The Air Force begins its sixth decade in circumstances that aviators elsewhere might consider enviable: unrivaled for global air dominance. But that is not the way Air Force leaders view their situation. They see a decrepit air fleet in which the average aircraft is older than the average Navy warship and which is rapidly approaching a breaking point as a result of continuous use in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Every category of airframe operating in Iraq and Afghanistan is suffering from metal fatigue, corrosion, parts obsolescence and other age-related maladies that diminish readiness and raise safety concerns. And yet, timely replacement is not assured.
How did the air fleet fall into such a state of disrepair that only 60 percent of the planes could be airborne quickly in a national emergency? Why has there been almost no purchase of new aircraft since the Reagan years? To answer those questions, it is necessary to look beyond the collapse of communism and the “procurement holiday” that followed. Every war is followed by a downdraft in weapons outlays, but when defense spending recovered in this decade, it produced surprisingly few benefits for the Air Force. The problem, it seems, is that at precisely the moment when fleet modernization became urgent, a new crop of policymakers appeared who didn’t share Air Force views about the future of warfare.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Republicans won the White House in 2000, the recent triumph of U.S. air power in the Balkans had captured the popular imagination. Defense intellectuals were speculating that a new era in war fighting had arrived. Bush administration rhetoric about military transformation, combined with the traditional Republican affinity for weapons spending, led Air Force backers to believe the service would be able to move out smartly on “recapitalization” of its Cold War fleet. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks drastically rewrote the national security agenda in ways that tended to favor ground forces, and it soon became apparent that the Bush administration’s concept of transformation favored networks over traditional combat systems, spacecraft over aircraft and unmanned vehicles over piloted airplanes.
The stage was thus set for continuous bureaucratic warfare between the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the Air Force. In 2001, they argued about whether more B-2 bombers were needed. (The Air Force said no.) In 2002, they argued over whether the F-22 fighter was needed. (OSD said no.) In 2003, they argued about how to replace Cold War radar planes. (OSD wanted to do the mission from space.) And in 2004, they argued over Air Force plans to jump-start tanker modernization by leasing planes. (OSD went silent when it encountered congressional opposition.) So by the time President Bush’s first term ended, the enmity between advisers to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and proponents of air power was palpable and unremitting.
Rumsfeld found the Navy Department far more tractable in pursuing his ideas for transformation and responded by rewarding sea service representatives with most of the top jobs at combatant commands and on the joint staff. This trend was reinforced by the discovery of contracting irregularities in the Air Force, which cast a pall over some of its candidates for joint billets. But the larger problem Air Force leaders faced was that policymakers running the Pentagon simply didn’t share their enthusiasm for air power. In fact, if all the Rumsfeld efforts to terminate aircraft programs had been successful, only one fixed-wing production line would have remained by early in the next decade: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Against that backdrop, Air Force leaders viewed Quadrennial Defense Review deliberations in 2005 as a potential debacle for their service. They were right to worry. At various points in the deliberations, participants proposed terminating the F-22 fighter, the Air Force variant of the F-35, the E-10 radar plane, the KC-X tanker and just about every other major program on the service’s modernization agenda. Disaster was averted only because Rumsfeld was distracted by Iraq and because a new Air Force chief of staff took office with sufficient political skills to block some of the more radical ideas advanced by Rumsfeld advisers. Rumsfeld’s subsequent departure enabled the service to begin rebuilding its tattered modernization plan. The key features of that plan, as of today, are the procurement of:
20 F-22 Raptors per year through the next decade, until the 381 planes required to equip each expeditionary air wing with a squadron of Raptors is achieved.
More than 1,000 JSFs to replace aging F-16s and provide the service with a high-low mix of multirole F-22s and F-35s.
179 next-generation KC-X tankers to replace Eisenhower-era aerial refueling planes that extend the range of other joint force and allied aircraft.
A stealthy, subsonic next-generation bomber that can complement upgraded versions of bombers already in the fleet while awaiting development of a much faster global strike aircraft.
Additional C-130J Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes to improve the readiness and flexibility of the airlift fleet while selectively upgrading some C-5 Galaxies.
The service also is managing programs to replace essential surveillance, communications and navigation satellites for which it is the lead service while buying a bigger fleet of high-altitude, long-endurance reconnaissance drones such as the Global Hawk. These programs support the entire joint force. However, the heart of the Air Force modernization plan is replacement of manned aircraft, because there are no orbital or unmanned solutions for most combat missions on the horizon, and the fleet has grown so aged that much of it is overdue for retirement. For example, an unnoticed structural defect in the 500 KC-135 tankers that comprise 90 percent of the aerial refueling fleet could preclude Air Force and Navy aircraft from supporting U.S troops in remote locations.
After 20 years of depressed investment, Air Force leaders aren’t optimistic about finding all the money they need to keep necessary modernization efforts on track. Most of the costs associated with personnel and operations must be paid first because failure to do so has immediate consequences. But they worry that policymakers and the rest of the political system don’t grasp how far gone the air fleet is and that politics will interfere with their efforts to fix the problem. If legislators insist on retaining aircraft past their prime or buying replacement aircraft inefficiently, the day is not far off when the decline of American air power will have fatal consequences for the men and women who fight America’s wars.
Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute in Washington, D.C.