Politics & Policy

The Air Force’s Vital Role

F-35s at Nellis Air Force Base (Senior Airman Brett Clashman)
For our own safety and for global stability, we need a 21st-century Air Force.

The tragic shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine last week proved that the world cannot take freedom of the skies for granted. This new face of war will require an American military transformed to meet new threats. Much of that burden will fall on the Air Force, whether to destroy ground-based threats, ensure the safety of threatened air lanes, or prevent American military forces from coming under attack from the sky. Yet also last week, the Senate joined the House in letting politics trump strategy, as it passed a budget preventing the Air Force from reforming itself for the 21st century. This failure will limit the country’s ability to continue playing a global security role in what are already more unstable times.

After nearly two years of budget uncertainty, one trend is clear: The Air Force will actually purchase fewer aircraft over the next decade than the Navy. The service’s senior civilian officials and uniformed officers have opted to shrink the force in size but attempt to retain its technological edge, primarily by betting on the problem-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose job it will be to attack targets on the ground. While that large-scale, almost existential, choice may have been made, Congress and the Air Force have failed to deal with other, almost equally important choices about priorities that will determine the Air Force’s future structure and missions.

Most important, huge savings could be achieved by closing some bases and consolidating operations. By some estimates, the Air Force has at least 25 percent overcapacity in installations, and many officials believe that, by appropriate downsizing, they could save $1 billion just in personnel costs each year, plus hundreds of millions more for the modernization and upkeep of redundant facilities. But, placing constituents’ narrow interests over the national interest, Congress has irresponsibly refused to allow another round of base closures.

In addition, Congress has micromanaged the types of planes the Air Force can operate. Since 2005, the Air Force has been forced to scrap more than 500 airplanes to meet budget limits. It now wants to retire the A-10 close-support plane, which is very popular but doesn’t fit the larger strategic mission in coming years. Both the Senate and the House have refused to allow the mothballing of the entire A-10 fleet, which would have saved over $3 billion. Advocates argue that only the A-10 can give the close air support needed by ground troops in certain circumstances. Yet they seem to ignore the obvious point that with a smaller Army and little likelihood of massive land operations anytime soon, protecting our deployed ground troops can be done just as well using a variety of integrated systems that can deliver munitions when and where needed.

Congress also should have taken the lead in increasing the number of next-generation strategic bombers the Air Force plans to build. Currently, the plan is to request just 80 to 100 bombers, but those numbers are insufficient and are likely to shrink even further as costs inevitably increase. Already, Air Force officials are feeling pressure to trim the cost of the program. Tomorrow’s world will see much greater risk to America and its allies from the growth in Eurasia of ballistic-missile forces, potentially carrying nuclear warheads. The Air Force must have enough bombers to be assured of the ability to strike anywhere on earth without having to rely on ballistic missiles, which cannot be recalled once launched.

Similarly, Congress has yet to repeal the sequestration cuts that will threaten the entire budget. This will be a particular blow to the troubled F-35 program, which, despite its massive cost and production delays, remains vital to the Air Force’s future, given that Congress and the White House killed the F-22 in 2009. Congress must ensure that the F-35 will be fully funded, along with vital upgrades to the tiny F-22 fleet, which may not have nearly enough numbers to carry out its role of dominating the skies. Instead, U.S. pilots will be increasingly outnumbered by sophisticated Russian and Chinese fighters and at risk over areas protected by advanced air-defense systems, such as in Syria or Ukraine. The F-35 will carry most of the burden of ground attack, as well as help the F-22s control contested airspace. Thus, a smaller fleet than currently planned will assuredly raise the risk faced by U.S. pilots and ground troops alike.

The Air Force’s leadership has been adamant that it must continue to increase its vital intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Congress needs to find sufficient funds to maintain our U-2 force while moving to upgrade the Global Hawk drone for the next generation. We cannot afford more surprises like the ISIS takeover of Iraq. Similarly, the budget for space-based systems has been threatened, making it harder to maintain the seamless communications and global ISR coverage that makes the U.S. military the most powerful on the planet.

The tragedy in Ukraine gives us a preview of the greater global disorder we will face in coming years. For America to be able to maintain stability abroad, Congress must embrace a strategic vision and then ensure a funding level commensurate with the demands made on America’s only truly global military force. Only such responsible stewardship will allow the U.S. Air Force to restructure itself so as best to counter the growing threats to peace and stability. 

— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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