Airpower in the Nation’s Defense

Nov. 1, 1994

Never before in its history has the United States been so reliant on airpower to protect its interests and security. This is a consequence of global circumstances as well as national strategy. The threat of global conflict diminished after the Cold War, but the instability and redistribution of power that followed have made regional conflict a greater danger than before. The probability of US involvement in such conflicts is high, and our response would be entrusted primarily to expeditionary forces based in the United States.

US strategy prescribes that our forces be prepared to fight and win two major regional conflicts, nearly simultaneously. In each conflict, the initial US force is expected to halt an invasion on some distant battlefield and hold the line until decisive force can arrive. A combined-arms campaign must then defeat the enemy battle force, destroy or neutralize the enemy’s ability to make war, and sustain the operation until the conflict is resolved satisfactorily. In addition, US forces must continuously project US power and presence and deter aggression across the spectrum of conflict.

Long-range airpower is the pivotal element in that strategy. No other military instrument can project power so rapidly and flexibly or with comparable weight to any point on Earth. Air and space forces represent not only global access and presence but also the means to acquire and communicate the information that is critical to the outcome of a crisis.

The two-conflict strategy is sound, but the defense budget that purports to implement it is not. Force and budget reductions undermine the capability of the US armed forces to execute the strategy. Force requirements identified by military analysis have been set aside in favor of arbitrary ceilings imposed for political and budgetary reasons. It is also clear, for that matter, that the defense budget as projected is not sufficient to fund even the lower force levels that are planned.

We believe it is imperative that the nation reexamine the capability and force structure that has been budgeted for all of the armed services. This is especially important in the case of the US Air Force, which would provide the preponderance of airpower to respond, fight, and sustain the units deployed in major regional conflicts.

• Restoration of force structure. We believe that the Air Force component of the force structure must include not less than twenty-four combat-coded fighter and attack wings, at least 184 operational bombers with precision guided munitions, and (assuming that problems in the procurement program are resolved) a full complement of 120 C-17 airlifters. This is an increase from the force structure now planned, but it is well below the configuration at the time of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and also less than the “Base Force” projection of 1992.

• Equipping the force. Those who believe we can fight tomorrow’s wars with today’s weapons are wrong. The force must be continually modernized and properly equipped. Technological superiority is an advantage we dare not lose. New capabilities, such as active missiles, advanced radar and avionics, and radar cross section reduction, are within reach of numerous nations already. The list of countries with ballistic missiles and cruise missiles is growing. Access to spacebased capabilities will soon be common. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a problem of enormous concern. We cannot meet these challenges without the best that US technology can deliver.

• Readiness is so important that the US Air Force, to a degree not matched by the other services, has sacrificed both force structure and modernization in order to maintain its capability to conduct current operations. In part, readiness means preparation to respond as dictated by strategy to major regional conflict, but airpower does not simply rest between wars. The present tempo of Air Force operations overseas–more than 200,000 sorties in Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, and Rwanda since the end of the Gulf War–has seldom been higher in peacetime. The defense budget becomes a hazard to the nation if it cannot support current operational capability except at the expense of vital force structure and modernization.

• Space. US military operations have become extremely dependent on capabilities from space for communications, intelligence, navigation, weather reporting, command and control, and more. Ironically, just when space has come into its own as a factor in military operations, the program has begun to slip and drift. It is time to decide how we will modernize our space-launch capability and then get on with it. We must support improved and urgently needed capabilities for orbiting systems, particularly those that detect and track ballistic missile launches. We also believe that, for reasons of both effectiveness and economy, the nation will be best served by eliminating redundancy and designating the US Air Force as the executive agent for launch, operational control, research, development, and acquisition of military space assets.

• Needs of military people and veterans. It is imperative that there be general respect and understanding for those who do serve on the part of government officials. Otherwise, damage to force morale and effectiveness will surely result, and the unique needs and concerns of military people and veterans will be overlooked or slighted.

Too often in recent years, we have seen a tendency to regard the armed forces as a social laboratory. Too many thoughtless actions and policies have indicated an inclination to make decisions primarily for political and economic reasons with secondary consideration for the effect on the lives and careers of military people.

Compensation inequities continue, and there is persistent doubt that the government will honor the promises given about military and veterans’ benefits. This is the seventh straight year of active-duty force cuts and the fifth year of reductions to the Total Force. Every month this year, the armed forces will decrease on average by 7,800 active-duty troops, 2,750 Guardsmen and Reservists, and 1,165 civil service employees. The anxiety of the force is obvious to all who take the time to notice.

The changes government leaders and administrators must make are in the areas of understanding, attitude, and respect. From that, positive and equitable policies will flow naturally.

• The industrial base. A central element of the plan to reduce US forces at the end of the Cold War was assurance that “reconstitution” would be possible in a national emergency. The assumption was that a smaller but viable defense industrial base would be able to meet this requirement. Present defense policy virtually ignores reconstitution. The defense industrial base continues to decline. We are watching specialized production lines slow, then stop, and finally disappear. Given the low numbers of military aircraft remaining in service, attrition in combat will have a pronounced effect. Our only means of replacing most losses will be reactivation of old equipment put into storage during the period of reductions. The requisite training in this equipment, both for maintenance and operations personnel, will result in a further delay that must be taken into account. The Air Force Association deplores the nation’s inattention to industrial preparedness.

• A floor for budget cuts. The defense program is seriously underfunded by the budget projection for the next five years. According to estimates we regard as credible, this gap may be more than $100 billion. Furthermore, this alarming shortfall is measured against the force posture as now planned, not the force we actually need. Correction of this problem would not be an undue hardship since it would mean only a fractional difference in the share of the Gross Domestic Product allocated to defense. We believe the nation should establish 4.0 percent of GDP as a minimum below which defense will not be reduced to meet external budget constraints. That is lower than the percentage for defense this year or in any other year in modern times but a significant improvement on the 3.0 percent of GDP to which defense will sink under the current plan.

It is not too late to roll back the worst of the mistakes. We can begin by restoring US military force structure to a level more consistent with our national interests and strategy and placing a limit on the rash and radical defense budget cuts that have been imposed for reasons that have nothing to do with military requirements. We can make a commitment to technological superiority that is second to none. We can give our armed forces the support they deserve and need.

If we are unwilling as a nation to do these things, we must expect that in future conflicts US forces will be deployed on optimistic assumptions and go to war undermanned, underfunded, and underequipped. We should never forget that one of the fundamental responsibilities as prescribed by the Constitution of the United States is to provide for the common defense. We continue on the present course at substantial risk to the defense of our nation and the security of its interests.