The Perils of Air Parity

Feb. 1, 2013

The Air Force faces daunting long-term financial challenges. More than a decade of rising budgets during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were largely consumed by operational expenses and growth in a handful of mission areas. Overall, the so-called boom times have left the Air Force with fewer airmen and an aircraft fleet older and smaller than before the 9/11 terror attacks.

Budgets are expected to decline going forward, and in many ways the Air Force is already in a tougher position than it was back in 2001. Because of the high cost of manpower, USAF has shed thousands of uniformed personnel. The service has reduced end strength by more than 40,000 airmen since 2004 and is now approximately the same size it was in 1947.

Most Air Force aircraft inventories are geriatric. Some new purchases—such as the Block 30 Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft and the C-27 small airlifter—may no longer be worth their operating costs as strategic needs change. And large new inventories of Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft are tailor-made for operations in Afghanistan, where distances are short and air defenses nonexistent.

The Air Force will have to solve longstanding financial trials regardless of possible sequestration and the fiscal cliff. The challenge going forward is simple to describe but difficult to accomplish: USAF must preserve readiness, keep modernization programs on track, and recruit and retain top-notch airmen as available funds decline.

This is a budget balancing act the Air Force must get right. History is full of examples in which the US military has not dominated its enemies, and the cost is paid in lives.

In World War II, facing Nazi Germany, Eighth Air Force alone lost more than 4,000 aircraft in its bombing campaign against the occupied continent. Some 26,000 Eighth Air Force airmen died, thousands were injured, many grievously, and another 3,000 went missing. This was despite having a well-trained, massive force equipped in many cases with brand-new, advanced aircraft.

Less than a decade later, the Air Force was caught off guard in Korea. Jack Broughton recounts the early, difficult days of the Korean air war in this issue in “The Blooding of America’s Jet Fighters.” USAF’s “young jet fleet was thrust into a trial by fire. Air Force P-80 pilots on a comfortable tour in Japan quickly became combat F-80 pilots,” Broughton writes. “Most of the limited US Air Force units establishing positions in Korea were overrun,” as the invading North Korean forces swept F-51s and F-80s aside on their drive south. Then, for a short time, the MiG-15 outclassed anything USAF had on the peninsula.

Experience, training, and new equipment such as the F-86 Sabre allowed USAF to battle back in the skies over Korea, but the early days were deadly and grim. By June 1951 the US held an advantage in the skies once again. Over MiG Alley, F-86s were outnumbered 10-to-one, but held an eight-to-one kill advantage against enemy fighters.

The Air Force again found itself frustrated over Vietnam. Aircraft were often ill-suited for their missions, and rules of engagement ceded many advantages to the North Vietnamese. Also in this issue, in “The Crucible of Vietnam,” Rebecca Grant explains how the enemy exploited every advantage and took a horrendous toll on US airpower.

A small, outclassed enemy used surprise, hit-and-run tactics, deadly anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles, and the ability to generate localized advantages to deadly effect. The Air Force lost 2,254 fixed wing aircraft in Southeast Asia, including 40 percent of the F-105s ever built. “The air losses left a permanent mark on future planning for airpower operations,” Grant writes. “American reckoning with how a small air force could inflict such losses influenced the next generation of US fighter design”—not to mention war planning and aircrew training.

The Air Force has suffered far fewer fatalities in the wars since Vietnam.

Coalition air forces quickly gained control over Iraq in 1991. The Air Force’s dominance was so clear that some of Saddam Hussein’s jet fighters were flown to Iran for sanctuary.

In 1999, Serbian defenses were methodically ground down by USAF-led NATO airpower during Operation Allied Force.

Taliban air defenses were eliminated without much ado in late 2001, and Afghanistan has offered a benign operating environment ever since.

In the 2003 Iraq war, Iraq literally buried aircraft in the sand in an attempt to save them.

The professional, all-volunteer military force, high levels of readiness since the 1980s, state-of-the-art combat aircraft, and advanced training programs like Red Flag and the USAF Weapons School create an Air Force without peer.

The Air Force has made air dominance look so easy that many now take it for granted. A perception that the Air Force is already good enough works to USAF’s detriment because security in the skies is not a birthright. It must be worked on continuously.

In January, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley described the specter of a hollow force—one with “more units and equipment than it can support [and which] lacks the resources to adequately man, train, and maintain them and keep up with advancing technologies.” Declining budgets mean the Air Force is going to have to become smaller, and the inability to close any bases without Congressional approval makes avoiding a hollow force extraordinarily difficult.

Hollow forces still exist. In one last example from this issue, Peter Grier cites European cuts in “NATO’s Wobble.” “Most of Europe’s military reductions have been horizontal, applied evenly across operations, maintenance, and investment accounts,” Grier notes before quoting a National Defense University report: “These typical responses result in … forces that are not ready, not trained, and not sufficiently equipped or supplied.”

Failure to maintain air dominance has historically been measured in deaths. Avoiding air parity is easier said than done. The Air Force has its work cut out for it.