A RECURRING ADVOCACY has raged over the years from outside the Navy for “lightweight” fighters as alternatives to whatever aircraft were then being programmed. This advocacy has generated severe budget justification problems within the service, within the department, and before Congress due to the size, simplicity and cost benefits claimed.

Since World War II, budget considerations have dominated the Navy’s aircraft program. There has been a drastic diminution of new starts as well as models in service. The financial problem is fully understood by those attempting to procure adequate numbers of aircraft to meet force level requirements. The corollary need of an adequate capability for each aircraft is also fully understood by those who might be directly involved in any future combat. Few, if any, of those advocating the lightweight, cheap, simple approach have demonstrated an understanding of the problem, particularly as it applies to naval aviation.

The Studies . . .

In the late 60’s, staff studies within the Office, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Analysis, offered a program aimed at stopping both the Navy’s VFX (F-14) and Air Force FX (F-15) projects. Their suggested solution of a very high performance, minimally equipped airplane, was unsound to the point of absurdity, allowing an effective rebuttal, and eventual discrediting of the VF-XX on technical grounds.A number of studies have shown that the fighter forces of the Free World would be outnumbered about two to one in any future conflict against Warsaw Pact nations. A “solution” was recommended in 1970 of initiating prototype programs, eliminating military specifications, and allowing greater industry participation in requirement generation, etc. Although no real effort was made to show that this in any way solved the actual problem (long recognized by naval planners), it eventually lead to the initiation of the XF-16 and XF-17 Air Force, and XF-12 Navy, fighter prototypes.

In 1972, another OSD study extrapolated pricing trends and showed that budget limitations would cut planned force levels drastically. A “solution” in the form of a high/low mix concept was suggested in which a small number of high quality weapons would be complemented by a greater quantity of less capable ones to handle lesser threats. Again, no attempt was made to show the viability of the concept in any specific area for any specific weapon or for any specific service. As a matter of interest, the Navy has been given some credit in the past for optimizing its carrier complements along high/low lines by using high performance fighters together with lower performance attack aircraft, rather than a more costly single design to do both jobs. Similar optimization obviously applies to the mix of vessels in the surface Navy, and to the variety of trucks in the Army, proving that the mix concept is hardly new.

A year ago, OSD directed consideration of what amounts to a high/low mix concept with a decision that the Navy had need for a Phoenix capability in but one half of its fighter force. An OSD prototype plan was also proposed, but deferred when studies proved it to be too expensive. Specific non-Phoenix F-14 alternatives have been under study for some months in comparison with a new lighter weight design. Significant cost savings cannot be expected.

Continuing Pressure

There are reports that continuing pressure exists for a Navy simplistic lightweight fighter of the F-16/F-17 class to complement the F-14. While the concept has little merit, it cannot be rejected on purely technical grounds as was the “VF-XX” since in this instance the weight and performance potentials are not being grossly overstated. The concept must be rejected on operational grounds.

Although the rationale against the concept has been stated before, it bears repetition. During the TFX hearings in 1963, Admiral Anderson, then CNO, stated:

“It is my responsibility to insure that U.S. naval forces are properly equipped to fulfill their missions in time of war.This means that our ships, aircraft, and weapons must be superior to those we may face in combat. Furthermore, it is important that the young men who man our ships, fly our aircraft, or use our weapons are provided the greatest margin of safety consistent with the hazardous tasks they perform . . . . In the military profession, an edge of advantage is of the greatest importance. To those of us in uniform, this factor takes on added significance, first as a deterrent, and second, at the outset of hostilities . . . .”

It has always been our policy to give our pilots some kind of an edge. We would prefer to have better performance, better weapons, greater numbers, better tactics, and better pilots, but we certainly should not rely solely on the latter. Since carrier aviation exists only for offense, it follows that our airplanes must have a greater range than those of the defense. At the same state of the art, we must devote more of our gross weight to fuel, making it impossible to win the performance or maneuverability game when we carry the same weapons in the same size airplane. Our only real option is to incorporate a better weapons suit, and increase power as practicable to remain competitive, and accept the higher size, weight, and cost.

Sizing Up the Arguments

Other comments bearing on the arguments sometimes presented for the simplistic fighter are:

  • Normally, the defensive unit should be operating in a more favorable command and control environment, intensifying our problem.
  • In the real world, the fixed amount of deck space precludes attainment of the numerical advantages claimed for the cheaper fighters. For example, while 3:1 unit cost differentials have been claimed (ignoring development amortization and carrier outfitting), the deck space differential would be less than half of this. The loss in effectiveness is several times greater against even moderate threats.
  • Again in the real world, it is difficult to envision matching our potential enemies in the numbers game. Since even the advocates of the simplistic fighter would procure some quantity of the more capable machine, the differential in total numbers for a given dollar expenditure is small, or even unfavorable, dependent upon the treatment of sunk costs, etc.
  • The visual identification rules used in SEA cannot be permitted to determine our choice of aircraft. As noted before, we are bound to lose the dogfight game. Only the very naive would stop the development of missiles which operate beyond visual range.
  • Among the arguments presented by some analysts is one that would limit our capability to that required to handle only a portion of the threat, such as 75% or 80%. “Why spend money to handle only 15-20% of the threat,” is the manner in which the argument is presented to the uninformed. This is so patently absurd that it should not need discussion. An “edge” of that magnitude would almost certainly assure victory in any competitive arena.
  • A theory is often presented that the chance of winning an engagement varies as the square of the number of contestants on each side. That theory, however, is only valid when all contestants are equal. The latter is obviously not a proper assumption in air combat. For example, an infinite number of “lightweight” fighters could not stop the penetration of a single Foxbat nor prevent the overflight of a supersonic transport.
  • The case for increased numbers of lower cost vehicles can be made easier for the attack mission, particularly against fixed ground targets. Saturation tactics are more effective, and in any case the target remains for later strikes when the first one is unsuccessful.

In summary, there have always been those who advocate cheaper methods of waging war. Such advocates seldom have the responsibility for winning the war, however, and usually do not have to face the consequences of direct participation (any more than I do).

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