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.

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.”

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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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