Those dashing US fighters -- can they really hack it?
Washington — US military fighter planes may look devastating in television commercials, but their dash belies their effectiveness, according to a leading authority on tactical air power.
"Our first line land-based fighters, the Air Force's F-15, is currently ready [fully mission capable] about 35 percent of the time," alleges Pierre M. Sprey in the draft of an article, obtained by the Monitor, on land-based tactical aviation. The Air Force maintains the figure is too low.
Mr. Sprey, who was a special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) from 1966 to 1970, claims that to deploy an F-15 squadron, two or three other squadrons have to be stripped of their spare parts and test equipment.
An edited version of Sprey's article is about to be published by The Heritage Foundation as part of a book entitled "Reforming the Military." In it he maintains that the USAF's prestigious 1st Fighter Wing was found incapable of deploying its F-15s in a recent inspection, even though it had received three weeks' prior notice.
The Air Force concedes that F-15s may only be fully mission capable about 35 percent of the time at certain bases and in certain units, but insists the aircraft are essentially fully mission capable 53.3 percent of the time.
That this figure is not higher, a spokesman explains, is due to the fact that since the late 1970s F-15s have been bought in greater proportion than spare parts, the blame for which, he says, is equally shared by the Air Force, Congress, and the Defense Department.
Admitting that the 1st Fighter Wing turned in "a very poor showing of deployable aircraft" last year and that F-15s are "not now adequately supported by spare parts," the spokesman points out that the administration is proposing to spend $3.4 billion in fiscal year 1982 on what is known as "operations and maintenance," something that will improve the spare parts situation for the F-15 , he says.
Sprey, who studied fighter effectiveness at OSD, also asserts that the E-3 AWACS early warning aircraft that control the F-15s "shows only about 15 percent readiness" and that the F-111 is "only slightly more ready." The only tactical aircraft that approach 70 percent readiness, he says, is the A-10, "our least-complex attack jet."
He claims that both pilots and maintenance crews in the air reserves are superior to those in the regular forces -- a contention the Air Force spokesman does not deny.
Claiming that US fighters performed far more impressively in Korea than they did in Vietnam, Sprey says that pilots in the Indochina conflict were inadequately trained and their "large, highly visible" F-4 Phantoms were easily found and surprised by North Vietnamese MIG-21s. He adds that the F-4's Sparrow radar missile, around which the F-4 had been designed, achieved a less than 10 percent kill rate.
"Have these deficiencies been cured?" he asks. "Today our pilots receive almost half the flight training time they had before and during Vietnam. The F- 15 is even larger and more visible than the F-4. It is so large because it was designed to be dependent on radar missiles which are not likely to be more effective than those used in Vietnam."
Sprey contends that five factors "have played a crucial role in the last 20 years of deterioration in tactical air effectiveness." Among them: the absence of new concepts of air power to replace the attrition warfare-interdiction bombing that failed in Korea and Vietnam; 20 years of overemphasis on research and development and procurement at the expense of training, readiness, and combat-oriented leadership; and, since 1960, diversion of a large fraction of the tactical aircraft budget to complex night/all-weather electronic systems "of highly questionable capability."
Sprey believes that "concrete steps" must be taken to improve US tactical air capabilities, and he recommends that procurement of the F-16 be "emphasized" over the F-15. "In visual combat, the F-16 has been demonstrated to be the superior aircraft," he says.
He maintains that a number of research and development programs should be initiated to make the "more fundamental changes" needed in tactical air power. In terms of aircraft he would like to see what he calls a "combined arms fighter" -- a "highly lethal, aerial antitank cannon" with double the acceleration of the A-10 which would "operate as a major combat arm combined integrally with blitzkrieg ground tactics."
Sprey also proposes construction of a "supercruise fighter," smaller than the F-5, with a cruising speed of Mach 1.3 to 1.6 instead of the Mach 0.8 to 0.9 of current tactical fighters. It would be designed to maximize surprise, he says, "the decisive factor in 80 percent of air kills."
Among weapons developments he would like initiated are a new air-to-air gun (the one currently used on the F-14, F-15 and F-16 "is the least effective 20mm round in the world," he says) and an improved air-to-ground cannon in case the side and rear armor of Soviet tanks is thickened.
Sprey also suggests that the Department of Defense could usefully produce an aircraft made of "composite" materials such as fiberglass-over-foam machines which would provide "Stealth" features without the weight and heavy aerodynamic penalties of the "recently advertised" high technology approach to the problem of rendering aircraft "invisible" to radar.
The US currently spends more for fighter aircraft (both land- and sea-based) than in any previous peacetime period, according to Sprey -- "about $12 billion per year as compared to $6 billion in the mid-50s in constant fiscal 1980 dollars." Despite this, he claims the US is only buying one-seventh as many fighters as it did in the mid-50s -- 400 as against 3,000. "US fighter forces have shrunk from 18,000 to 7,000 in the same period," Sprey asserts.