Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A surprising and courageous critique of the F-35—yes, from an Air Force officer

The other day I marveled at a piece on UCAVs in Air & Space Power Journal, only to hear from Jim Gourley that there is a second terrific and courageous article in the same issue. Col. Michael Pietrucha argues that the F-35 is leading the Air Force into a disastrous situation in which that service ...

Steve Snodgrass via Flickr
Steve Snodgrass via Flickr
Steve Snodgrass via Flickr

The other day I marveled at a piece on UCAVs in Air & Space Power Journal, only to hear from Jim Gourley that there is a second terrific and courageous article in the same issue.

Col. Michael Pietrucha argues that the F-35 is leading the Air Force into a disastrous situation in which that service will be irrelevant to most American military operations. The F-35, he says, is hugely expensive, but "offers little improvement over its predecessors." It and the higher-end F-22 are preparing the Air Force for the conflicts that are most worrisome, he worries, but not for those that are most likely. If current trends continue, he warns, the combat Air Force soon will consist of "a short-range, long-runway fleet shorn of EW/SEAD support."   

He proposes an alternative force that consists of the F-35s already purchased, plus revamped versions of the F-16 and F-15 that borrow sensors and systems from the F-35, and some saved A-10s, plus a new "light combat" aircraft. This would result in a mix of capabilities that would enable the Air Force to be expeditionary and also carry out CAS missions, which I am sure soldiers and Marines would appreciate.  

The other day I marveled at a piece on UCAVs in Air & Space Power Journal, only to hear from Jim Gourley that there is a second terrific and courageous article in the same issue.

Col. Michael Pietrucha argues that the F-35 is leading the Air Force into a disastrous situation in which that service will be irrelevant to most American military operations. The F-35, he says, is hugely expensive, but "offers little improvement over its predecessors." It and the higher-end F-22 are preparing the Air Force for the conflicts that are most worrisome, he worries, but not for those that are most likely. If current trends continue, he warns, the combat Air Force soon will consist of "a short-range, long-runway fleet shorn of EW/SEAD support."   

He proposes an alternative force that consists of the F-35s already purchased, plus revamped versions of the F-16 and F-15 that borrow sensors and systems from the F-35, and some saved A-10s, plus a new "light combat" aircraft. This would result in a mix of capabilities that would enable the Air Force to be expeditionary and also carry out CAS missions, which I am sure soldiers and Marines would appreciate.  

Interestingly, he urges the Air Force to study the example of the Army in the cancellation of the Comanche attack and scout helicopter in 2004. This made me think of another Army decision, the smart one made in the 1980s to not get involved in the V-22 Osprey. The Marine Corps went ahead and pursued the V-22 and, as far as I can see, wrecked Marine Corps aviation in the process.

The Army’s Comanche cancellation reminded me of one of my favorite strategic lessons, that the most important strategic decisions often are about what not to do. These also can be the hardest decisions.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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