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Fast Jets Are Formidable, But Aren’t Magic

By Taylor Marvin

South African Air Force Saab JAS-39 Gripen. Photo by Wikimedia user  NJR ZA.

South African Air Force Saab JAS-39 Gripen. Photo by Wikimedia user NJR ZA.

In a March piece at War Is Boringjournalist Peter Dörrie examined a number of African states’ ballooning defense acquisitions. In an apparent puzzle given these countries’ impoverished populations and past difficulties maintaining advanced military equipment, these purchases include big-ticket items like advanced fighter aircraft.

While this trend appears to be partially driven by both increased government revenues and recent stability that allow African states the resources to purchase expensive weapons as well as a desire to increase their regional power projection abilities, I recently speculated that these aircraft purchases are also driven by a desire for status and prestige. Militaries’ operational effectiveness is dependent on institutional resources that are often difficult to build. The ability to destroy enemy forces and seize objectives rests on factors like frequent and realistic training, motivated soldiers, sound doctrine, and an educated, independent officer corps as well as equipment like aircraft. But many of these traits take decades to construct, and cannot be simply paid for. Unlike actually building effective, well-trained, and capable military forces, high-profile purchases of impressive fighter aircraft present an attractive shortcut to governments seeking to quickly bolster military status.

Modern multirole fighter aircraft can be awesomely effective weapons, but it is worth remembering that this effectiveness is not guaranteed. Under the right circumstances, they can indeed be a powerful military asset. Fighters armed with air-to-ground weapons can be used for decapitation strikes deep in enemy territory, and interdiction strikes behind the enemy’s front line can substantially complicate enemy logistics and movement. If enemy forces are unable to field their own strike aircraft, it is difficult to overstate how psychologically comforting it is for friendly troops to see the open sky as an ally rather than a danger. (Historian Stephen Ambrose emphasizes this point in the context of the Western Front of World War II in Europe.)

But all these capabilities require fighter aircraft to be used effectively, an effectiveness that has steep barriers to entry. As Darren Olivier writes in a review of Angolan fighter acquisition, airpower is based on equipment, people, and processes, and “shortcuts have not traditionally worked.” Fighter aircraft may be among the most highly visible and prestigious faces of airpower, but if they are treated as a shortcut, short is how they will come up in combat.

First, many of the aspirant regional powers acquiring modern fighter aircraft are only purchasing limited quantities. For example, in Africa on paper South Africa fields 26 Swedish-manufactured Gripen aircraft. Angola has stated that it expects to purchase 12 Russian Sukhoi Su-30K fighters; the Su-30 family is one of the highest performance fighter aircraft in the world, with long range, extreme maneuverability, and aerodynamic performance considered better than any US fighter but the F-22. Algeria has 28 Su-30MKs, with more on order. In South America, Brazil plans to buy 36 Gripens, and neighboring Venezuela currently fields two dozen Su-30MKs and a number of American-built F-16s that as of 2005 were difficult to maintain due to a shortage of spare parts. The Royal Malaysian Air Force flies 18 Su-30MKs, in addition to a smaller number of American F/A-18s. These numbers are not surprising, given the extreme cost of not only acquiring but also maintaining advanced aircraft. Notably, smaller NATO members such as Denmark and Portugal have roughly comparable numbers of advanced fighter aircraft.

But these numbers also raise many operational issues, even for regional powers able to devote their entire fleets to a single-theater conflict. Assuming a fifty percent readiness rate — which I would guess is fairly optimistic — in the event of a conflict Venezuela’s 24 Su-30MKs are, in practice, a dozen aircraft. These fighters can’t be everywhere at once, and this isn’t even accounting for combat losses. The suppression of enemy air defenses mission, or neutralizing air defense systems like surface-to-air missile installations, is notoriously difficult and dangerous for even advanced air branches. Given the proliferation of anti-air weapons, will ill-trained air forces flying advanced jets be able to operate in environments where air defense put them at risk?

Similarly, how effective are these aircraft’s pilots? As Dörrie notes in his piece, South Africa’s Gripens rarely fly due to prohibitive operational costs, meaning that their pilots aren’t getting the flight time to stay sharp, and certainly not the realistic, challenging training necessary for combat effectiveness. If aircraft rarely fly, are maintenance crews getting the practical experience necessary to solve problems and get aircraft flying in wartime? And without practical exercises, how can military doctrine best incorporate advanced aircraft’s real-world capabilities? States unable to bear the costs of routinely flying their prestige fighter aircraft in peacetime will pay a serious price for this lack of experience in combat. While these costs aren’t included in the sticker price of fighter acquisition, for all practical purposes they are a major addition to the barrier to entry blocking states’ access to effective air operations.

Finally, all this assumes that military and civilian leaderships are even willing to risk expensive combat jets. If the acquisition of these prestigious assets is motivated by statues-seeking, this may not be the case. Not only are these aircraft extremely expensive; downing one would be an enormous propaganda coup in wartime. If leaders can realistically assess the risks of flying precious fast jets, they may decide to not use them at all. If this is the case, then the real military value of high-profile fast jet acquisition by aspirant regional powers is close to zero.

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