Are Fighters the New Capital Ships?

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Are Fighters the New Capital Ships?

Air war has, in effect, become as costly as naval war. What are the implications for strategy?

Admirals are notoriously conservative regarding their capital ships. By the early twentieth century, the cost of a battleship and the time required for construction demanded extraordinary care with respect to the survival of the vessels. Capital ships do not simply represent or implement national power; because of their great cost and the long periods of construction, they effectively constitute national power. The loss of a battlefleet represented a catastrophic expenditure of national treasure, not to mention blood. This logic was on the minds of the German and British commanders at Jutland, as well as dear to the Japanese admirals who so desperately husbanded their strength into 1944.

Air forces have not, historically, conceived of air frames in the same way.  Cheaper, with quicker production times, and carrying fewer personnel, generals have viewed aircraft as more expendable. Even as late as Vietnam, the USAF suffered the loss of over 2,000 aircraft across the course of the conflict.

But over time, the cost calculus has changed. In 1944, the relative costs of fighters, bombers, and aircraft carriers ran very roughly as follows:

F6F Hellcat: $35,000

B-29 Superfortress: $700,000

Essex-class aircraft carrier $70,000,000

An aircraft carrier was worth 100 heavy bombers, each of which cost roughly as much as 20 carrier-borne fighters. These are (roughly) the expected cost numbers for the next generation of fighter, bomber, and aircraft carrier for the United States

F-35: $150 million

LRS-B: $810 million

CVN-78: $12.8 billion

The ordinal relationship remains the same, but the ratios have changed; an aircraft carrier costs 15.8 bombers, while a bomber cost 5.4 fighters. In effect, aircraft are no longer expendable; they now rival major naval vessels in terms of expense. For example, the loss of the B-2 Spirit of Kansas resulted in the destruction of nearly 5 percent of the fleet; the immense expense of reconstructing the Spirit of Washington remedied the loss of another 5 percent.

The implications of this shift are worth considering, especially in light of South Korea’s decision to purchase 40 F-35s, each at a cost roughly equal to one-fourth to one-half of a Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship. First, the idea that casualty aversion presents a major impediment to conventional great power conflict may be wrong; cost aversion may present just as large of an impediment. Few believe, for example, that the Marine Corps will be as risk-acceptant with respect to its new F-35Bs as it has been with its Harrier jumpjets.

Another is that anti-access strategies need not threaten to completely destroy an attacker; effective deterrence can threaten simply to destroy enough aircraft to significantly damage an enemy’s air force. This logic is already operant, of course, with respect to capital ships; no one expects the United States Navy to deploy an aircraft carrier into an area in which it faces a substantial chance of serious damage or sinking. But wiping out the USAF’s incredibly expensive and virtually irreplaceable F-22 Raptor force would have the same effect.

However, this logic also applies to the anti-access system itself. Flankers and J-10s are cheaper than F-22s and F-35s, but hardly as expendable as the MiG-19s the PLAAF deployed a generation ago.  For example, the infamous strategy described by a 2010 RAND report, in which Chinese Flankers engaged in virtually suicidal tactics to defeat American Raptors, is likely implausible; victory would leave the PLAAF too battered to accomplish any other national goals.

Air war has, in effect, become as costly as naval war. The next offensive counter-air campaign between a pair of dedicated, technologically advanced opponents could result in the complete destruction of two enormous mountains of national wealth, regardless of who “wins.”