Lurching Toward a Cliff

April 1, 2008

Speaking to a Washington, D.C., audience on Feb. 28, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF Chief of Staff, remarked that “nothing goes on in the American military [in which] the Air Force is not a primary player.” The service, he hastened to add, “is not going out of business.”

Regarding current operations, he is certainly correct. Rarely has USAF been as active or vital to US combat success as it is now.

In political terms, though, the situation is murkier. Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne once compared USAF to a company unable to renew its assets (i.e., aircraft), saying such a firm should be viewed as “going out of business.” For some, Wynne’s remark came forcefully to mind when they saw USAF’s latest budget.

The $143.9 billion plan for 2009, unveiled Feb. 4, fails to address USAF’s top need—rapid recapitalization of its fleets of fighters, airlifters, and bombers after a 15-year “procurement holiday” and 17 straight years of war that have burned up aircraft at a prodigious pace.

The spending plan funds only 93 aircraft—52 of which are unmanned aerial systems. There is no new money for F-22 fighters beyond 183 already approved (the Air Force says it needs 381), or for C-17 airlifters beyond 190 already bought. Also unfunded is the new long-range bomber the Pentagon wants by 2018. The budget did contain $900 million to start replacing old tankers—an effort now caught up in legal disputation.

With so few new aircraft in USAF’s budget—and the distinct prospect of more austerity in years ahead—worries about the fate of recapitalization have grown even more intense. Indeed, the future size of Air Force fleets has now become a subject of serious concern.

Some estimate that, given the age and retirement schedule of today’s F-15s and F-16s, the truncated size of the F-22 program, and the stretched-out production of the F-35, the fighter fleet could drop below 1,500 aircraft by 2025. The Air Force has estimated it needs 2,250 fighter-attack types.

When it comes to bombers, airlifters, and tankers, the story is much the same. In the best-case scenario, the fleets for decades to come will contain large numbers of aged systems. The surprise failure of a class of aircraft would make matters worse.

In recent months, the severity of the problem has attracted widespread attention on Capitol Hill. The magnitude of the concern there is demonstrated by remarks voiced at February hearings before the House Armed Services Committee:

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.): “Can the force that the Air Force is budgeting for today fulfill the national military strategy? My review of your budget, and the full committee hearing we held on this topic last fall, suggests that the answer is ‘no.’ “

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.): “Decisions we make today will impact the readiness and the capability of the Air Force in the next two decades. Gentlemen, it’s clear that the budget in front of us does not meet your requirements.”

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.): “There’s no money to buy C-17s. … We have a situation here where we are chasing our own tail. We are keeping C-5s online. … We’re not procuring C-17s through the President’s budget.”

Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.): “This base budget says, first, we need more C-17s, but we can’t pay for them. Second, we need more F-22s, but we can’t pay for them. Third, we need 76 B-52s, but we can only pay for about 40. … We have stolen all we can from Peter, and Paul is issuing foreclosure notices.”

Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.): “[When] does the Air Force get to the point of no return? I’m not talking about giving up and closing down the Air Force, but you get to a point of no return, [where] you can’t recover what you have lost.”

These lawmakers are right to be worried. The problems began in earnest during the Clinton years, and continued during the Bush Administration. When it comes to the future of the Air Force, Washington has been lurching toward a cliff wearing a blindfold.

What we are witnessing is nothing less than the slow-motion dismantlement of the nation’s premier asymmetric military force—the Air Force. At some point, we will have put ourselves irrevocably on course for the failure of American arms in some future conflict.

In Moseley’s get-well plan, the Air Force jettisons many old airplanes. The Air Force budget proposes to retire 182 aircraft, which are inefficient, ineffective, prone to breakage, and monumentally expensive to maintain and operate.

More important, Moseley and Wynne are trying to persuade the public, Congress, and the Bush Administration to allocate to Air Force use an additional $20 billion per year for many years to come. Most of this would go to buy new airplanes. They note that the Air Force recently delivered to Congress an $18.75 billion “unfunded requirements list” which tracks closely to the notional $20 billion addition. It is very much an uphill battle, however.

Moseley has begun to call openly for the nation to consider raising its investment in basic defense accounts to four percent of the $15 trillion US gross domestic product, up from about 3.4 percent in 2008. That would translate into a defensewide increase of about $90 billion, enough to cover the expenses of not only the Air Force but also the other war-weary services.

It is a decision that likely will be confronted not by George W. Bush but by the new President who takes office next January. Indeed, the Pentagon is deferring a number of tough decisions—the F-22 and C-17 in particular—over to the next White House occupant.

We expect the debate to be long and loud, but, at bottom, the problem is simplicity itself, and it can’t be avoided. As Moseley puts it, “If you don’t build satellites and airplanes, you don’t have an Air Force.”