In today's rapidly evolving threat environment, America's
ability to secure its vital national security interests will
continue to rely upon a superior military. This includes the U.S.
Air Force's ability to sustain a world-class fighter fleet -- in both
quality and quantity -- characterized by unrivaled firepower and
unmatched global mobility. The Air Force has served as a joint
enabler in current operations and provided the underpinning of
American national defense since the end of World War II. In
addition to delivering immense payloads, the United States Air
Force is the fastest transporter and facilitator of military power
in the world. In addition to its ability to move military hardware
and people around the globe and secure access to space and
cyberspace, the Air Force maintains a unique capacity for joint
President Obama's fiscal year 2010 defense budget request,
however, threatens the Air Force's ability to continue to meet the
nation's requirements. Over the past several years, flat and
declining Air Force budgets have only increased the average age of
tanker, fighter, and bomber aircraft. While unmanned systems and
fifth-generation capabilities are critical, efforts to acquire
these capabilities must not come at the expense of modernization.
Congress must provide adequate funding to maintain the long-term
tactical and strategic strength of the U.S. Air Force. Members must
reverse the proposals to cut or delay Air Force modernization,
particularly those ending the F-22 production at just 186 aircraft
and delaying the next-generation bomber development. Congress must
also reverse the looming Air Force tactical fighter gap by
purchasing additional fourth-generation aircraft above the
President's budget request for fiscal year 2010 or risk damaging
the Air National Guard's air sovereignty mission.
Aging Aircraft Are Only Getting Older
Often overlooked, the Air Force has been operating at a wartime
pace since Operation Desert Shield in 1991, flying an average 2.3
million flight hours per year with 2,500 fewer aircraft.
In addition to Operation Desert Storm and other missions throughout
the 1990s in Bosnia and Kosovo, Air Force pilots enforced no-fly
zones for 17 years in the skies over Iraq right up until 2003, when
its obligations were again dramatically elevated.
Since 2003, the Air Force has taken on new responsibilities on
the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq, in many cases serving in
lieu of soldiers to relieve the strain on the U.S. Army. According
to the Congressional Research Service, there were 13,800 Air Force
personnel on the ground in Afghanistan in 2008, nearly on par with
Army troop levels and more than 3.5 times the number of Marines.
In addition, there were 9,000 airmen on the ground in Iraq, just
under half the number of deployed Marines.
All the services are under stress, wearing out equipment much
more quickly, and experiencing reduced readiness levels across the
board. The Air Force and the Navy, however, have had to live with
flat or declining budgets for the past several years. As a result,
modernization is the primary budget casualty. Gradually falling
budgets have led Air Force leaders to sign up for a future fighter
fleet that will force those in uniform to bear increased risk.
In The Washington Post earlier this year, Air Force Chief
of Staff General Norton Schwartz, along with Air Force Secretary
Michael Donley, wrote that "within a fixed Air Force and overall
defense Department budget, our challenge is to decide among many
competing needs. Buying more F-22s means doing less of something
With so many aircraft approaching retirement and the F-35 Joint
Strike Fighter not yet fully operational, the need for additional
fighters is immediate. According to the Congressional Budget
Office, fiscal year 2009 Navy and Air Force plans show a fighter
gap stretching out 25 years as old planes retire in droves and the
new F-35s trickle into operation.
Capping F-22 production at 186 aircraft is a move that will
undoubtedly undermine the mainstay of American military
preponderance that has existed for the last 70 years.
The F-22 is not the only Air Force program hostage to budget
constraints. Most of the Air Force's fighter, bomber, and tanker
aircraft fleets are older than their pilots. Indeed, the average
age of the B-52 bomber is 31 years old and "designed to handle air
defenses that today are considered museum pieces."
Other average ages of critical aircraft include:
- B-1 Lancer bomber: 20 years;
- C-5 Galaxy transport: 21 years old;
- KC-135 tanker: 44 years old.
Yet President Obama has proposed delaying the Air Force's plans
for a next-generation bomber, claiming that the requirement and
technology need to be better understood, even though there is
little serious debate about either issue. In order to effectively
meet national security needs -- and more specifically to ensure that
this leg of the triad remains a credible nuclear deterrent -- the Air
Force requires a bomber fleet that is on par with the realities of
modern-day air defenses.
defense Budget Cuts While Domestic
Spending Explodes Puts America at Risk
Strategy always changes faster than force structure. Accurately
predicting national security threats and requirements 20 years from
now is not only difficult but also something America has repeatedly
failed to do well in the past. Building a force that maintains
essential and enduring core military capabilities allows the U.S.
armed forces to respond to both expected and unexpected scenarios
or threats. Unfortunately, budget restraints are driving Air Force
policy decisions as opposed to genuine national defense
Winning America's wars is a primary national security priority.
Maintaining counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capabilities
after Iraq and Afghanistan is simply smart policy. But funding for
today's operations does not have to come at the expense of
investment in tomorrow's troops and equipment. America can afford
to invest in the present and the future U.S. military.
Congress should provide additional modernization funds to the
U.S. Air Force in the fiscal year 2010 defense authorization and
appropriations bills to purchase more F-22s, begin research and
development on the next-generation bomber program, and acquire more
aircraft to address the looming fighter gap's dramatic impact on
the Air National Guard. Giving the Air Force adequate resources
will demonstrate Congress' commitment to the Air Force and
acknowledge its critical role as both an enabler and facilitator of
American military power and a strong national defense.
Eaglen is the Senior Policy Analyst for defense and
homeland security issues at The Heritage Foundation.