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.
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.

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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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