The View From Olympus: A Useful Airplane and a Useless Airplane

Guess which one the Air Force is buying.

A bitter joke going around the military says, “ISIS is doomed because it now has American equipment.” The Iraqi military, in contrast, in its moment of need has turned to Russia for aircraft. Why? Because Russia can provide a useful aircraft, and it can provide it quickly, pilots included.

The Airplane in question is the SU-25, the Russian equivalent of the American A-10. The American aircraft is a better design, but both aircraft are useful because their designs are focused on a task that can make a real difference in combat, namely supporting troops on the ground. Though often thought of as close air support (CAS), that mission is somewhat broader. I would argue that armed reconnaissance in support of the Schwerpunkt can contribute more to the ground war than CAS, which for the most part should be an emergency action.

But all air support of ground troops requires aircraft specifically designed for that mission. Such aircraft must fly low and slow, because that is the only way the pilot can find and identify targets (identification is the harder task). It must be built around a powerful cannon, because strafing is usually more desirable than bombing. It must be able to take lots of hits and survive, and it must have excellent maneuverability because jinking is also critical to survival. The airplane itself must be cheap, because numbers count and because if something is too expensive to lose it is also too expensive to use. While the plane is disposable, pilots are not, so it must be disigned to keep the pilot alive even at the expense of the aircraft. Both the A-10 and the SU-25 meet most of these criteria, although the A-10 meets them better. Hence, both are useful airplanes.


It has been many years since the U.S. Air Force bought the A-10, and now it is trying to junk the ones it has. The House has voted to block that move, and everyone who cares about the infantryman hopes the Senate will do the same. What the Air Force should be doing is designing a replacement for the A-10 that reflects the same design philosophy.

Instead, the Air Force is buying a useless airplane, the F-35. What is wrong with the F-35? For starters, any airplane that will cost the taxpayers one trillion dollars, the expected life-cycle cost of the F-35, is an absurdity. No aircraft is worth that much money. Then, the whole fleet was recently grounded because an F-35 caught fire, fortunately not in the air. Its design is so poor as a fighter that, with a wing loading higher than that of the infamous F-105 and a less than 1:1 thrust to weight ratio, it is a flying piano.

But most importantly, the F-35 has no mission. Even if it were the most brilliant fighter/bomber design of all time, it is a useless airplane. For Fourth Generation war, the F-35 is useless as a fighter because 4GW forces have no aircraft, and it is useless as a bomber because airstrikes, no matter how successful technically and tactically, defeat the power carrying them out at the moral level. Bombing homes at night from 20,000 feet recruits more enemies than it kills.

For wars between states, the F-35 is useless not only because it is a turkey but because we should not be planning to fight more wars with other states. The losing state will tend to disintegrate into another stateless region, which is a greater danger to us and to all other states than was the state we were fighting. In other words, the F-35 and every other aircraft like it is useless because war has changed in ways that make fighter/bombers irrelevant.

Ground support aircraft, in contrast, remain relevant, because highly accurate strafing by pilots who can see and identify what they are shooting at can be useful in 4GW. Strafing runs don’t blow up wedding parties and, because the aircraft is at risk, they to some degree even up the moral balance. Neither A-10s nor SU-25s try to strafe from 20,000 feet

So the Air Force (with the Navy and the Marines) wants to spend a trillion dollars for a useless airplane, while retiring our single most useful combat aircraft. Is anyone in OSD, the White House, or Congress awake? Hello? tr favicon