Politics & Policy

Beware a Hollow Air Force

If we intend to maintain American military dominance abroad, the U.S. Air Force cannot be relegated to a supporting role.

As the youngest of America’s military branches, the Air Force has sometimes suffered from an inferiority complex. Despite the popular images of the glamorous fighter jock or steel-nerved bomber pilot, Air Force personnel are well aware of their lack of traditions comparable to the Halls of Montezuma or John Paul Jones.  

Perhaps this relative lack of pedigree has resulted in fewer champions for the Air Force on Capitol Hill. Whatever the reason, today’s budget restrictions are hitting especially hard at the American military’s air arm. If the 2012 budget doesn’t contain funds for some major programs, the Air Force’s future will look even grimmer than it does now. If it loses the political battle at home, the Air Force may one day find itself losing the battle in the skies. That would be a grievous blow to America’s global power and ability to defend its interests and friends. Luckily, the new Congress can reverse the trends of recent years, even if the Defense Department refuses to do so.

In many ways, the Air Force is a victim of its success. During the Cold War, it was inconceivable that the United States could deter or contain the Soviet Union and its proxies without an overwhelming air-power advantage. From the iconic Strategic Air Command to the gritty Tactical Air Command, from missileers to homeland-defense squadrons, the Air Force provided an iron umbrella over America’s global interests. In doing so, it shaped the nature of modern warfare while driving technological change that spread around the world. Some of the stunning joint creations of the Air Force and America’s defense industrial base, such as the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird, will likely never be repeated.

The apotheosis of U.S. air power came in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the air war against Saddam Hussein’s million-man army reduced his forces to a shadow of their former selves, and allowed the U.S. Army and Marines to win the ground war in just three weeks. The Air Force by this time had perfected what one former general calls the “pillar of fire”: It achieved air dominance by collecting intelligence and using long-range bombing to control the enemy’s skies, and also provided full tactical support for ground troops engaged in combat.

Yet 1991 was the year the Soviet Union collapsed, and U.S. airmen suddenly found themselves nearly alone in the sky. Ironically, the demands on them only increased. After Desert Storm, the Army took a break from major overseas campaigns until Afghanistan in 2001, and the Navy (which also lost its only peer with the fall of the Soviet Union) began to focus more and more on simply maintaining its global presence. The Air Force, however, was tasked with enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq until 2003, and it shouldered the entire burden of the 1997 Balkan campaign. If peace could not be kept without boots on the ground, the ground could not be secured without help from the skies.  

Coincident with these burdens, the Air Force failed over the past decade in some very public ways that cut into its credibility and made it a target in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Since the closing of the Strategic Air Command in 1992, the Air Force has struggled with numerous problems in its nuclear mission, most shockingly when four hydrogen bombs were mistakenly flown cross-country in 2008 without anyone being aware; many believe this made it easier for Secretary of Defense Gates to sack the service’s secretary and chief of staff, who earlier had clashed with him over the future of the Air Force’s fighter program. A procurement scandal in buying new tankers resulted in the decision’s being taken out of the hands of the Air Force. And delays and cost overruns in the fleet’s marquee F-22 fighter program provided the political rationale for slashing the final buy from 750 planes to just 187, a fraction of what is needed to make an effective force.

For these reasons and others, the Air Force today risks becoming just a support service to the rest of the military. Since 2001, the Air Force has increasingly wound up fighting solely as an airborne artillery arm. It is expected to ferry troops to the theater of action, keep them supplied, provide real-time intelligence to ground-combat operations, maintain surveillance, and provide close air support when needed. All of those are crucial roles that only U.S. airmen can play, but the force itself cannot be structured to carry out only those missions. The Air Force must keep the “pillar of fire” lit, or all presumptions of U.S. presence and military campaigning will be thrown in doubt.

What has been lost among civilian leaders, and perhaps even within some parts of the Air Force itself, is the understanding of strategic airpower’s role in carrying out U.S. national-security policy. Given the distances involved in defending America’s global interests and upholding its responsibilities, the Air Force is by necessity the first responder in most cases, be it disaster relief or regional conflict. It must have the planes and bases it needs to carry out this role; if properly equipped, it can prevent crises from spreading and give the U.S. footholds that might be too expensive to attain later. It can reach where other military services cannot, and can inflict the most severe damage on an enemy with minimal risk to the U.S. forces involved.

Beyond that, what has made the Air Force so useful and lethal for so long is the depth of its force structure. From strategic bombers to heavy lift, from surveillance platforms to tactical assault aircraft, the Air Force has been a flexible instrument immediately deployable in numbers commensurate to the challenge. This has provided national policymakers with a range of options available to no other nation.

Thus, current plans to hollow out the Air Force are misguided and will in the long run cost far more to the nation than they will save today. Retiring 650 combat fighters before replacements are ready will necessarily reduce the availability of needed planes and thus U.S. credibility. Yet the Air Force finds itself in a Catch-22, since its fleet is superannuated. Flying airframes until they are falling apart is inexcusable in a country that can spend billions of dollars filling in potholes and repaving curbs. No airman should be expected to fly planes that are older than he is, but today’s B-52 pilots fly airframes built in the 1960s, and F-15 pilots fly the same planes as did their fathers. The lack of progress on the Next-Generation Bomber similarly puts America’s strategic options at risk. Unless a future president wants to start lobbing ballistic missiles at enemy fortifications, a modern bomber fleet remains necessary to penetrate the heavily defended airspace of potential adversaries.

Why is all this so urgent? Because authoritarian states that seek to challenge global stability are not only getting stronger, but becoming more advanced, as well. China’s air and naval forces are giving it the confidence to stake out claims in the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas that implicitly dare the U.S. to get involved. Both Russia and China are developing two-engine fifth-generation stealth fighters, just when America has shut down F-22 production. News reports this week indicate Russia may sell its most advanced fighters, the Su-35, to China. Iran will likely soon develop the know-how to build nuclear weapons, and has a ballistic-missile supply source in North Korea. All of these countries, moreover, have increasingly sophisticated integrated air defenses that will prevent U.S. airplanes from entering their airspace — except the F-22, whose numbers are now so low that combatant commanders will be wary of using them for fear of losing them. One doesn’t have to be a fatalist to see various scenarios in which the Air Force will be called upon to respond to a crisis, yet may be unable to do so, or succeed only at appallingly high cost in airmen’s lives.

Today, the Air Force needs to come up with a list of strategic priorities and make its case on Capitol Hill and on Main Street. As next year’s budget is being drawn up, there must be development funding for the Next-Generation Bomber, which has already been canceled once by Secretary Gates. The White House or Senate cannot be allowed to kill the production of C-17 transport planes, which ensure global reach. Further cutting the production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will drive up the per-plane cost, as anyone with budgetary experience can attest. Equally important, Air Force leadership needs to make Congress face up to the fact that canceling the F-22 was a mistake that will limit the force’s ability to respond to a variety of high-level threats. Finally, the Air Force must ensure it receives funding resources commensurate with its unique missions of providing cyber security and space assets to America’s national-security establishment.

Secretary Gates has criticized military leaders for having “next-waritis,” arguing that they should focus on current conflicts — which today means counterinsurgency operations. But it is dangerously irresponsible for our national-security leadership to ignore state-level threats that are not merely on the horizon, but rapidly approaching. America needs to build the weapons that are necessary for defeating high-level threats, even as our armed forces must better steward their diminishing budgetary resources.

If we intend to maintain American military dominance abroad, the U.S. Air Force cannot be hollowed out and relegated to a supporting role. Nor can it be asked to maintain its global responsibilities with a sub-par force. If the United States wants to maintain the ability to be a global actor, to protect friends, and to dissuade adversaries, then a 360-degree Air Force is a prerequisite, as it has been for the last 60 years. For its part, the Air Force must reclaim its unique spirit, recommit to core competencies in its nuclear mission, regain control of spiraling costs and procurement problems, and reassert itself in the political process and public debates. Anything less risks failure in the air and a loss of America’s unique role in the world.

– Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in foreign- and defense-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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