Obtaining information on potentially hostile forces is a daily air force routine. Using jets for tactical reconnaissance is dangerous but a necessary risk. Spy satellites can't begin to provide the quantity of information demanded by the military. Their expense makes them too few in number and they are available only as their orbit permits. UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are increasingly relied upon for reconnaissance because they don't endanger a pilot's life and are less expensive than manned jets. They have the added benefit of being inconspicuous while lingering over a site.
The most important mission of an air force is to control air space. Air supremacy prevents aerial attack on one's own forces while allowing friendly aircraft to destroy the opposition's resources on the ground. The first priority of an air force is to destroy the opposing air force - eliminating its aircraft and wrecking its bases of operation. Battles on the ground are usually won by the side that controls the air.
Ground attack is high risk. Diving toward earthbound targets is the combat role least favored by most pilots. One is subjected to fire from every direction when delivering ordnance close to the deck. A hard to replace pilot and his aircraft can be destroyed by inexpensive small arms fire. The Air Force much prefers purchasing high performance jets for aerial combat to something resembling a flying tank. Available technology is better suited to prevent downing by surface to air missiles and enemy interceptors than trying to dodge everything including a kitchen sink.
With the retirement of the A-10 Warthog close air support of ground troops is being relegated to helicopters. While U.S. Marines can call on their own air force for additional fire power the U.S. Army has no comparable control of fixed winged aircraft. The solution has been the development of attack helicopters such as the AH-64 Apache shown above. The USAF is only too happy to cede this role to the Army.
Combat jets are by far the most expensive and complicated weapon system in the military. The airframe is just the beginning. Advanced avionics and sophisticated ordnance easily adds several million to the price tag. Maintaining combat readiness involves regular overhauls, system upgrades and constant maintenance by highly skilled technicians to keep the aircraft air worthy. Their ability to deliver decisive fire power and to be most anywhere on short notice means they are in constant demand. Their expense guarantees their supply never meets that demand.
An aircraft's performance is dependent upon factors of readiness. Like automobiles combat jets vary widely in reliability and the expense of keeping them maintained. Western jets bring unbeatable performance but at a cost affordable to only the most financially well-off nations. An expensive jet is only as capable as the pilot controlling it. Pilot training is also an enormous expense and the flight time they need to sharpen their skills is often sacrificed to tight budgets. This proves to be false economics as highly trained pilots consistently sweep their less experienced counterparts from the sky.
Sophisticated command and control operations increasingly direct pilot actions. Radar dominates air warfare. Airborne control operations not only track all friendly and hostile aircraft but can also monitor and identify forces on the ground, as well. This real-time information capability is of value only when shared with combat pilots who are then directed to these targets of opportunity.