—John A. Tirpak
February 5, 2007—The Bush Administration budget to be released today simply doesn’t permit anything like a reasonable rate of equipment replacement for the Air Force and drives a steady decay in readiness. “We are being forced to accept significant risk,” a senior service official told reporters in a background briefing Friday afternoon. Air Force leaders hope to persuade both the Defense Department and Congress that it needs an extra $20 billion a year for the next 20 years.
The Air Force has been fighting in the Middle East for more than 16 years and continuing funding constraints are exacting a toll. The number of USAF units falling into “yellow” and “red” readiness conditions has risen over the past three fiscal years, with reds rising from 15 percent in 2004 to 20 percent in 2006 and yellows from 17 percent to 25 percent. And the 2008 defense budget will exact a greater toll, cutting flying hours by 10 percent and reducing depot maintenance to 77 percent of requirements.
The service’s ability to replace its aging aircraft inventory is faltering—badly. Fighter recapitalization under the new budget numbers will be on a 50-year rate. That means it will be 50 years between production of the last USAF F-16 and the last of its replacement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Unless the service can build the new fighters at a rate of about 110 per year starting in 2013, the F-16s will retire due to old age before the F-35s are fielded. However, under current budget projections, USAF can only fund 48 per year. That means it will take about 40 years to buy all 1,763 F-35s that the Air Force needs.
“Clearly, this is not going to work,” asserted the senior USAF official. The situation is no less dire for aerial refueling aircraft recapitalization. The Air Force can only afford to buy 14 aerial tankers a year under the defense budget to be released today. Yet, the service needs between 500 and 640 of the aircraft, meaning it will take between 35 and 46 years to replace Eisenhower-era KC-135s that are already about 43 years old, on average.
Scarce dollars may force the Air Force to limit the planned upgrade to 48 giant C-5A transports under the Avionics Modernization Program and Reliability Enhancement and Re-Engining Program—AMP and RERP in Air Force parlance. The senior official said that USAF is thinking about limiting the program to just the somewhat younger C-5Bs. To replace the capability, the Air Force could propose buying more C-17s, or perhaps some mix of C-17s, C-130Js, and the as-yet-undetermined Joint Cargo Aircraft. The senior USAF official likens the Air Force’s investment situation as mirroring that of the Israeli Air Force after its 1967 victory but before its 1973 debacle. In 1967, Israeli airpower quickly trounced the enemy’s forces, destroying nearly all of the Egyptian Air Force. But Israel failed to keep up with a changing threat. In 1973, Israel lost 10 percent of its air force in the first 90 minutes of the Yom Kippur War, due to sharply improved enemy air defenses. By the time the war was over, half the IAF has been destroyed. “They were an air force that rested on their successes,” the official observed. “We are at risk of the same thing. When air dominance is gone, it’s catastrophic.”
The senior USAF official acknowledged that without the additional funding it seeks, the US Air Force will inexorably become “a smaller and less capable force.” He said the service won’t be able to provide the nation with the air dominance and information superiority it has come to expect.
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