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Airpower in the Twenty-first Century: Swing- and Multi-role versus Single-role Specialist

Wild Blue Yonder / Maxwell AFB, AL --

Airpower—The Necessity

Airpower is defined as “the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.”1

Although this definition of airpower seems to be outdated, due to the inclusion of the space2 and cyberspace,3 the importance of airpower itself is unchanged. Since World War II, airpower—in particular air superiority4—is the prerequisite for successful military operations.5 In general terms, the air component command (ACC) will be a crucial player in an initial phase of a campaign or a (joint) military operation.6 Airpower assets gain at least air superiority,7 mainly by using interceptors and air superiority fighter aircraft.8 As soon as air superiority is achieved, the respective ACC will (1) have to maintain this status, and (2) become a supporting command to other represented/required component commands.

Whereas the necessity of air superiority seems to be undisputed, the question about precisely which assets are required to achieve and maintain it remains unanswered in the twenty-first century.9 From zeppelins and balloons in 1918 to jets like the He-118 or Me-262 in 1943, the inevitability of war has driven technological development.10 A hundred years after classics like the Vickers Virginia I, the Super Zeppelin L70, or the Etrich Taube, military air assets can be stealth-capable, accelerate far above the velocity of sound, and bear weapons systems reaching over the horizon.11 Among these technological developments are single-, multi-, and swing-role air assets. Which of these might be outdated, and which among these represents a trend or a “one-hit-wonder?”

Fourth- and Fifth-Generation—The Trend

The following analysis will introduce the western classification, understanding fourth-generation aircraft as multirole and fifth-generation as swing-role, stealth-capable assets.12 Western states tend to classify fighter aircraft according to their stealth, multi- or swing-role capabilities, whereas most Eastern products are categorized with more focus on their respective service ceiling and maximum velocity.13 The requirement for stealth emerged due to the increased surveillance, detection, tracking, and engagement capabilities of ground-based air defense systems and was facilitated by modern material developments.14 Conventional air superiority fighters became too vulnerable to improved integrated air defense systems (IADS). Therefore, reduced visibility to radar systems was understood as a feasible way to gain air superiority in offensive operations.15

The idea behind the development of multi- and swing-role aircraft was to reduce the required types of air assets based on single-capability packages. Air-to-air, air-to-surface, and tactical reconnaissance capabilities should be unified in a single set.16 Furthermore, single-fleet concepts reduce the required logistic footprint to maintain the air fleet, since fewer types of planes lead to simplified maintenance requirements, a reduced number of pilots, and abridged training requirements for ground personnel.

In consequence, air forces should be able to employ an aircraft capable of covering multiple roles without landing, while being capable of intruding in opposing airspace with limited radar signature. Ensuring that, air fleets could be reduced in numbers while maintaining the capabilities. In combination with a condensed logistic footprint, the aforementioned solution appears attractive even from a financial point of view, at least from a mid- to long-term perspective. However, this argument has not been entirely proven yet. Whereas the F-22 Raptor is an operationally effective fighter aircraft, the F-35 program turned out to be unexpectedly cost-intensive.17 If the latter aircraft cannot fulfill the expectations put upon it and warrant the investment poured into its development, proponents of far more economical solutions, i.e., single-role specialist aircraft, will prevail in the current debate.

The Role Specialists—The Counterpart

Role specialists are the opposite of multipurpose aircraft. Each of the former was explicitly designed to fulfill precisely one capability gap, to execute one specific task. The disadvantages of running a broad variety of role specialist are obvious—a huge logistic footprint, diverse training requirements, and numerous flying personnel. Interestingly enough, debate continues regarding the primacy between several fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft. Far more interesting seems to be the question: Will multi- and swing-role assets be able to replace the role specialists, especially in terms of efficiency on the battlefield? There are some severe doubts.

The latest dogfight exercises between classic interceptors (or air superiority fighter aircraft) and multi-/swing-role air assets have emphasized modern systems’ problems to cope with their specialized predecessors. Especially swing-role aircraft, armed with a wide variety of weaponry, are lacking maneuverability compared to traditional fighters specially dedicated for air-to-air warfare.18 A stealth aircraft’s need to permanently cover its weaponry has presented an additional problem in respect to the weapons bay and the maintenance of a reduced radar signature.19 This requirement renders stealth aircraft inferior to a conventional nonstealth fighter20 with regard to weapon readiness status.21 How does one gain air superiority with an inferior fighter aircraft? How can one project airpower without air superiority?

Another well-recognized example is the multi-/swing-role aircraft's air-to-surface capability. One can assume there is a reason why the A-10 Thunderbolt receives repeated life extensions22 and the Su-22’s life cycle was extended, too.23 If the newest generation’s planes could replace their respective predecessors, if they were more effective in the battlefield and further cost-efficient, no nation would prolong the classic “mature” weapons systems. On the contrary, it seems like technology has not yet progressed that far. Might fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft represent a failure instead of a trend?

Stealth—The Common Future?

Why are stealth and multi-/swing-role nevertheless a topic? The main argument for maintaining stealth capability is the increased survivability due to the reduced radar signature. So far, just one stealth-capable jet has been shot down, an F-117 Nighthawk, downed in 1999 over Serbia.24 Nevertheless, the question remains if this fact is linked to the reduced detectability or to a relatively long period without major conflicts. Even worse, the stealth capability hampers current fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft’s mid- to long-term survivability due to the impact of supersonic flights on the plane’s hull. 25

Could the benefit of these airplanes be linked to the necessities of strategic offense or defense?26 Does the possible intrusion into opposing and/or contested airspace justify the mentioned disadvantages of the stealth capability? These aircraft’s dogfighting vulnerability against role specialists leave many doubts. The question mark is getting more significant due to the increased range of air-to-air missiles. Why penetrate an adversary’s airspace in a covert way when targets can be neutralized from a distance over the horizon? Additionally, IADS developments render the reduced radar signature of less value as long as engines cause turbulence.


One can assume that multi-/swing-role aircraft will replace their single-role predecessors due to increased economic efficiency from a mid- to long-term perspective. However, there is no practical proof for the supposition that the weapon industry’s research and development programs will mitigate all the disadvantages, as mentioned earlier. Additionally, air defense systems will receive enhanced capabilities to counterbalance the advantages of modern aircraft. Naturally, manufacturers will attempt to keep their aircraft ahead of such IADS development—but all that takes time. From a short- to mid-term perspective, the primacy remains with the role specialist. From a long-term perspective, the multi- and swing-role planes will most likely shake off all their respective shortcomings. This is the reason why major actors pursue such aircraft. Meanwhile, other countries will be able to fight for their air superiority with more mature assets, supported by enhanced IADS that in some instances provide them with an upper hand.27

LTC Matthias Wasinger, PhD, Austrian Armed Forces

Colonel Wasinger is an Austrian General Staff Officer, holding a PhD in interdisciplinary legal studies. He has published several scientific articles in English and German journals, covering security strategy, security policy, naval strategy, constitutional law, and philosophy.


1 United States Air Force, Air Force Basic Doctrine, 1st ed. (2015), 25.

2 Although the United States runs a separate Space Force, merging space and air forces is still common practice. An example is the Russian Federation’s Air and Space Forces. Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, “Russian Air, and Space Forces,” http://eng.mil.ru/.

3 US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), one of the 11 US combatant commands, was established in 2018. It is responsible for operations in cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. Because cyberspace cannot be limited geographically, it is one of the US Armed Forces functional combatant commands.

4 Air superiority is “that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions of Military Significance for Use in NATO: English and French (Mons: NATO, 2011), APP-6, 2-A-11.

Air superiority must be distinguished from air supremacy, which means “that degree of air superiority wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions of Military Significance for Use in NATO: English and French (Mons: NATO, 2011), APP-6, 2-A-11.

5 Phillip S. Meillinger, “Supremacy in the Skies,” AIR FORCE Magazine, no. 2 (2016).

6 The future will prove the value of air superiority for cyber domain– and information domain–heavy operations. The impact and importance of airpower for this type of operation might be subject to a follow-on analysis.

7 In theory, air superiority can be established by either air- or land-based or a combination of both forces. This article will focus on air-based assets.

8 Interceptors are designed to gain height as quickly as possible to intercept intruding air assets. They are, therefore, usually used above domestic soil. Conversely, air superiority fighter aircraft penetrate opposing/contested airspace and ensure air superiority as soon as feasible. Consequently, they are the asset employed to gain air superiority out of area.

9 Natalie W. Crawford, ed., Emerging Threats, Force Structures, and the Role of Air Power in Korea: Conference Proceedings, Conference Proceedings / Rand Corporation CF-152-AF (Santa Monica (CA): RAND, 2000), 154.

10 Additionally, the so-called “Vergeltungswaffen” V-1 and V-2 marked the beginning of the unguided long-range missile weapon systems.

11 Meillinger, “Supremacy in the Skies,” 50.

12 Minimum characteristics: (1) a reduced radar cross-section, and reduced visibility to infrared sensors; (2) sensor fusion with scanned array radar; (3) linked electronics to share data with other aircraft; (4) supersonic cruise capability; and (5) advanced avionics and engines. Edward Hunt, “Analysis: Expectations for Deployment of Fifth Generation Fighters,” https://www.janes.com/.

13 John W.R. Taylor and John F. Guilmartin, “Military Aircraft,” https://www.britannica.com/.

14 Taylor and Guilmartin, “Military Aircraft.”

15 High-speed and/or altitude aircraft followed another logic, but the same purpose. Velocity should lead to decreased accuracy of anti-air weapons. The benefit of this approach is reduced production costs, making these assets enormously attractive on the market. See, Andrey Frolov, “Russian Arms Exports in 2018,” http://mdb.cast.ru/.

16 Multirole airplanes need to land to switch between these capabilities, whereas swing-role planes can shift from one to the other while operating in the air.

17 Hunt, "Analysis: Expectations for the deployment of fifth-generation fighters."

18 John Venable, “The F-35A Fighter Is the Most Dominant and Lethal Multi-Role Weapons System in the World: Now Is the Time to Ramp up Production,” Heritage Foundation, 2 March 2020, 5, https://www.heritage.org/.

19 The problem is getting even worse when considering that modern air defense systems will soon be capable of precisely locating an intruding stealth aircraft due to the air turbulence caused by the engine.

20 Under this precondition, the stealth fighter is always detected. Without an IADS, detecting and tracking the stealth plane, the interceptor cannot challenge the intruding counterpart.

21 Venable, “F-35A Fighter Is the Most Dominant,” 5.

22 Gareth Jennings, “USAF to Upgrade A-10Cs with 3D-Audio for Pilot Situational Awareness,” https://www.janes.com/.

23 Gunter Endres, “One-Stop Shop: ID18D1,” https://www.janes.com/.

24 Meillinger, “Supremacy in the Skies.”

25 Valerie Insinna and David B. Larter, “Supersonic Speed Could Cause Big Problems for the F-35's Stealth Coating,” Defense News, 12 June 2019, https://www.defensenews.com/.

26 Everett C. Dolman, Pure Strategy: Power and Principle in Space and Information Age, 1st ed. (London, New York: Cass, 2005), 143.

27 Such as the S-300 or S-400 systems.

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