War With Iran Could Be Sharp & Short With Fifth Gen Aircraft

By   DAVID DEPTULAon January 23, 2020 at 12:40 PM

F-16A, F-15C and F-15E fighters fly over burning oil field sites in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm

PRELUDE: Early morning, 0240 Baghdad time on January 17, 2020 (1840 EST 16 Jan 2020), marked the 29th anniversary of the start of Operation Desert Storm. It was a turning point in the conduct of warfare and set the conditions for modern warfare.

The recent hostilities between Iran and the United States reinforce the importance of investing in military capabilities to safeguard U.S. interests in an increasingly dangerous, uncertain world. Chief among these capabilities are fifth generation aircraft like the F-22F-35, and, eventually, the B-21 bomber. These aircraft will provide the foundation of America’s military asymmetric advantage due to their ability to rapidly project power without projecting the vulnerability of any other military means. 

Iranian military capabilities present a complex set of operational circumstances. While Iran could never win a direct military confrontation with a major power, they have invested in a broad range of capabilities to increase casualties against potential opponents. This includes a large inventory of intermediate range ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets throughout the region, cruise missiles, remotely piloted aircraft, an array of traditional combat aircraft, as well as offensive cyber operations. Iran has also invested in significant defenses such as advanced surface-to-air-missiles, and it has tried to diversify its key military centers of gravity—things like command and control centers, nuclear research facilities and missile launch centers. 

Iraqi vehicles on the “Highway of Death” in 1991

There must be clarity about the character of possible conflict with Iran. The flawed strategies applied over the last 19 years in Afghanistan and Iraq are not the answer to waging war with Iran. Those strategies involved deploying hundreds of thousands of ground forces in the region to conduct prolonged occupation, nation building, and counterinsurgency operations—none of which would be applicable to Iran. Rather, any action against Iran should be modeled after the decisive take-down of Iraq applied in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when aerospace power was used for 43 days. Only four days of that operation used ground forces to reoccupy Kuwait, and that will not be required in an Iranian effort. We have to stop equating strategy with the number of U.S. boots on the ground. Large numbers of U.S. ground forces in the Mideast plays into Iran’s hands and could lead to unnecessary and unwanted “endless wars.” Rapid accomplishment of desired effects should be the goal. 

America’s security leadership must move beyond anachronistic military conventions that associate warfare with large numbers of soldiers on the ground as its primary element. With proper application, the effects of lethal force based on modern aerospace power, supplemented by offensive cyber operations, could result in the collapse of Iran’s economy, negation of their military, denuding of their nuclear programs, and choking of their regional influence. Iran’s critical oil refining capacity, oil distribution network, and power grid can all be rendered ineffective by these means in short order without any U.S. boots on the ground in Iran. 

F-35A fires AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during a live-fire test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico on June 12, 2018.

However, Iran possesses the ability to launch a large volume of missiles against its neighbors, it has highly defended airspace, and dispersed target sets. Those make for distinct operational challenges. U.S. forces would have to place an imperative upon negating Iran’s ability to harm its neighbors, while striking targets related to the most dangerous facets of its war-making enterprise. This requires significant intelligence regarding potential Iranian targets—knowledge updated on a real-time basis to guide decision making. On top of this, the force would need to survive inside an advanced threat environment and execute with a level of effects necessary to net a broad number of concurrent objectives. This last point is especially important given that a significant portion of Iran’s strategy centers upon inflicting maximum pain on its regional opponents.  

This nexus of requirements is best met with fifth generation combat aircraft and their advanced weapons. Planes like the F-22, F-35, and the B-21 are more accurately described as sensor-shooter-effectors. They are not simply new versions of fighters and bombers from the last century. Integral to their design are sensors, processing power, and data fusion capabilities that illuminate their operating environment in real-time to discern the best ways to secure desired effects while guarding against threats. Their inherent multi-domain teaming capabilities also allow them to partner with other mission assets in a highly collaborative, force multiplying fashion. All of these capabilities are packaged in low-observable, stealthy designs with electronic warfare options to guard against the threat posed by enemy air defense systems. 

What is unique about these aircraft is that they integrate all of these attributes in a single airframe. It makes for a highly effective, interdependent approach. Stealth and electronic warfare technology dramatically increase the probability of success in highly hostile air defense environments. Information sensors and processing power create real-time situational awareness that increases the probability of meeting desired mission goals. These are especially important characteristics when targeting dynamic, mobile, and fleeting targets.

Secure data links allow these aircraft to team with other assets—whether they be in space, at sea, on land, or elsewhere in the air. Non-stealth aircraft will not survive long against modern air defenses. Standoff weapons would struggle to be effective without the collaborative teaming afforded by aircraft operating inside the threat environment. 

While the desire for options afforded by fifth generation aircraft is clear, leaders presently have to struggle with the reality that the nation has far too few of them. The F-22 buy was prematurely stopped at 187 aircraft—less than half its military requirement. Ramping to full production volume for the F-35 has been stymied for a host of reasons, and the B-21 will not be available for operational use until the latter half of the 2020s due to leadership decisions within the Department of Defense in the 2000s. B-2s, which predate fifth generation technology, do afford distinct utility given their stealthy design, long range, and large payload. However, there are only 20 of them. 

The solution to this is clear. While the F-22 and B-2 production lines are closed, the F-35 is rolling off the assembly line today and the B-21 is slated to begin production in the middle of the 2020s. These programs must be prioritized to ensure they are rapidly acquired in sufficient numbers. With the F-35’s pricing coming down below $80 million per aircraft in the most recent contract negotiations and the aircraft performing well, the program is executing from a position of strength. As for the B-21, while specific details are not known due to the classified nature of the program, all indicators suggest that it is doing well in its development phase. 

“We’ve built an operating system that everyone can build applications for – from Raytheon to the Air Force to universities to small companies,” says Dave Wajsgras, president of Raytheon ISS.

The bottom line is that modern aerospace power provides America asymmetric options to succeed in meeting challenging security situations. When dangerous circumstances unfold—as most recently evidenced with Iran’s malign behavior—the courses of action available to leaders are governed by what is in their toolkit at the time. Ensuring we possess disproportionate advantage in our defense demands wise preparation. Solutions in the modern era are complex and take significant time to generate. Decisions made today to rapidly increase inventories of the F-35 and B-21 will shape advantageous security options for America well into the future. 

David Deptula, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors and retired Air Force Lt. General with over 3,000 flying hours, planned the Desert Storm air campaign, orchestrated air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, and is dean of the AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies.

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