The Air Force at a Crossroads

Sept. 1, 2005

At a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) produced a chart depicting change in the USAF fighter force. It showed the inventory had steadily shrunk from 63,000 fighters after World War II to 3,400 aircraft in the post-Cold War years to about 2,500 today.

Hunter found this decline “very troubling.”

Indeed, USAF has been ruthless about shedding fighters. In the 1990s, it slashed the force from 37.5 to 20 wings, though it also increased total combat power. More recently, it programmed a new 25 percent cut, which will eliminate the equivalent of a wing per year for five years. This would leave a small but lethal 2,000-fighter force heavy on stealth, speed, and precision.

Despite this record, defense officials still raise sharp questions about USAF fighters. Is the force structure excessive, given changing military needs and competing claims for defense dollars? Should USAF be in the fighter business? The tactical force has been under scrutiny for more than a decade, yet such questions persist.

In the year-long Quadrennial Defense Review, a top-to-bottom assessment of US military forces, strategy, and policies, Pentagon leaders have argued that the fighter force is too large. They see tactical airpower as one area in which the US has “excessive overmatch.”

If press leaks are any guide, the Pentagon also is taking sharper aim at key modernization programs. The July 27 Los Angeles Times, for example, reported that DOD “is developing plans to slash the Air Force’s two prized fighter jet programs”—the stealthy F/A-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The reason, according to the Times, is a belief they would be of little use in the fight against terrorists.

“What does al Qaeda’s air force look like?” sneered one unnamed QDR participant.

Evidently, the QDR also has raised sensitive service roles and missions issues. Gordon R. England, the deputy defense secretary-designate, openly expresses a desire to “integrate” Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps aviation arms. Other critics suggest that the Air Force should let other services take the lead on fighters and concentrate on mobility, long-range strike, space, and ISR missions.

Clearly, the Air Force is engaged in a great struggle over the future of tactical airpower. The outcome remains uncertain, but the stakes are clear enough—the nation’s ability to dominate the air over the battlespace.

The Air Force will have its hands full preventing unplanned reductions in its fighter force structure. Such a step, should it occur, would threaten USAF’s ability to cover its domestic and global commitments.

In the view of Hunter, among others, the Air Force may already have gone too far in reducing its fighter inventory. “It’s not yet clear how we can still [have] the number of aircraft needed for homeland defense while continuing to provide the force structure necessary for the Air Force’s 10 air expeditionary forces,” said Hunter.

Hunter added, “This [is] analogous to the cavalry days. We’re going to have lots of cavalry personnel with no horses.”

The Air Force likely would prefer to have a more-robust force. However, it argues that it needs to divest itself of some older F-15s and F-16s, which are costly to maintain, and use the savings to purchase new aircraft.

Despite claims to the contrary, planned fighter replacement is critical. The service has not fielded a new air dominance fighter since the F-15 in 1974. Large numbers of today’s F-15s and F-16s date to the mid- to late-1980s, when they entered the force with planned 20-year service lives.

The F/A-22 is the centerpiece of USAF’s long-term plans. It combines stealthiness with supercruise and advanced sensors. The Air Force believes that a fleet of 381 F/A-22s is the key to air dominance, and it maintains that the stealthy F-35 is needed to bring persistent firepower to the battlespace.

Critics assert that this is overkill. However, nobody knows the threats we will face in years to come, and it would be a mistake to neglect our own development of airpower, given the military buildups under way in China and other countries.

We’ve been down that road before. America entered World War II with second-rate fighters. Twenty years later, in Southeast Asia, we made a similar mistake. In a decade in Vietnam, the US lost 2,448 fixed-wing aircraft, the result of encounters with surface-to-air missiles, agile enemy fighters, and dense anti-aircraft artillery.

Said retired Gen. Richard E. Hawley, former commander of Air Combat Command: “The lesson to heed is that adversaries will understand our need for freedom of maneuver through the air and will do all that they can to deny us that freedom.”

According to one insider, it appears that some Pentagon decision-makers “want to take the Air Force out of the tactical air business.”However, senior officials note that no other service can bring to bear the same weight of firepower as that produced by the Air Force. They point out that, in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, USAF flew nearly 2,000 sorties a day—far more than were produced by the air arms of either the Navy or Marine Corps.

USAF’s fighter force is a “full-service” outfit, with a balance of specialized and multirole capabilities. Some 21 percent is focused on air superiority and 15 percent on close air support, with the remaining 64 percent of the force being multirole aircraft. No other service offers that broad spread of aircraft capabilities.

Pentagon analysts believe the first QDR program actions could begin to emerge sometime this fall. With the Air Force now at a crossroads, the decisions that emerge will go far toward defining the service for years to come—for good or ill.