Politics & Policy

Wrong Place for Budget Cuts

Slashing our air-defense capabilities will hobble our military in future conflicts.

President Obama’s 2010 budget amounts to an eye-popping $3.7 trillion, and opens the floodgates to a projected $42 trillion in the next decade. This is the largest domestic-spending increase in history. The interest on the national debt will be $800 billion in 2014 — more than we currently spend on national defense.

Meanwhile, Obama is cutting our military’s budget to the bone and marrow. Funding for land-based missile defense, the F-22 Raptor, and the Air Force’s refueling tankers will be reduced, eliminated, or delayed — even though these programs are vital to our national defense.

As a career Air Force officer, I agree with Defense Secretary Robert Gates that we must focus on winning the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we also need to be preparing for — and deterring — future conflicts. At a time when Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons and North Korea is firing missiles over Japan, it makes no sense to cut $1.4 billion from missile defense. The U.S. has made major strides in missile-defense technology and has spent enormous diplomatic capital to encourage Poland and the Czech Republic to let us base missile-defense installations in those countries. Cutting this program at this time sends the wrong signal to our friends and adversaries alike.

#ad#The Obama budget calls for terminating the F-22 Raptor program after only a dozen or so more are built, and “replacing” them with the more standardized but less capable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The F-22 is far and away the most advanced plane ever built. Its combination of stealth technology, maneuverability, and survivability makes it essential to maintaining air superiority, which enables the use of less-capable assets in our inventory. Attacking the enemy and protecting our own troops demands air superiority, and compromising that goal is a mistake.

Critics complain that the F-22 is expensive and superfluous. But the F-35 is the most expensive program in Pentagon history, with a projected cost of nearly $1 trillion. Additionally, the F-35 was not designed to do what the F-22 can do in establishing air superiority in situations that require high levels of stealth, speed, and range. They are complementary, not interchangeable, aircraft.

Also critical to maintaining unquestioned air supremacy in a theater of conflict is the Air Force’s fleet of aerial refueling tankers, which are nearly 50 years old and need to be replaced. The cost of doing so is in the neighborhood of $40 billion — .1 percent of projected federal spending over the next decade.

I’m not a tanker pilot, but I’ve commanded tanker units, and as a fighter pilot I have used our amazing capability to multiply our combat effectiveness through airborne refueling. Today we use two types of tankers — a medium-sized one, the KC-135, and a larger one, the KC-10. Americans should also note that other countries rely on us for air-to-air refueling as well.

If we are to go with a single tanker, our warfighters will benefit most from having a more versatile medium-sized model. A larger tanker might carry more fuel and cargo, but it takes up more hangar space and requires longer and wider runways, limiting the number of air bases that can support it — and thereby limiting its availability for missions around the world. The greatest benefit a tanker can provide is to be there when and where it is needed.

Whether Barack Obama likes it or not, he is a wartime president. Even FDR eventually realized that “Dr. Win the War” had to replace “Dr. New Deal.” Winning the War on Terror and keeping America safe will take all the advanced weaponry we can develop to protect our soldiers, airmen, and seamen.

Let’s not place budget-cutting solely at the feet of our military. And let’s make the right choices for America’s future.

– Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn, who retired from the Air Force in 2006, is the former commandant of the Air War College.

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