We’re Heading for A 110-Wing Air Force

Jan. 1, 1957

Whereas, it has become apparent that the Air Force program of 137 combat-ready wings by June 30, 1957 is an unrealistic goal under present fund policies,

Now, therefore, be it resolved: that the Air Force Association petition the President, the Congress, and the Secretary of Defense to re-assess the existing force goal of the Air Force and the funding designed to support it, and either realistically revise the force goal of the Air Force downward or its funding basis upward.

This resolution was passed by the Air Force Association Convention last August. At that time we predicted editorially that the 137-wing program was dead. We did not know then what force level had replaced it, but we felt that there should be some degree of correlation between the announced force level and the funds made available to attain it.

We were reporting the facts. Frankly, we would have preferred to see the funding basis increased, to a point where it would support the 137-wing program as the minimum our military leaders had judged necessary to meet the threat. Failing that, the next best thing is to know how large an effective force level can be supported with the available funds.

For many months it has been apparent that this level is not 137 combat ready wings by June 30, 1957. But the facts are that we are not even coming close.

If we are lucky, we may be able to salvage from current and planned fiscal authorizations as many as 110 effective, modern, combat-ready units by sometime in 1960. At various intermediate dates along the way we may show paper strength substantially higher. But, using the basis upon which the 137-wing program was originally presented to the public, we will never come within shooting distance of that figure, short of war or some comparable emergency.

The sole positive element in an otherwise negative picture is the fact that the Air Force no longer needs to live a lie. The 137-wing program is dead. Its obituary is being written in the Fiscal Year 1958 budget—long after the death notice we published last August—and long after everyone acquainted with the facts knew that the program was on the ropes.

The Air Force fought valiantly for its 137 wings in the “New Look” battle of 1953—and actually had high hopes of building them, particularly when this program had received the Administration’s blessing. We were not as optimistic, and we submit that history is bearing us out. Never has the Air Force been permitted to build to an agreed goal. The 143-wing program and other predecessors of the present force goal failed in the same way and for the same reasons. And, if the record of the past were not enough, there were some practical obstacles along the way that spelled certain defeat. In the build-up as planned, the key money year was FY 1957. This was the year in which there had to be a considerable increase in funds—about $4 billion—if the program was to succeed. Unfortunately, 1956 was an election year—and only those blind to the political facts of life really believed that the money would be forthcoming.

It was these selfsame political facts of life that put the Air Force in a desperate bind. It was forced to masquerade—to live a lie—and to maintain a front of the promised 137 wings. It was not permitted to admit that the goal was never to be attained. All along the way, the Air Force struggled behind the scenes with the problem of over-programming and under-funding. It was forced to work toward the paper goal of 137 wings with resources that could barely provide for 110 combat-effective wings. And that is precisely where it is headed today, 110 wings.

No one says any more that engineering genius and management experience could and would provide 137 “good” wings. But still with us are phrases like “reducing lead time,” “more bang for the buck,” and “we have the strongest Air Force ever in our peacetime history”—the old saws which, incidentally, were used to cut off the limb the Air Force was directed to climb.

The last four years’ record of aircraft procurement along is enough to prove that a modern, effective 137-wing force could never be realized. In 1953, the procurement program provided for more than 5,000 aircraft. In the years following 1953, procurement has averaged fewer than 2,000 planes per year—not even enough to meet attrition needs, let alone build strength. And even if the required aircraft had been built, the personnel ceilings forced upon the USAF would have prevented an effective build-up.

In 1953 the Air Force had 977,593 military personnel to man 106 wings, and not all of these were effective. Nonetheless, this number was forced steadily downward until mid-1956, when it reached 916,000. With 60,000 fewer men in uniform, the Air Force was programmed to man 131 wings at that time. If one takes this increase of twenty-five wings at an average of 3,000 men each, it would have required 75,000 more men. Instead the Air Force ended up with 60,000 fewer.

We have never felt that the 137 wings or any other number was a magic one. But, if it is impossible to maintain a scheduled force goal with the resources made available, then we believe the force should be reduced to some number that can be maintained effectively, instantly ready for combat. This presents another danger, however. In light of the record, our fear is that some of the fiscal-minded authorities responsible for the 137-wing debacle, will again prune the heart out of any lesser number.

Our second worry is the hoax that is being perpetrated upon the American people.

Phrases like, “Our air strength is higher than it has ever been in history,” and “New weapons make it possible to reduce the size of the force” are not only meaningless, they actually delude the public. They are certain to be repeated this year and some new ones added.

Let’s take a look at phrases like, “Our air strength is higher than it has ever been in history.” What difference does it make if we are twice as strong as we ever have been, if the Soviets are even stronger?

As to substituting the effectiveness of new weapons for will we have in 1958 that were not foreseen, in fact counted upon, when the force plans were made back in 1953? We don’t know of any. But if there are such weapons, will they be operationally ready for the combat force?

These are dangerous times. Even Mr. Dulles privately admits so. Such danger can only be effectively faced with the force in being. This means that the force must be ready at all times. Weapons on the drawing board or in development are useless if war comes before they are ready. You cannot promise security today on the basis of tomorrow’s weapons.

The fact is that the 137-wing planners knew all about these new weapons. And there have been only a few minor changes since that decision was made. But there have been big changes in Soviet strength. The Communists have made great and unexpected strides since 1953. Even General Twining has admitted they have outstripped our estimates. And it is our strength relative to that of Russia that we should worry about. It is not important that the US Air Force of 1957 could lick the US Air Force of 1953. We want to know bow it stacks up against the Reds.

It is in this context that budget pruning must be examined and the public honestly informed of the consequences.

The testimony taken by the Symington Committee—sworn testimony of top experts—shows clearly that the Soviets are closing the gap, and the risk is increasing day by day.

The Fiscal Year 1958 budget had not been made public when we went to press. But there were many indications that it will be a repeat of the FY 1957 program—short in dollars, long in explanation.

Manpower, controlled by ceilings as well as dollars, will be too tight for comfort. Pegged at around 936,000 men, it need only be compared with the 106-wing figure of 977,000 for one to see the downhill trend. Shortage of men means a shortage of security. The crews General LeMay needs to maintain his force in a state of even partial alert requires more men than we needed back in 1953 when the Soviets did not have the long-range nuclear capability they possess today.

A continuation of the 2,000 annual aircraft procurement figure will mean a continued decline in the manned aircraft force. More money will get into missiles, but most of these weapons that are taking a bigger bite of money every year are still a long way from operational.

Last year the Air Force got $1.2 billion for public works. This is the money used to build new bases, including the funds that will enable SAC to disperse, and to provide passive protection for existing bases. General Twining called this amount too low last year. If it is not increased this year, it will mean that General LeMay’s striking force is becoming less and less secure.

Not only will the effectiveness of the present Air Force decline—we are losing our desperate struggle for the weapons of the future. There is no evidence that the ceiling on Research and Development funds will not continue in force. We need not rely upon conjecture as to the result of such a ceiling. General Putt, head of AF research and Development, has already outlined the results. Basic research is proving to be the long suit of the Soviets. At the same time, America is reducing its efforts in this field to a token gesture. Without the foundation this research provides, our whole future in aeronautical development will wither. Commenting on last years ceiling, General Putt said that the money available for studies that would influence our 1958, 1959, and 1960 programs is reduced practically to zero. If the ceiling of $600-odd million is repeated, we will have next to nothing in 1960 and 1961. The Soviets show signs of gaining every year, and we are losing.

Even the research and development programs we now have under way will suffer. Projects such as long-range radar and high-energy fuels will be set back. Work on the nuclear-powered bomber and the chemically-powered bomber will be reduced to token efforts. No one knows precisely when the new ballistic missiles will be an effective substitute for the manned bomber. Yet we face the prospect of having no other substitute for the B-52, which by 1962 will be obsolescent.

The costs of missiles, and the increasing amount required, are reflected in a recent statement by General Twining. In 1954, missiles took only ten percent of procurement funds. In 1958, the estimate is aircraft sixty-five percent, missiles thirty-five percent. By the 1960’s the Chief of Staff sees this ratio rising to a fifty-fifty split. The dilemma is that the major portion of this money will go for weapons still in the development state—and which contribute not only whit to strength-in-being.

We will know more about how well the money matches the problem when the budget is published. We do know that the problem has grown, rather than diminished. We also hear that the money will grow, also, but scarcely in proportion. We know that the number of wings will be cut, officially, from a figure that they were never destined to attain. We find small cause for optimism. We have not pinned our faith to any magic number. But we find even less reason to pin it to any magic lack of numbers. We have twenty-seen years to stay alive until it will be George Orwell’s 1984, when “Peace is War” and weakness is strength. But until then, we prefer the time-honored definitions.