Cesar Rodriguez, who retired with more air-to-air kills—three—than any active-duty Air Force pilot, stands beside an F-15.
This article has been corrected since it was published in the print magazine.
Video: "The View from the Cockpit"
Pilots at Alaska's Elmendorf Air Force Base share their views on how to maintain American air superiority.
Over Cesar Rodriguez’s desk hangs a macabre souvenir of his decades as a fighter pilot. It is a large framed picture, a panoramic cockpit view of open sky and desert. A small F‑15 Eagle is visible in the distance, but larger and more immediate, filling the center of the shot, staring right at the viewer, is an incoming missile.
It is a startling picture, memorializing a moment of air-to-air combat from January 19, 1991, over Iraq. Air-to-air combat has become exceedingly rare. Even when it happens, modern fighter pilots are rarely close enough to actually see the person they are shooting at. This image recalls a kill registered by Rodriguez, who goes by Rico, and his wingman, Craig Underhill, known as Mole, during the Gulf War.
A special-operations team combed the Iraqi MiG’s crash site, and this was one of the items salvaged, the last millisecond of incoming data from the doomed Iraqi pilot’s HUD, or head-up display. It was the final splash of light on his retinas, probably arriving too late for his brain to process before being vaporized with the rest of his corporeal frame. Pilots like Rodriguez don’t romanticize such exploits. These are strictly matter-of-fact men from a world where war is work, and life and death hang on a rapidly and precisely calibrated reality, an attitude captured by the flat caption mounted on the frame: This is an AIM-7 air-to-air missile shot from an F‑15 Eagle detonating on an Iraqi MiG‑29 Fulcrum during Operation Desert Storm.
A snapshot from the doorstep of oblivion, the photo is a reminder that the game of single combat played by Rico and Mole, and by fighter pilots ever since the First World War, is the ultimate one. It may have come to resemble a video game, but it is one with no reset button, no next level. It is played for keeps.
When Rodriguez retired two years ago from the Air Force as a colonel, his three air-to-air kills (two over Iraq in 1991 and one over Kosovo) were the most of any American fighter pilot on active duty. That number may seem paltry alongside the 26 enemy planes downed by Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I, or the 40 notched by Richard Bong in World War II, or the 34 by Francis Gabreski across World War II and Korea. Rodriguez’s total was two shy of the threshold number for the honorific ace, yet his three made him the closest thing to an ace in the modern U.S. Air Force.
This says more, of course, about the nature of American air power than it does about the skills of our pilots. It’s hard to call what happens in the sky over a battlefield today “single combat.” More than ever, an air war is a group effort involving skilled professionals and technological marvels, from the ground to Earth orbit. But within the world of military aviation there remains a hierarchy of cool, and fighter jocks still own the highest rung. The word ace denotes singularity, the number one, he who stands alone at the top. Its mystique still attracts the most-ambitious young aviators, even if nowadays the greatest danger most of them face is simply flying the aircraft at supersonic speed.
American pilots haven’t shot down many enemy jets in modern times, because few nations have dared rise to the challenge of trying to fight them. The F‑15, the backbone of America’s air power for more than a quarter century, may just be the most successful weapon in history. It is certainly the most successful fighter jet. In combat, its kill ratio over more than 30 years is 107 to zero. Zero. In three decades of flying, no F‑15 has ever been shot down by an enemy plane—and that includes F‑15s flown by air forces other than America’s. Rival fighters rarely test those odds. Many of Saddam Hussein’s MiGs fled into Iran when the U.S. attacked during the Gulf War. Of those who did fight the F-15, like the unfortunate pilot framed on Rodriguez’s wall, every last one was shot down. The lesson was remembered. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Saddam didn’t just ground his air force, he buried it.
That complete dominance is eroding. Some foreign-built fighters can now match or best the F‑15 in aerial combat, and given the changing nature of the threats our country is facing and the dizzying costs of maintaining our advantage, America is choosing to give up some of the edge we’ve long enjoyed, rather than pay the price to preserve it. The next great fighter, the F‑22 Raptor, is every bit as much a marvel today as the F‑15 was 25 years ago, and if we produced the F-22 in sufficient numbers we could move the goalposts out of reach again. But we are building fewer than a third of the number needed to replace the older fighters in service. After losing hope of upgrading the whole F‑15 fleet, the Air Force requested 381 F‑22s, the minimum number that independent analysts said it needs to retain its current edge. Congress is buying 183, and has authorized the manufacture of parts for 20 more at the front end of the production line, enough to at least keep it working until President Obama decides whether or not to continue building F-22s. Like so many presidential dilemmas, it’s a Scylla-and-Charybdis choice: a decision to save money and not build more would deliver a severe blow to a sprawling and vital U.S. industry at a time when the nation is mired in recession. And once the production line for the F-22 begins to shut down, restarting it will not be easy or cheap, even in reaction to a new threat. Each plane consists of about 1,000 parts, manufactured in 44 states, and because of the elaborate network of highly specialized subcontractors needed to fashion its unique airframe and avionics, assembling one F-22 can take as long as three years. Modern aerial wars are usually over in days, if not hours. Once those 183 to 203 new Raptors are built, they will have to do. Our end of the fight will still be borne primarily by the current fleet of aged F‑15s.
When Obama unveiled his national-security team in December, he remarked that he intended “to maintain the strongest military on the planet.” That goal will continue to require the biggest bill in the world, but the portion that bought aerial dominance for so long may have become too dear. (The team’s lone holdover from the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has not been an advocate for the F-22.) If Obama opts to shut down production on the aircraft, it will certainly be a defensible decision. After all, our impressive arsenals did not stop one of the most damaging attacks in our history seven years ago, mounted by men armed with box cutters. There are various ways of computing the cost of a fighter, from “unit flyaway cost,” which is the price tag as the plane rolls off the line, to “program acquisition unit cost,” which adds in the cost of the research, development, and testing. The former for the F‑22 is about $178 million, and the latter about $350 million. Either way, the F-22 is the most expensive fighter ever built.
But even reasonable decisions can have harsh consequences. Without a full complement of Raptors, America’s aging fighters are more vulnerable, and hence more likely to be challenged. Complaints from the Air Force tend to be dismissed as the laments of spoiled fighter jocks denied the newest, hottest toy. But the picture on Rodriguez’s wall reminds us of the stakes for the men and women in the cockpit. Countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea will be more likely to take on the U.S. Air Force if their pilots stand a fighting chance. This could well mean more air battles, more old-style aces—and more downed American pilots.
The impact will not be felt only by aviators. Owning the sky is the first prerequisite of the way we fight wars today. Air supremacy is what enables us to send an elaborate fleet of machinery caterwauling over a targeted nation, such as Afghanistan or Iraq: the orchestrating AWACS (“Airborne Warning and Control System,” the flying surveillance-and-command center); precision bombers; attack planes, helicopters, and drones; ground support; rescue choppers; and the great flying tankers that keep them all fueled. This aerial juggernaut enables modern ground-fighting tactics that rely on the rapid movement of relatively small units, because lightly armed, fast-moving forces can quickly summon devastating air support if they encounter a heavy threat. Wounded soldiers can count on speedy evacuation and sophisticated emergency medical care. Accomplishing all this with anything like the efficiency American forces have enjoyed since the Vietnam War depends on owning the sky, which means having air-to-air hunter-killers that can shoot down enemy planes and destroy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites before the rest of the fleet takes to the sky. Superior fighters are the linchpin of our modern war tactics. Having owned the high ground for so long, we tend to forget that it is not a birthright.
Unless the 21st century is the first in human history to somehow transcend geopolitical strife, our military will face severe tests in the coming years. The United States will be expected to take the lead in any showdown against a sophisticated air force. So it is worth examining the nature of air-to-air combat today, and the possible consequences of not building a full fleet of F-22s.
At the center of this question is that most romantic of modern warriors, the ace.