The Air Force's continuing pilot shortage and historic lows in flying hours led Heritage to rate the Air Force as weak. 1st Lt Savanah Bray
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Heritage Rates Air Force and Space Force ‘Weak’

The Air and Space Forces rated “weak” ratings from the Heritage Foundation’s 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength, which cited insufficient pilot training, misaligned investment strategies, and insufficient space domain awareness, along with offensive and defensive space weapons as critical shortfalls.

Heritage rated the Air Force’s warfighting capacity and capability as “marginal,” but dropped the overall rating to “weak” based on its readiness assessment. That represented a decline from 2020’s “marginal” ratings for the Air Force. By contrast, Heritage rated the Army and Navy “marginal” and the Marine Corps “strong.” 

The Space Force was rated weak across the board, for capacity, capability and readiness, primarily because of the age of its systems and the lack of offensive and defensive space weapons. 

“The aging and shrinking of America’s military forces, their reduced presence in key regions since the end of the Cold War, and various distractions created by America’s domestic debates have created a perception of American weakness that contributes to destabilization in many parts of the world and prompts old friends to question their reliance on America’s assurances,” the report states. “For decades, the perception of American strength and resolve has helped to deter adventurous bad actors and tyrannical dictators. Regrettably, both that perception and, as a consequence, its deterrent effect are eroding.” 

Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said the declining ratings should come as no surprise.  “To those who follow the travails of the armed services this slip in rating should come as no surprise as for every year since 1990—31 years—the Department of the Air Force (that includes the Space Force) has received less funding than either the Army or the Navy,” he wrote in an opinion published on Forbes.com after the report’s release. “As a result of this chronic and serious underfunding, the Air Force is currently the oldest, smallest, and least ready than it has ever been in its history. It has become a geriatric force with some combat aircraft having an average age of 59 years.” 

Space Force “capabilities on orbit are in major need of investment as well,” Deptula wrote. “They reflect a previous generation’s operational reality, one not aligned to handle the threats posed by China and Russia.” 

Two decades of war degraded the Air Force’s air fleet, which now average 31 years old, and while research and development investment has grown, it now outpaces procurement, the report notes.  

“USAF currently is at 86 percent of the capacity required” to fight two major regional contingency operations, the report said. But that actually overstates current capability because “the disposition of those assets limits the ability of the service to deploy them rapidly to a crisis region.”

“While the active fighter and bomber assets that are available would likely prove adequate to fight and win a single regional conflict, … the global sourcing needed to field the required combat fighter force assets would leave the rest of the world uncovered.”

Deptula said these facts are not well understood. “Many in the public believe that since the United States outpaces any other power in defense spending that should a conflict occur, it would be virtually impossible for the United States to lose,” he said. “However, that conclusion is mistaken. Such comparisons are made wholly absent context regarding comparative national interests or basic economic buying power realities between countries. Both the possibility of war and the possibility that the United States might lose are very real and continue to grow more likely as the United States’ military advantage continues to erode.” 

The Heritage report noted the Air Force’s continuing pilot shortage, citing a shortfall of 1,925, as well as historic lows in sortie rates. USAF pilots averaged less than 1.5 sorties per week in the past year, and just 131 flying hours, well under “healthy fighter force thresholds” of three sorties per week and 200 flying hours per year per pilot.

COVID-19 had a severe effect on both flight hours and sorties, Heritage found, predicting it will take years to recover from the hours lost in 2020. Indeed, it argues the Air Force is making the problem worse, not better. “Unfortunately, the Air Force is not moving on that path and will cut 87,479 flying hours from its budget in FY22—a reduction of 7 percent,” the report states. 

Senior research fellow John “JV” Venable, a retired Air Force colonel, said the Air Force’s decision to purchase fourth-generation F-15EX fighters to solve its near-term capacity shortfal rather than fifth-generation F-35s could put the U.S. at a disadvantage against peer rivals. 

“The Chinese and the Russians do not fear fourth-generation platforms,” he said. “But they do fear the F-35. That says a lot about what we should be buying right now.” 

Fighter Pilots

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The Air Force’s fiscal 2022 budget request asked for 12 F-15EXs, and it included another dozen more in its 2022 unfunded priorities list. In fact, in a notable break from tradition, USAF did not include any new F-35s among its 2022 unfunded priorities. 

“We could be applying that funding into the fifth-gen fighter force and actually moving the ball forward with regard to capability,” Venable said. 

Neither the Air Force nor Space Force responded to a request for comment. 

Space Force Gets Failing Grade 

The report praised the Space Force for maintaining its readiness throughout the transition from the Air Force to an independent Space Force. “The mission sets, space assets, and personnel that transitioned to the Space Force and those that have been assigned to support the USSF from the other services have not missed an operational beat since the Space Force stood up in 2019,” the report says. “Throughout that period, the readiness levels have seamlessly sustained backbone and ISR support to the NCA, DOD, combatant commanders, and warfighters around the world. However, there is little evidence that the USSF has improved its readiness to provide nearly real-time support to the operational and tactical levels (“marginal”) or that it is ready in any way to execute defensive and offensive counterspace operations to the degree envisioned by Congress when it formed the Space Force (“very weak”).”

Aging and unprotected satellites, insufficient space domain awareness, and insufficient offensive and defensive capabilities combine to make a “weak” assessment necessary, Venable said. 

“The Space Force is not capable of meeting current—much less future—on-demand, operational, and tactical-level warfighter requirements,” the report states. 

Venable said the Marshall Islands-based Lockheed Martin radar tracking system called Space Fence, which went online in 2020, only provides updates on the movement of some 26,000 objects every two hours.

“In between those two hours, what those platforms do, those satellites or missiles, … we wouldn’t have known that because of the limitation on our spaceborne and our land-based surveillance platforms,” he said, citing recent reports that China flew a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle through space in August. 

Venable said the Space Force needs radars and satellites with optics to see spaceborne platforms and changes in the domain on a more regular basis. 

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, was an early advocate for the Space Force and agreed that space-based platforms are lacking. 

“Space-based platforms, unmanned assets, and more distributed logistics capabilities are essential to deterring China,” he said. “We’re not in a good place.” 

But Rogers sounded optimistic about classified programs and capabilities now being developed.  “What I’m telling you is that we’ve got some things going on that are going to put us in a great place,” he added. 

Rogers suggested advances in hypersonics are “really exciting” and that failures in testing are not a sign of worry, but of progress. “It’s one of the things I keep trying to get members to get accustomed to,” he said. “I want people to push the envelope and fail because every time you test and fail, you learn something. That’s how Kim Jong Un finally developed a missile that could reach the United States.”

The report cheered the Space Force’s proposed $17.4 billion 2022 budget, with its 13 percent increase over fiscal 2021, and for the Space Force successfully assimilating 60 disparate offices related to space from across DOD in its first two years. But it expressed concern that more of the 21,200 space professionals still in the Army and Navy must be incorporated into the Space Force to “remedy the dysfunctional oversight or command and control issues that the Space Force initiative was intended to resolve.” 

Venable said China is ahead of the U.S. in offensive space capabilities and said U.S. ground-based blinding assets can only temporarily impede a satellite’s operations, while China has anti-satellite missiles on Earth and anti-satellite lasers on orbit that can inflict more lasting damage.  

“We have no true—at least unclassified—systems that can take an offensive punch to the Chinese,” he said. 

But Rogers said those capabilities are coming. “We intentionally are moving or developing Space Force in a layered effort over a five- or six-year period,” he said. “I expect us to, as it matures, to continue to put more and more money in what they’re developing both offensively and defensively. So, I’m pretty pleased with where we are there. I would like to be pacing that well in other areas.”                                                

Amy McCullough contributed to this report.