see a speed-of-light directed energy weapon. Hell, we are probably going to develop it and have it stolen by everyone and his brother. At that point, anything that pokes its head above the horizon with less than several inches of armor plating is going to be scrap. When that happens, we are going to wish we had a battleship or two around. We should be planning for the next war, not the last one.