The Last Ace

American air superiority has been so complete for so long that we take it for granted. For more than half a century, we’ve made only rare use of the aerial-combat skills of a man like Cesar Rodriguez, who retired two years ago with more air-to-air kills than any other active-duty fighter pilot. But our technological edge is eroding—Russia, China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan all now fly fighter jets with capabilities equal or superior to those of the F-15, the backbone of American air power since the Carter era. Now we have a choice. We can stock the Air Force with the expensive, cutting-edge F‑22—maintaining our technological superiority at great expense to our Treasury. Or we can go back to a time when the cost of air supremacy was paid in the blood of men like Rodriguez.
Steven Meckler

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.

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Video: "The View from the Cockpit"

Pilots at Alaska's Elmendorf Air Force Base share their views on how to maintain American air superiority.
The Doorstep of Oblivion

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.

Going Acro

The skills that make a fighter pilot great have, like aircraft, evolved. Japan’s celebrated World War II ace, Saburo Sakai, who shot down more than 60 planes in aerial combat, described in his memoir, Samurai!, the extensive acrobatic training he and his fellow recruits received in pilot school to improve their strength and balance even before they flew. They worked on reducing their reaction time and perfecting their hand-eye coordination by swiping flies out of the air. Balance, coordination, reaction time, a feel for the airplane, gunnery, the ability to calmly perform complex aerobatic maneuvers while under fire, a talent for thinking and acting quickly even while upside down or tumbling or out of control—these were all vitally important. But the paramount skill, Sakai recalled, was something the recruits had at the start: exceptional vision.

All of the young pilots had been selected for their perfect eyesight, but even more important was how broadly they could see, how wide a horizon they commanded, and how quickly they could focus in on the faintest off-center visual cue. They competed to locate stars in daylight. Sakai wrote:

Gradually, and with much more practice, we became quite adept at our star-hunting. Then we went further. When we had sighted and fixed the position of a particular star, we jerked our eyes away ninety degrees, and snapped back again to see if we could locate the star immediately. Of such things are fighter pilots made.

I personally cannot too highly commend this particular activity, inane as it may seem to those unfamiliar with the split-second, life-or-death movements of aerial warfare. I know that during my 200 air engagements with enemy planes, except for two minor errors I was never caught in a surprise attack.

Surprise attack—seeing the enemy before he sees you—is still the killing edge, which is why Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the fighter pilot and author, described dogfighting as less combat than “murder.” Getting the jump on an enemy, hitting him before he sees you, is the best-case scenario, or the worst, depending on where you sit. As the air war over Japan turned increasingly one-sided, in 1945, Sakai’s eyes kept him alive; only two other pilots in his unit survived.

Today, of course, electronic systems extend a fighter’s vision well beyond the range of the most acute eyeball. Aerial combat is no longer a matter of fixing your sights on a dodging enemy. Most of the maneuvering in air-to-air combat today takes place BVR, or beyond visual range. The modern fighter pilot flies strapped into the center of a moving electronic cocoon. His speeding jet emits a field of photons* that can find, identify, and target an enemy long before he will ever see it. At the same time, his electromagnetic aura defends him by thwarting the enemy’s radar. American pilots strive to find and shoot down enemy aircraft from outside what they call the WEZ, or “weapons engagement zone,” which means safely beyond range of the enemy’s missiles. Traveling faster than sound, the fighter pilot is part of a network that can spot an enemy over the horizon, sometimes before he even leaves the ground; that can attack multiple targets simultaneously; and that in an emergency can react to an incoming threat before the pilot is even aware of it. Today’s jet is a machine so powerful, so smart, and so fast that the fighter jock’s biggest challenge is to safely fly and land it.

Combat in this arena has become virtual in every way except in its consequences. Tactics in a world of dueling electrons can be best understood in the abstract. Pilots speak of the need to extend their “timeline.”

“When cavemen fought they had their fists, first of all,” F‑15 pilot Colonel Terrence “Skins” Fornof explained to me last year in Alaska. “Then someone came up with the sling, which meant he could attack his enemy before he could get close enough to take a swing. The history of warfare technology has all boiled down to increasing the distance between you and your enemy’s fist. Distance means time, and you gain the advantage by extending that timeline. Our goal is the same as it ever was: to kill the enemy before he even has a chance to employ his weapon. War is not fair. You don’t want him to even get close enough to fight.”

The best flier in the world stands little chance against a superior aircraft, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can be a good fighter pilot. The skills required today are related to those of the early aces, but different. Perhaps the best way to explain is to take a closer look at Rodriguez.

A lifelong military man, he is of average height with a bullish torso, a round face, brown eyes, and thinning gray hair. The house in Tucson where the picture hangs has been his home for two years—longer than any other place he has ever lived. He exudes brisk, straightforward confidence, without pretense or misgiving. Asked to name his single most important flying skill, the modern equivalent of Sakai’s peripheral vision, Rodriguez struggles for an answer. It is something harder to grasp. It boils down to a talent for processing multiple information streams simultaneously.

“A World War II pilot would look at all of the things going on in the cockpit today, and his first reaction would be, ‘You guys have too many things going on here at once.’ You know, it is sensory overload,” he said when we talked at his home. “When you put one of those old pilots in a modern simulator, he can fly the airplane. The airplane is as easy to fly today as it was back then, maybe actually easier, because now it has aerodynamic features that make it more forgiving from the standpoint of taking off and landing. But they will very quickly say, ‘I can’t keep up with all the sensors that are buzzing into my brain right now.’ And every sensor that talks to you has a different frequency, a different tone, a different format, and some of them you are only picking up audio, others it’s a visual, some a combination of the two.”

Rodriguez began pilot training in 1981, after graduating from the Citadel. He knew going in that, of the class of 70 pilot trainees, only about five would qualify to fly fighters. Most would graduate and play vital roles in the great air-war machine, but only the cream would win coveted fighter seats. The first wave of washouts came during simple maneuvers on the training jets. According to Rodriguez, “You start maneuvering and they’d get violently airsick. That was the biggest cut.”

In the group that reached the next level, the academic workload sorted out the most-intense players from the wannabes. Rodriguez was used to the cloistered atmosphere and grinding academic pace of a military school, so he excelled in that area, too.

Those who excelled with him faced a new test: going acro.

“Suddenly acro was not just a cool thing you’d watch at the air show anymore,” Rodriguez says. “You were acro. You were part of it and you had to be able to think on your back, on your head, at zero G and then at high Gs, depending on the maneuver.” Avoiding G-LOC, or “gravity-induced loss of consciousness,” during aggressive acrobatics is a physical struggle. As the force of gravity intensifies, blood drains rapidly from the brain unless the pilot fights back. The pressurized suit helps, tightening on the extremities and lower body, but the pilot learns to flex his legs, buttocks, and stomach muscles and to control his breath. He emerges from such maneuvers wrung out and drenched with sweat.

It is a literal gut check. Rodriguez was lucky. He had the constitution for it. The only time he ever got airsick was one morning when the flying conditions looked unpromising and, assuming that his flight would be scrapped, he “proceeded to power down on two big, huge breakfast burritos.” Then he had to fly after all.

“I was told we were going to go up and actually do some advanced handling, which was a fairly physically challenging event because it was putting the airplane to the extreme aerodynamic limits … falling down and getting into spins and stuff like that, so it was one of those things where I go, ‘Okay, stand by one.’ I reached down and grabbed my barf bag, filled it up, put it back in my Gsuit, and said, ‘Okay, let’s keep going.’”

Complex exercises required rapid mental calculations: if you entered a loop 10 knots slower than anticipated, that meant your airspeed would be too slow to complete the entire maneuver, so you would have to make an adjustment, quite literally, on the fly.

“These were the kind of things that you could do sitting on your chair in your room, but when you have an airplane strapped to your back and you’re sweating and you’re pulling Gs, then it’s another matter,” he said. “You had to do the math in your head.” Needless to say, some people were better at this than others. Some pilots seemed to be able to do it intuitively, by the seat of their pants. Rodriguez was not one of them. But patient instructors and long hours in simulators, combined with a kind of desperation to succeed, eventually earned him a chance to fly the Air Force’s hottest jets.

Only then did his real training begin, in Tucson and at Holloman Air Force Base, in New Mexico, and finally at the Air Force’s “top gun” school, Nellis Air Force Base, in Nevada, where he flew training missions against a faux enemy, a dedicated force of experienced pilots trying hard to shoot him down. Technology is only part of what gives American pilots their advantage. As hugely expensive as it is to design, produce, fly, and maintain vanguard fighters, it takes far more effort and money to hone pilots’ skills, to keep squadrons of pilots like Rodriguez constantly flying, practicing, and getting better. Even if other nations had the know-how, few could afford to build a fleet of advanced modern fighters, and fewer still could afford to sustain an up-tempo environment for the men and women who fly and maintain it.

Being the best means learning to fully inhabit that screaming node, high above the slow curve of the Earth, strapped down in a bubble where the only real things are the sound of your own breathing and the feel of sweat rolling down the center of your back. You are alone but not alone. You cope with constant, multiple streams of data, everything from basic flight information—airspeed, altitude, attitude, fuel levels—to incoming radar images displayed on small, glowing green screens stacked in rows before you and to both sides. In your helmet are three or four radio links, with the AWACS, with the ground, with your wingman, and with your flight leader. It is a little bit like trying to navigate at high speed with four or five different people talking to you at once, each with a slightly different set of directions. It is not for amateurs. By the time Rodriguez flew into combat for the first time, he had hundreds of hours of training behind him, and being in the jet was second nature. With him were his wingman, his formation, and the superhuman reach of America’s technological eyes and ears.

Hurling a few dozen jets into the sky against this, as Saddam did in 1991, was most unwise.

“Fox!”

Rodriguez and his wingman, Craig “Mole” Underhill, confronted their first Iraqi MiG‑29s early on the third morning of the war that took back Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. They were leading a helicopter assault on Saddam’s early-warning radar sites on the border with Saudi Arabia, clearing the way for devastating bombing runs on Iraqi airfields.

The air battle in this conflict was brief, decisive, and more intense than most Americans realized. By the time the Pentagon began showing off publicity videos of “smart bombs” pulverizing Iraqi targets, America and its allies owned the sky, but in getting there, 38 allied aircraft were destroyed. On this early sortie, Rodriguez and Underhill were flying out of Tabuk, an air base in northwestern Saudi Arabia, near the border with Jordan. As often happened in this fast-moving arena, they were initially tasked with one objective and then reassigned when they were airborne. They moved out at the head of a 36-aircraft strike force bearing down on a target 40 miles southwest of Baghdad. As they approached, several MiG‑29s came up to challenge them.

The MiG‑29, like the F‑15, is considered a “fourth generation” fighter. (Since the first jet fighters started flying, there have been four great evolutionary advances, each representing a quantum leap in technology.) The Soviets began deploying the MiG‑29 about nine years after the F‑15s went on line, and the plane itself is comparable to its American counterpart. But given all the other advantages enjoyed by the allied pilots, the brave, outnumbered Iraqi pilots launching themselves at the approaching juggernaut might as well have been committing suicide.

“From Western eyes, it’s a suicide mission,” Rodriguez told me. “From the eyes of the guy being invaded, he’s protecting the homeland.”

Even greatly disadvantaged, the Iraqi fighters were dangerous, and as it happened the large American force made a potentially fatal mistake that Saturday morning. The incoming MiGs were spotted, of course, but in the confusion of the moment either tactical errors were made by the strikers, or the Iraqi pilots exploited a seam in the American defenses. The AWACS command had spotted the MiGs immediately when they took off, and had handed them off to a Navy formation of F‑14s, which failed to intercept them. When Rodriguez and Underhill were alerted to the approaching threat, it came as a jolting surprise. The MiGs were just 13 miles out and closing at a speed of more than 1,000 nautical mph. Both pilots immediately began evasive maneuvers.

Rodriguez dove steeply, getting below the lead MiG, where he would be harder to find on its radar—pointing down, the radar’s signal can get confused by all the signals* bouncing back up from the ground. Then Rodriguez began flying in a low arc, keeping the MiG on his wing line, making himself “skinny,” presenting as small a radar target as possible. Within minutes the two fighters would be in a visual turning fight, a situation familiar to many experienced pilots from earlier wars, but one that is not supposed to happen in modern air warfare. The biggest difference between this fight and the old ones was speed. It would unfold not in minutes but in seconds. Rodriguez’s posture was strictly defensive: he could not target and shoot at the Iraqi plane, but it could shoot at him.

A cockpit alarm warned him when the MiG’s radar locked on him. The threat was still just a blip on his screen; he hadn’t actually seen it yet. He was frightened and thinking furiously when in his headset he heard Underhill shout, “Fox!”—the code word for I have just fired a missile.

Rodriguez looked back over his shoulder, following the smoke trail of Underhill’s missile, and then, looking out ahead of it, caught his first and only glimpse of the MiG. This is the precise instant captured from the Iraqi pilot’s perspective in the photo on Rodriguez’s wall. It turns out that the picture does not preserve a moment of personal triumph for him, as I had originally supposed, but one of intense fear and vulnerability. Rodriguez’s little F‑15 in the distance was not predator but prey, trapped and awaiting a kill shot that would never come, because in the next instant the MiG became a huge fireball in the sky. The whole encounter lasted a little more than 10 seconds.

“Mole saves my bacon because he kills this guy before he can take a shot at me,” Rodriguez said as we sat in his office.

There was no time to celebrate, because the destroyed MiG’s wingman was now closing in on them, just seven miles out. Underhill and Rodriguez split their planes wide apart and assumed different altitudes. That way, the incoming MiG might spot one of them, but probably not both, and they improved their chances of eyeballing it. Before shooting at it, they had to make sure it was Iraqi—many planes were in the air that morning—but they wouldn’t have time to run the normal electronic matrix used to distinguish friend from foe.

They both saw the MiG at the same time. It had an Iraqi flag painted on it. Rodriguez passed the enemy fighter about 300 feet off its wing.

“He notices that I am there,” Rodriguez said. “He also notices that Mole’s about 20,000 feet above us. But at no point do I think he correlates the two of us as a formation.”

If the MiG pilot went for Underhill, then Rodriguez could shoot him down; if he came for Rodriguez, “then Mole eats him up.” Confused, the angling MiG started up, and then down, which gave Rodriguez time to fly inside his turning circle, putting himself into roughly the same attack position the earlier MiG had had on him.

The Iraqi pilot, no doubt hearing an alarm telling him that an F‑15 had locked him in its radar, attempted a classic split‑S maneuver, which is the quickest way to reverse direction in the air. Flying parallel to the ground, he flipped his aircraft upside down and then attempted to fly a half circle, diving down, pulling up, and leveling off to head in the opposite direction. It was the right escape maneuver for an altitude of at least 5,000 feet, but the pilot, in his alarm and haste, neglected to compute one vital bit of data: he was only 600 feet up. He flew his jet straight into the desert floor.

“He had lost his situational awareness,” Rodriguez explained. “He was trying to perform a maneuver that he can do comfortably at 5,000 or 10,000 feet, and doesn’t realize that the fight, which started at 8,000 feet, had degraded and degraded closer to the desert floor. It’s a lack of training, a lack of experience, but given the situation he was in against two F‑15s, my argument is that no one would have done much better. He’s already seen his flight lead explode. He might not have hit the desert floor, but he was going to die anyway.”

These air kills were among the first by American pilots since Vietnam. An entire generation of fighters had come and gone without encountering an enemy in the sky. Three dozen Iraqi jets were shot down in the war, and Rodriguez was one of six pilots in his squadron who got two.

The second of his aerial kills was what he called “more routine,” more typical of modern aerial combat. A week after the first episode, he was flying in what the Air Force calls a “wall of Eagles,” a formation of four F‑15s spread out in the sky over roughly five to eight miles at 33,000 feet to maximize their visibility and radar range. Beneath them was thick undercast, a carpet of clouds opaque to their eyes but transparent to electronic surveillance systems. At that point, the remaining Iraqi air force was so vulnerable that the AWACS plane assisting the F‑15s picked up the enemy jets the minute they started their engines, while they were still on the ground. Rodriguez and the other pilots watched three radar blips form on their screens as the MiGs took off and climbed. Rodriguez assumed that the planes were, like the rest of Saddam’s air force, escaping into Iran.

“They were basically running scared,” he says. “Extremely scared.”

It took a few moments to identify the jets as MiG‑23s, and then the wall of Eagles began preparing to launch missiles at them.

“We think we’re going to have to stay above the clouds and we’re never going to see the missiles do their job, and all of a sudden there’s a big sucker hole, an opening in the clouds below,” he says. “The F‑15s dove to about 13,000 feet. The fleeing MiGs were hugging the terrain, flying just 300 to 400 feet above the ground, when we started launching AIM-7 missiles at them.

“And, sure enough, the missiles did their job.”

The Iraqi flight leader took the first hit. An American missile sliced through his plane, taking out the engine but leaving the shell of the plane intact. Trailing a thick cloud of smoke, the pilot began turning to the north, apparently trying to return to his base. Rodriguez’s flight leader fired a Sidewinder, a heat-seeking missile that lit up the sky when it hit, turning the unfortunate Iraqi pilot and his plane into an enormous fireball.

Rodriguez’s missile ripped straight through his target. The MiG apparently flew right into it. There was no large explosion. The missile just tore the jet to pieces, turning it into what Rodriguez called “a ground-level sparkler,” scattering debris across a wide swath of desert.

Rodriguez’s third and last kill came eight years later, on March 24, 1999, when he flew his F‑15 as part of the NATO force attacking Serbian positions during the Kosovo campaign. Rodriguez’s squadron was assigned to lead an attack on a Serbian SAM site in Montenegro. On the way they would pass over an airfield in Pristina, Kosovo, where the Serbs had carved hangars for their fighters inside a mountain. No one was sure what kinds of planes, if any, were hidden there.

He took off from Cervia, Italy, on a clear night. As he ascended, Rodriguez could see the Italian coast to the west, lit up like a throbbing discotheque. He was pointed east, toward what was then still called Yugoslavia.

“It was pitch black,” he recalls. “You know, here’s a region of the world that has been at war, and where every light at night is a potential target. So everything below was just pitch black. You go, ‘Man, it’s two different worlds here.’”

The plan was for the multinational formation to fly lights-out, but the different levels of training and experience began to tell. American pilots fly black all the time, so when the order came to turn off lights, it was just another night’s work. But for some of the Dutch, German, British, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish pilots, this wasn’t so easy.

“The first time we tried it, as I looked behind me, I could see a train of fighters spread out over 100 miles behind me, and when the ‘lights out’ order came, they all went black,” said Rodriguez. “Then, sure enough, the comfort factor for some of these guys started to go. They started getting a little antsy and then, all of a sudden, pooh, pooh, pooh, the lights started coming back on. And we go, ‘Okay, guys, we really need to do this completely lights-out. If we don’t do this, we’re not going to be ready.’ But we got everybody into the train.”

A measure of confusion persisted, however. When the target was reached, the squadron commenced an air assault that would have taken an all-American unit five to eight minutes. This one took nearly an hour. Feeling increasingly vulnerable to attack by ground or air threats, Rodriguez circled and waited, trying to make his flight pattern unpredictable. As Rodriguez and his wingman, Bill Denham, turned back toward Italy, they picked up an aircraft coming up from the airfield in Pristina. At first it bore north, away from them, but then it turned.

The American planes began to conduct the standard series of checks to identify the plane. The F‑15 is equipped with a full range of instruments to, in effect, interrogate an unidentified plane in the air. They were coordinating with an AWACS, working through some language difficulties (the controllers spoke accented English). A process that would normally take 20 seconds took three times as long, which is a huge difference when you’re traveling hundreds of miles per hour. Rodriguez and his wingman were rapidly approaching the weapons engagement zone, where they would lose the advantage of their longer-range missiles.

They were on the edge of the WEZ as the ID was completed, and Rodriguez launched an AMRAAM, or “advanced medium-range air-to-air missile,” a new element of his arsenal added after the Gulf War. In the Air Force, they call it the Slammer. One advantage it affords is a “fire and forget” feature; because the missile has its own homing and guidance system, the pilot need not stay pointed at the target. He is free to turn and evade the incoming jet in case his shot for some reason misses. Rodriguez stayed with his missile for as long as he could.

“It all went into slow motion, and I felt like the missile and I were kind of flying in formation for a while,” he recalls. “It just seemed to stay there for a couple of seconds and then, whoosh! It disappears. You see that glow [the missile’s exhaust], and that becomes just a little ember, and then it’s gone. And of course at night you can’t follow it anymore. The smoke trail goes away. But I could see it start to curve, and I go, ‘Okay, it looks like it’s doing the right lead-pursuit tracking.’ And the missile did everything it was advertised to do. We have a little counter display inside the cockpit that ticks down the time to intercept, and when the counter said zero, I looked outside through my canopy to the general vicinity of where I knew the target was going to be. I mean, that fireball was huge.”

Rodriguez said it was as though three or four giant sports stadiums had turned on all their lights at the same time.

“The reason it was so magnificent,” he said, “was because everything was covered in snow. So the fireball reflected off the snow, causing an even bigger illumination of the sky and everything around it.”

It was the first air kill of the Kosovo campaign, and the last of Rodriguez’s career. He gave little thought to the person he had just incinerated.

“I’m sure he had been a Yugoslav air-force pilot, which was a good air force for what they have,” he said. “I don’t personalize the war. He was doing what I was doing for my country.”

“Eye-watering”

Manufactured by McDonnell Douglas starting in the early 1970s, the twin-engine, supersonic F‑15 was the first aircraft built with the understanding that a plane’s avionics, or electronic guts, were as important as its aeronautics, its flying capabilities. It was designed and built around an enormous radar disk.

“When it came on line 30 years ago, it had the best radar, the best weapons-employment displays ever, and the best maneuverability of any aircraft out there,” Brigadier General Thomas “Pugs” Tinsley told me when I visited him in Alaska last spring, a few weeks before his death. At the time, Tinsley commanded the Air Force’s Third Wing out of Elmendorf Air Force Base, in Anchorage. “The F‑15’s thrust-to-weight ratio was way ahead of anything else, and its flight-control system was much smarter and more stable. It could go out there and just fly circles around the F‑4 [the Phantom, its immediate predecessor] and have its way with MiG‑23s [the Soviets’ best fighter], just eat them up.”

For more than a quarter century, the speed and sound of a formation of F‑15s or F‑16s has made a commanding statement about American power, as anyone who has ever stood under one can attest. You feel its approach before you can hear or see it, a low vibration that starts in your toes and rises until the gray jets flick past overhead. Only then comes the roar. They are gone before your eyes focus on them, leaving behind the orange glow of their afterburners and a wash of energy that hammers your ears and rattles your spine. As a patriotic display it is impressive, something to stir pride and admiration—but imagine being on the receiving end of such power, to have it shooting at you. It is one of the most convincing arguments ever made for surrender.

Despite the romantic leather-helmet, silk-scarf legend of the fighter pilot, aerial combat has always been more about engineering than flying. Considering that the first tentative Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk took place just over a century ago, the evolution of aerial combat has been astonishing. Inside of 40 years, from World War I to the Korean conflict, pilots went from shooting at each other with pistols from propeller-driven biplanes to dueling with cannons and missiles in jet aircraft moving faster than sound. At the start of World War II, American fighter and bomber pilots were adapting their tactics to cope with superior German and Japanese fighters, and by the end they had aircraft that could fly so high, so fast, and for so long, that few enemy fighters could even get close enough to shoot at them. Sakai noted, sadly, that the B-29 Superfortress was simply “insuperable.” By Korea, “air breathers,” or jets, had replaced the finely crafted propeller-driven fighters of lore, and aerial duels between American F‑86 Sabres and Soviet-built MiG‑15s were fleeting visual encounters where the biggest challenge was to get close enough to fire.

Today the fight has moved beyond visual range, into the realm of electromagnetic waves*, and involves what fighter pilots call “look-down, shoot-down” capability. The air war is a contest between radar systems, countermeasures, and missiles. American pilots have long enjoyed the advantages of seeing an enemy first, and of having missiles with the range and speed to hit the enemy from beyond the WEZ. But those advantages have gradually eroded. A fighter jet’s theoretical “kill ratio” is based on projections of how many enemy fighters it could shoot down before getting shot down itself when faced with an unlimited number of attackers at once. The F-15’s kill ratio of 8‑to‑1, which is what it enjoyed throughout most of its history and which reflected more than anything the finite capability to carry munitions, is now closer to 3‑to‑1.

“If the enemy has radar-guided missiles, now we’re shooting at each other,” Lieutenant Colonel Chuck “Corky” Corcoran told me last year at Elmendorf. Corcoran is a former F‑15 pilot who now commands the 525th Fighter Squadron, the Bulldogs, one of the three F‑22 squadrons just now getting planes. “If those enemy weapons have similar capabilities to ours, I’ve got to employ some sort of tactic to gain an advantage, whether it’s getting higher and faster so I can shoot first, or checking away [shifting slightly off course] to increase his missile’s time of flight.”

Drawing out that time, even by a split second, can mean everything, because it allows your missile to strike first. Once the enemy’s plane is destroyed, its radar can no longer steer his missile.

“His missile is looking for reflected radar energy that he’s pointing at you, so if your missile gets to him and blows him up and kills his radar before his missile gets to you, then you are going to live,” Corcoran explained.

An AMRAAM missile like the one Rodriguez used over Kosovo was a major step forward because it frees the attacking plane from having to keep its radar pointed at the target. The American plane can launch a missile from outside the WEZ, turn, and kick on its afterburners before the target has a chance to even shoot.

These tools rely, of course, on radar, which can be jammed.

“If you can’t match your enemy’s technology, you can always subtract from it,” says Wayne Waller, a Virginia contractor who designs radar systems for the F‑15. “You may invent something that gives you an advantage, but you can’t hang on to it for very long. Our radar used to be difficult to jam, but the capability to do that has improved geometrically. That knowledge is out there. And the jamming advances cost a lot less than improving the radar.”

Countries that cannot afford to build fleets of the most advanced supersonic fighters can afford to build pods with clever software to mount on older airframes. This was brought home dramatically in Cope India 2004, a large aerial-combat training exercise that pitted F‑15 pilots from Elmendorf against India’s air force, which is made up of the MiG‑21 and MiG‑29, and the newer Mirage 2000 and Russian-built Su‑30. The exercises were conducted high over north-central India, near the city of Gwalior.

“We came rolling in, like, ‘Beep-beep, superpower coming through,’” Colonel Fornof told me. “And we had our eyes opened. We learned a lot. By the third week, we were facing a threat that we weren’t prepared to face, because we had underestimated them. They had figured out how to take Russian-built equipment and improve upon it.”

A small country can buy a MiG‑21 on the world weapons market for about $100,000, put in a better engine, add more-sophisticated radar and jamming systems, improve the cockpit design, and outfit it with “launch and leave” missiles comparable to the AMRAAM. These hybrid threats are more dangerous than any rival fighters America has seen in generations, and they cost much less than building a competitive fourth-generation fighter from scratch. The lower expense enables rival air forces to put more of them in the air, and because the F‑15 can carry only so many munitions, American pilots found themselves overwhelmed by both technology and sheer numbers during the exercises over India.

Today the average age of the F‑15s in use is 24 years, which in the world of modern electronics means they were born several geological ages ago. When the F‑15 started flying missions, Jimmy Carter was president and the Cold War was shaping geopolitics. Most Americans didn’t own a home computer. People were still buying music on vinyl albums and cassette tapes. The first F‑15s had roughly the computer capability of the video game Pong. If anything, the pace of innovation is even faster in the military than in the civilian world, and as better look-down, shoot-down capabilities have come on line, they have been systematically layered and squeezed into the aging airframe of the F‑15. This has led to the dizzying complexity of the fighter’s cockpit. But no matter how many gizmos the wizards can squeeze into the F‑15, it remains an old fighter.

“If you take a Pinto and put really nice tires on it, it’s still a Pinto,” Colonel Corcoran says. His choice of the unlovely, pedestrian Ford sedan as a metaphor is telling: pilots like Corcoran see the F‑22 as a Formula One racer by comparison. “You can put a bigger engine in the Pinto, but the frame is not built to handle the higher speeds,” he said. “To build a fifth-generation fighter, you have to start from the ground up.”

Some of the pilots I spoke to described the F‑22 as such a huge leap in capability that it ought to be considered not a fifth-generation fighter, one step up from the F‑15, but sixth-generation.

“It is really two big steps ahead of anything else out there,” Corcoran told me. “All of the data from all the different sensors in the aircraft are fused. The F‑22 has one big display in the middle of the cockpit, so you are kind of sitting in the middle of that display, and all of the sensors run on their own. And tracks show up all around you, 360 degrees, and all of it in color. So the red guys are bad, the green guys are good, and the yellow guys—we don’t know who the yellow guys are yet. So without the pilot doing anything, you have this 360-degree picture of the battle space around you. With the F‑15, after a couple of years of training, you might be able to achieve that level of awareness.”

Major Derek Routt and Lieutenant Colonel Murray Nance have a unique perspective on the new fighter. They both fly for the Air Force’s 65th Aggressor Squadron, mimicking the tactics and capabilities of enemy air forces in war games. I met them last summer at Elmendorf, where they were in the middle of Red Flag exercises—realistic war games carried out every few years—featuring “battling” F‑15s and F‑22s.

“I saw a Raptor just yesterday,” Routt said. “It was way above me. I was just being called dead at the time. You usually don’t see it until it’s done with you, flying overhead, rocking its wings, saying, ‘Thanks for playing, fellows.’

“I flew in a comparison test with both the F‑15 and the F‑22,” he continued. “You flew against the F‑22 one day, and the next day we took the same profile and flew against the F‑15. I fought both of those, and there was absolutely no comparison. This is not a paid advertisement for the F‑22. You talk to any aviator in the world, ask what they would like to fly, and if they don’t say the F‑22, then they are lying. I would kill to fly it.”

“It is hard to kill what you can’t see,” Nance said. “It’s eye-watering, the kind of turning it can do.”

“Eye-watering?” I asked.

“Makes you cry. I mean, you realize, ‘How did he just do that?’”

Last summer at Elmendorf, Corcoran sat me down in the cockpits of both an F‑15 and an F‑22 to show me just how different they are. As the F‑22 is to a modern point-and-click laptop—user-friendly—the F‑15 is to the first clunky personal computers, the ones where you had to type instructions in basic computer language to perform the simplest of tasks. All of the avionics on the F‑22 were designed from the ground up, and are fully integrated. The big central screen makes situational awareness intuitive. Better still, it is linked with all the other Raptors in its formation, and with the AWACS command. There is now only one page, and everyone is on it.

“It’s all there in front of you,” General Tinsley explained. “Where am I? Where are you? Who is out there? Who is locking on to me? It gives you a God’s-eye view that is simply a thing of beauty. I have sensors in the F‑22 that don’t just look out the front of the airplane, they are spread all over the aircraft. I can see somebody anywhere. It is easier on the pilot, which makes him a more efficient killing machine.”

The improvement is so great that some of the older F‑15 pilots tend to look down their noses at the youngsters flying the F‑22.

“To be good in the F‑15, you have to work at it,” Corcoran told me. “It’s easier to separate the men from the boys and identify the real talent. But the way I see it, the less time my F‑22 pilots have to spend sorting out all this data, the more time they have to think tactically and react to what is happening around them. That means our entire force, from top to bottom, is more effective.”

The F‑22’s most remarkable quality is that it is “combat-coated,” which means it is painted with material that absorbs rather than deflects the signals* beamed out by the enemy’s defense systems, making it virtually invisible to radar. Talking about it, Tinsley grew gruffly animated.

“Now I have stealth!” he said. “The F‑15 is a big airplane; you can see that thing outside of 10 nautical miles. The F‑16 is a little bit better in a dogfight, visually, because it’s a smaller aircraft. I might not be able to see it turning until about seven or eight nautical miles. The F‑22, the bad guys can’t even see me on their radar, and even in visual range the Raptor is small. My missiles hit them before they even know I am there. And I’m not just talking about air-to-air, I’m talking about air-to-ground.”

The biggest threat to American fighters during the first wave of an assault is from surface-to-air missiles. They are much cheaper to build and maintain than a fleet of supersonic fighters, so smaller countries such as Iran have invested heavily in them. Attacking SAM sites in an F‑15 is risky work. But with the F‑22, pilots are back to shooting fish in a barrel.

“The F‑22 avionics allow me to be a better battle-space manager and efficient killer,” Tinsley explained. “I have stealth, so I have the surprise piece. And then on top of all that, I can do it at supercruise. I can climb higher than other fighters, I can go faster with lower fuel consumption, so I can cover a larger space. And no one can see me. Now we’re getting that 8-to-1 kill ratio I need to maintain superiority.”

The Return of the Fair Fight

The Air Force fears that the dominance of U.S. airpower has been so complete for so long that it is taken for granted. The ability of the United States to own the skies over any battlefield has transformed the way we fight. The last American soldier killed on the ground by an enemy air attack died in Korea, on April 15, 1953.

Russia, China, Iran, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and others are now flying fourth-generation fighters with avionics that match or exceed the F‑15’s. Ideally, from the standpoint of the U.S. Air Force, the F‑22 would gradually replace most of the F‑15s in the U.S. fleet over the next 15 years, and two or three more generations of American pilots, soldiers, and marines would fight without worrying about attacks from the sky. But that isn’t going to happen.

“It means a step down from air dominance,” Richard Aboulafia, an air-warfare analyst for the Teal Group, which conducts assessments for the defense industry, told me. “The decision not to replace the F‑15 fleet with the F‑22 ultimately means that we will accept air casualties. We will lose more pilots. We will still achieve air superiority, but we will get hurt achieving it.”

General Tinsley suggested that there will be a deeper consequence: other countries will be more tempted to challenge us in the air. The dominance of the F‑15 had already begun to erode before the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991. The last fighter the Soviets produced, the MiG‑29, had similar aeronautic capabilities, and its radar and weapons systems gave it look-down, shoot-down tools on a par with the F‑15’s. Today, Russia is equipping its air force with Su‑35s, and has offered them for sale. Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela is a customer of the plane’s close cousin, the Su‑30. These fighters are every bit the match of the F‑15. Combine that with the hybrid threat posed by revamped older fighters, and the fight in the air begins to look fair for the first time in a half century.

It was fashionable in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union to argue that the threat of conventional warfare was no longer relevant, because no other nation could compete with the United States on conventional terms. The attacks of September 11, 2001, underlined that argument; the new threat was “asymmetrical”—small cells of sophisticated terrorists against whom our huge arsenals were useless.

Conventional weaponry may be useless against terrorists, but that doesn’t mean the old threats have disappeared. Russia’s incursion into Georgia and threatening gestures against the Baltic states; Iran’s persistence in pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; North Korea’s decision to ignore its agreement to cease building nuclear weapons—all are reminders that the threat posed by belligerent nation-states is still real. If Georgia is admitted to NATO, the United States and other member nations will be obliged by treaty to defend it from Russia. China continues to rapidly expand its air force. Conflict with these nations isn’t inevitable or even necessarily probable, but as we become more vulnerable in the air, it may well become more likely.

“What happens when we no longer own that advantage in the air?” Tinsley asked me. “Are our enemies going to feel a little froggy and push the limits? Why haven’t we fought that many wars? If America hadn’t built the F‑15, would it have been the same story? How much did our fleet of F‑15s keep other countries at bay? If we had been stuck with the F‑4 and someone had come along with a MiG‑29, would they have stepped out and done some damage? We have to replace all the F‑15s with F‑22s.”

This is the position you would expect from an Air Force general, whose job was to make sure America continues its unquestioned ownership of the sky. One might just as easily argue that lack of such complete superiority will act as a healthy restraint on American military aggression. After all, the latest big war, in Iraq, was one we started. If we are more likely to bleed, perhaps we will be slower to fight.

But fights will come. The squadron Colonel Corcoran is pulling together at Elmendorf will consist of an elite few. The 525th Bulldogs have a tradition reaching back to World War II, when its pilots flew P‑51 Mustangs and P‑47 Thunderbolts over Europe. Such squadrons are small, close-knit clubs and, especially when based in such remote outposts as Elmendorf, define their pilots’ personal, social, and professional lives. Their members sit at the pinnacle of their profession, every bit as much an elite (perhaps more so) as professional athletes, only without the pay or celebrity. Photos of the Bulldog squadron’s decorated exploits and heroes line the walls of its bar—or, as one happy pilot told me with a shot glass in one hand and a beer in the other, “Not a bar, a ‘Heritage Room!’”—where pilots gather for ritualized bouts of drinking, roasting, and storytelling. There are already two operational F‑22 squadrons at Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia, and eventually Corcoran’s will be one of two in Alaska. If and when a conflict arises, they will be stretched wide and far.

The good news is that the Air Force has had some success integrating the newer fighter with its older ones. Part of its argument for the F‑22s was that they were too sophisticated to be teamed with older, lesser planes. But early results in Red Flag competitions suggest otherwise.

“When the F‑15s are up doing their tactics, we’re kind of back behind them a little bit and helping them out if they have trouble,” Colonel Jim Hecker, the operations-group commander at Elmendorf, told me. “If an F‑15 is having some trouble dealing with electronic countermeasures where he can’t shoot, that’s when we’ll go in and get rid of that guy for him. I think the synergistic effect of having a couple of F‑22s in with those fourth-generation fighters is great. Based on the buy, I think we’re going to have to do that if we stay at the same number of F‑22s. We simply don’t have enough, so we have to find ways to integrate like this to optimize our capability.”

So America’s fighter fleet is likely to remain F‑15-based, backed up by the F‑22 and F‑35, a fifth-generation fighter that resembles the Raptor but without the same maneuverability and speed. It means that the days when the Air Force’s leading “ace” has only three kills may be coming to an end. If more vulnerability means more challenges—and it usually does—then more fighters will be seeing action. If the cost of air supremacy is not paid in dollars, it may be paid in blood.

After 26 years of flying, Rodriguez is no longer in the fight. Pushing 50, he now works for Raytheon. One of his responsibilities is to sell the AMRAAM, an assignment that puts to good use the story of his killer sortie over Pristina, when he lit up the snowy night with that MiG. He hasn’t flown an airplane since 2004. After all those years of going acro in the F‑15, it’s hard for him to get a thrill in the cockpit of anything else.

“I’ve relinquished myself to business class,” he said.

He’s passed the baton. But no matter how different the demands on a fighter pilot have become, Rodriguez is convinced that the job itself hasn’t changed that much.

“It’s the same person,” he said. “He’s just introduced to technology. I mean, when you think about it, today kids are growing up exposed to multitasking, multisensory inputs when they play a video game. So that person is going to evolve into someone technically friendly with everything new that comes up. Back in World War I, World War II, the concept of flying itself was a leap, you know, a leap of faith in some cases. And that’s the same one that we want flying fighters today, the one willing to take the leap.”

Correction: The print version of this piece incorrectly referred to the particles emitted by radar as electrons. Radar's signals are electromagnetic waves made up of photons.

Presented by

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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