We also heard a lot of bombast after the first war with Iraq, Operation Desert Storm in 1991; then, the technologists declared a "revolution in military affairs." The Government Accountability Office (GAO) spent two years looking at that: The air campaign should more accurately be characterized as bombing a tethered goat led by a military jackass, and even then, the air campaign did not live up to the hype. The high-cost "silver bullet" of the war, the F-117 stealth light bomber, badly underperformed its puffery. For example, in contrast to claims that "alone and unafraid" it destroyed Saddam's air defense system in the first hours of the first night, the F-117s actually had help from 167 non-stealthy aircraft and were confirmed by the Defense Intelligence Agency's bomb-damage assessments to have effectively destroyed only two of the 15 air defense targets assigned to them that first night. Overall, the GAO found that effectiveness did not correlate with cost and that on many dimensions the ultralow-cost A-10 close-combat attack aircraft was the top performer.
Nothing is changed today; the bluster is as frequent and hollow. Typical examples are unmanned drones, such as the MQ-9 Reaper and the Air Force's F-22 fighter.
The real-world performance of the MQ-9 Reaper is actually rather pathetic. With a tiny payload of an extremely limited selection of weapons and very poor ability to find targets to which it is not precisely shepherded, the Reaper is incapable of defending itself, and it is several times more expensive than manned aircraft that are more effective, such as the A-10. Also, it crashes so routinely that the Air Force appears to not even report all "mishaps" on the appropriate website. Yet, such drones are slavishly characterized as a revolution in warfare, yet again, and technologists are talking proudly about future nuclear bombers that are "optionally manned."
The F-22 fighter is described by the Air Force as an "exponential leap in warfighting capabilities." A review of the data shows the F-22 to be more expensive and less impressive than the hype would have you believe. For one thing, the cost for each F-22 is not the $143 million the Air Force asserts but rather a whopping $412 million, according to the GAO. The plane was supposed to be less expensive to operate than the F-15C; instead, it is 50 percent more. For another, its radar-evading "stealth" capability is significantly limited, as we know from two F-117 "stealth" casualties in the 1999 Kosovo air war, and its ability to detect, identify, and engage enemy aircraft at very long range with radar-controlled missiles relies on a technology that has repeatedly failed in combat. Finally, the F-22 compares roughly in close-in air combat to early versions of the F-15 and F-16. This June, that unexceptional agility was on display when German pilots flew Eurofighter Typhoons successfully against F-22s in mock dogfights.
Because the F-22 is so expensive to fly and difficult to maintain, its pilots get too few hours in the air to train -- half of what fighter pilots got in previous decades. Worse, a controversy has raged over how safe the F-22 is to its own pilots. Powerful toxins populate the areas where the F-22 derives its oxygen for the pilot, and despite an Air Force explanation that "contamination" has nothing to do with the physiological problems pilots have experienced, some observers are deeply skeptical that the Air Force is taking the proper care to protect F-22 pilots. Already two pilots have been killed in accidents in which those toxins are very possibly at play. Even though pilot skill is a dominating factor in air combat, the U.S. Air Force provides few in-air training hours and requires pilots to fly aircraft that are not free of potential poisons. These are not the signs of a first-rate military organization.