Since the end of the Cold War, America's conventional military might has been predicated on the ability to control the air. This style of warfare produced stunning results in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and has been successful in subsequent military campaigns in 1999, 2001, and 2003. The ability of U.S. aircraft to penetrate hostile airspace and deny the use of friendly airspace to opposing air forces is now mostly assumed to be as immutable as a law of nature.
Central to U.S. dominance in modern airpower has been the exclusive possession of stealth technology, which has provided the U.S. Air Force with the ability to penetrate Cold War-era air defense systems with negligible and historically unprecedented low combat loss rates. The development of stealth during the 1970s and 1980s must be ranked as one of the most important technological outcomes of the Cold War arms race.
If one historical certainty can be extracted from the study of technological arms races over the last four millennia, it is that advances in military technology will elicit both symmetric and asymmetric responses. This cyclic evolutionary pattern of "measures versus countermeasures" is observed in military systems as it is observed in biological systems, and the notion that it will somehow cease to occur so as to accommodate the expectations of any nation is neither reasonable nor realistic.
Post-Cold War Evolution
The U.S. investment in stealth during the last decade of the Cold War did not elicit serious concern in the Soviet Union. The deployment of the advanced and highly mobile S-300V/SA-12 Giant-Gladiator and S-300PM/ SA-10B Grumble surface-to-air missile systems, (1) and the advanced MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker fighter, (2) all supported by a range of then-modern radar designs, convinced Soviet planners that the pendulum in the technological arms race was swinging in their favor. The collapse of Saddam Hussein's air defense system in January of 1991--under a deluge of U.S. high-speed antiradiation missiles (HARMs) and British air-launched antiradiation missiles, and airborne jamming by EF-111A Raven and EA-6B Prowler aircraft--was a major embarrassment for proponents of the Soviet model of dense, overlapping, and complex integrated air defense systems (IADS). Even more traumatic was the observation that stealthy F-117A Nighthawks were able to penetrate the strongest portions of the Iraqi air defense system with impunity night after night, with no losses suffered in combat. (3)
Stealth or very low observable technology, the large-scale use of precision-guided munitions (PGMs), and advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies provide the United States with a pivotal advantage in the contest for control of the skies. The possession of these three key technologies has defined U.S. airpower and U.S. warfighting "style" in nation-state conflicts since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The end of the Cold War was a pivotal discontinuity for the expansive Soviet bloc defense industry, characterized then by central control, virtually unlimited access to taxpayer funding, and a secure long-term market comprising the Soviet armed services, their Warsaw Pact siblings, and a plethora of clients in the "nonaligned" and developing world. Within a matter of months, this secure environment collapsed, leaving this enormous military-industrial complex to fend for itself. Through the 1990s, the industry restructured around a model based on intensive technological and commercial competition, with a primary export market focus.
Large portions of the industry became joint stock companies, and many mergers occurred. Within the industry, a new generation of corporate managers emerged, mostly former engineers and technical professionals, rather than the loyal Communist Party cadres of the Soviet era. In many respects, Russia's defense industry now resembles that of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s--smart, competitive, lean, aggressive, and prepared to take calculated risks, both technologically and commercially, but funded through export sales. …