Three themes are playing out across the Air Force as 2018 nears its end. Together they speak volumes about where the service is headed—or could end up—in the future.
The first is the vision for the future size of the force, what Air Force leaders are calling “the Force We Need.” The second is the disaster that befell Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and what that tells us about the true state of Air Force readiness today. The third is the battle over space, and the politics, costs, benefits, and risks of creating a brand-new, independent armed service for space.
Our Air Force is too small to match the demands of the National Security Strategy. Its 312 operational squadrons are overworked and under-resourced. Shortages of parts, pilots, and seasoned maintainers mean aircraft can’t fly and pilots can’t maintain peak readiness. Witness the rash of accidents last winter that led to a servicewide safety stand-down in spring. The conclusion: Op tempo and stress are undermining safety.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein make the case for 386 operational squadrons, a 24 percent increase, with added capability in almost every aspect of the force. So far, they offer this as a conclusion, not a detailed plan for how to get there. It’s unclear how they arrived at this number, whether they anticipate changing squadron composition or how many new people, planes, and other gear they will need to acquire.
Yet the arguments for growth are clear. The Air Force is fraying at its edges. It has been in constant combat since 1991—27 years. The average age of USAF planes is 28, double what it was in the first Gulf War. Many airframes are now irreplaceable. We can’t buy more C-17s or F-22s. Our B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers date from the Kennedy administration.
It’s a struggle to keep many of the service’s premier aircraft ready to fight: The F-22A had the service’s lowest mission-capable rate in 2017 at 49 percent; the B-1, B-2, and F-35 were all under 55 percent. If a crisis strikes tomorrow, half our combat aircraft won’t get off the ground.
This is not just a USAF problem. The Navy’s F/A-18 mission-capable rate is also only 55 percent. This is what happens when missions grow and resources shrink, as happened during the dark days of sequestration. With the recently announced cuts to the 2020 budget, it is happening again.
What does it look like when the alarm sounds and planes can’t get off the ground? Look at Tyndall. Hurricane Michael was an act of God, not of war, but its vengeance was no less menacing, its destruction no less complete, and the lessons no less severe. When Tropical Storm Michael cranked up its winds and upgraded its violence from Tropical Storm to 1 mph short of a Category 5 monster, there was just enough time to evacuate the base and get all the airworthy aircraft possible out of the storm’s path. Left behind were 17 F-22s in various states of disrepair. Michael ripped the roof from one of those hangars, and for a week it seemed we might have lost a number of our most capable airframes.
As it turns out, all of those aircraft were able to fly again by early November, a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of Air Force and Lockheed maintainers who got them back in the air faster than initially thought possible.
Yet the fact remains that, in an emergency, the Air Force could only surge 70 percent of those F-22s to get them out of harm’s way.
What if that had been an attack instead
On a more familiar battleground—Washington—sides are forming up for the battle over a proposed new “Space Force.” Led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan, the Pentagon is drawing up plans to form a Department of the Space Force from parts drawn mostly from the Air Force, with smaller pieces from the Army and Navy. The logic is that space is a unique domain, that prior administrations under-invested there, and that a new bureaucracy is needed to guide development of space-based capabilities.
Wilson and Goldfein are in favor of the split, as long as it is done right. Some question their bona fides, however. The knives came out for Wilson because she had the audacity to put a price-tag on her own plan: An internal study pegged the five-year cost of forming a Space Force headquarters and secretariat at $13 billion.
Space Force zealots howled that the price tag was inflated and that its release was intended to undermine space independence. A better answer is that this was an honest act of transparency, a dose of reality about the true cost of bureaucracy. The only reason to fear and object to that reality is that it interferes with the logic and excitement of creating a new military branch. America does not need a Secretary of the Space Force. Adding a Space Force Chief of Staff will not increase the lethality of the US military. The Joint Chiefs will not become wiser with the addition of an eighth four-star general.
The United States does need, however, to invest in space capabilities that enhance our ability to use space effectively for our national defense. First, we must ensure the Air Force’s space mission is fully funded. Second, we must formally acknowledge space as a warfighting domain with the re-establishment of US Space Command, as the Pentagon already envisions.
Modeled on US Special Operations Command, SPACECOM would also provide joint-service domain expertise and leadership without creating a separate service and all the costs that would entail. If necessary, we can ensure the nation understands where our primary military focus on space resides by renaming the Air Force as the US Aerospace Force.
Logic tells us that creating a Space Force unwittingly opens the door to other parochial debates: Submariners could argue that undersea warfare is really its own domain. Cyber warriors could call for a unified Cyber Force. Airpower advocates could return to old arguments over why the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps should cede their aviation assets to the Air Force. These are not good ideas—they are illustrations of parochialism run amok.
America already has the Space Force we need. It’s called the US Air Force. Let’s invest in making that Air Force—and all its space assets—great again.