The shooting down of a fourth unidentified object by US fighter jets marks an inflection point in American military affairs and foreign policy.
Beginning with the downing of a Chinese weather balloon over South Carolina on February 4 by the F-22 Raptor raised the question why the first kill of the world’s most advanced fighter was an unevenly matched balloon.
Ironically, a fourth Generation F-15, arguably the US’s next-best fighter, has over 100 kills.
It is important to examine the symbiotic development of geopolitics, defense aerospace, and the American political economy over the last two decades and determine how things came to such a pass.
On Friday, a second object was shot down near Deadhorse, Alaska, by an F-22. And a third object was destroyed over Canada’s Yukon on Saturday.
Born in the Time of Unconventional Wars
For twenty years, the US undertook military interventions against poorly armed non-state actors and countries with ineffective militaries.
This was a time after the collapse of the USSR when the ‘mighty’ F-22 Raptor was left with no real rival. This unchallenged ‘unipolar era’ lasted for nearly 20 years until around 2015. In those two decades, the US invaded Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
The Raptor came into service in 1997, with the final delivery in 2012, and around 187 units were in service. It is a pure, full-stealth air dominance fighter with little ground attack capability, which the USAF desperately needed around 2009 – at the height of the Global War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It did see action, though, but in the Islamic State campaign in February 2014, where it joined its more seasoned cousins like the B-1B bomber, F-15, and F-16 in attacking ISIS camps in northern and eastern Syria.
The terror group was hardly the foe the F-22’s developers, and the USAF anticipated fighting.
F-15, F-16 Fighter Came When Conventional Wars Were a Reality
The F-15 and F-16 were born at the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US. The F-16 began developing as the Light-Weight Fighter (LWF) after the US experience in the Vietnam war with the MiG-21 – an inexpensive, nimble single-engine fighter with simple communications equipment that can fire air-to-air missiles, leaving the higher-end roles to the F-15.
Meanwhile, the hype around introducing the F-15 in the 1970s was as big as the F-22 in the late 1990s. Since then, it has evolved sufficiently after being used against Iraqi and Syrian jets by the US and Israeli air forces.
The MiG-29, the F-16, and F-15 have now gone far beyond their original intended role, acquiring newer weapons, sensors, and engines, progressing from the Generation 4 to the Generation 4.5 category, just a notch under the Generation 5 F-22 and F-35.
But as for the Raptor, its manufacturing has stopped, with minimal scope for future upgrades. The USAF wants to retire it soon to make way for the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.
Cold War-era F-15, F-16, or MiG-29 are therefore more relevant in the ‘New Cold War’ as the world sees a return to conventional wars and Great Power Contest.
These fighters would probably be around for longer than the stealth F-22 or F-35 – both highly technically and financially prohibitive programs marred by cost overruns, maintainability issues, and even crashes.
Even more tragically for the F-22, Chinese J-20, and Russian Su-57 that emerged over the last decade would be the only functional Gen 5 fighters with far greater utility and industrial support.
The Russian and Chinese aircraft were designed precisely when conventional wars were again a reality. Unlike the F-22, they began development in the middle of the unipolar era and were operational by the time Raptor’s limitations became apparent.
Put differently, the F-22 came when nations fought terrorists, militias, and non-state actors, who had no air force at all, leaving the ultra-sophisticated jet without even a primary aircraft as an adversary. It seemed destined to continue that role with a lopsided match against a helpless balloon.
US-China ‘Ballooning’ Rivalry
That the shooting down of the four aerial objects, beginning with the balloon over South Carolina on February 4, is rooted in a US-China Great Power Contest is certain.
It is evident from the President Joe Biden administration ascribing a security angle to the objects while maintaining in official briefings that they did not pose a physical threat.
Media interactions by Department of Defense (DoD) officials stating multiple times that the February 4 balloon posed no physical threat to civilians or the military installations on the ground and that the shooting down was for preventive purposes is a case in point.
“The balloon never posed a military or physical threat to the American people. We assessed that it did not pose a threat to civilian air traffic at any time because of the balloon’s altitude. We also assessed it did not pose a military or kinetic threat to US people or property on the ground,” the senior defense official said in the transcript of the media briefing by the DoD.
While merely maintaining its surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities on US military facilities that bothered them, the official couldn’t specify what kind of technical intelligence systems they thought the balloon had – whether “signals” (Signals Intelligence or SIGINT) or anything else. “We believe there are a broad array of capabilities (and will) learn more as we scoop up the debris,” the official added, pointing to the recovery efforts underway.
Neither did China deny it was their balloon and said it just strayed out of its way, indicating that the Biden administration was politicizing the issue. “The entry of the strayed balloon into US airspace was a purely unintended, unexpected, and isolated incident,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Mao Ning.
She then criticized the US for deflecting attention from its failure to pursue an effective China policy and playing up the “China threat” myth. “It tests, however, whether the US is sincere about stabilizing and improving its relations with China and whether it can properly manage a crisis,” Ning said.