—John A. Tirpak
September 21, 2007— The Air Force’s attempts to fund replacement of its aged aircraft fleet by cutting personnel is failing, and if Congress and the White House don’t provide an infusion of cash soon, the service will no longer be able to win wars, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne declared.
Wynne, speaking at a Washington think tank Sept. 19, said that the service’s stay-within-its-topline bootstrap approach isn’t arresting the aging aircraft problem, and the inventory age is still rising, from 23.9 years today to 26.5 years by 2012.
The Air Force’s older fighters aren’t up to defeating a modern air defense system or modern foreign fighters, Wynne said, and in a fight with Venezuela or Iran, such aircraft would probably be shot down.
“No [USAF] fourth-generation fighter would be allowed into war over Tehran or over Caracas, once they buy what the Russians are selling them,” Wynne said. He noted that as far back as 1999, only stealthy B-2s and F-117s were actually allowed to overfly the murderous air defenses around Belgrade in operation Allied Force, and foreign air defense systems have improved dramatically since then.
“If you as Americans want to be coerced, we’re starting down that road,” he admonished.
A massive aircraft modernization effort was slated to begin in the mid-1990s, but it was sidetracked by the end of the Cold War, and then again by the wars in Southwest Asia. The Air Force can’t wait any longer, Wynne said.
If the nation’s adversaries believe the US is losing its ability to dominate the air, “they will kick our butts,” he said flatly. “America’s not funding us to be a large Air Force anymore.”
Moreover, if sufficient numbers of fifth-generation F-35s and F-22s aren’t in service in two decades, the US will only be on a par with other countries that are aggressively pursuing their own fifth-generation fighters, Wynne said.
“If we’re in a fair fight, you, the American public, are in trouble,” Wynne warned.
It was Wynne’s idea, he said, to “voluntarily downsize and restructure the force, just like an industrialist would do, in order to gain the resources to recapitalize his asset base.” The reductions targeted 40,000 full-time equivalent uniformed slots.
However, “it isn’t working,” Wynne admitted.
“What does that mean to an industrialist?" he asked and answered: "It means you are going out of business. It is simply a matter of time.” All that has been accomplished, he said, is to slow down the pace at which Air Force aircraft race toward their retirement dates.
“This can’t go on,” Wynne asserted. “At some time in the future, they will simply rust out, age-out, fall out of the sky. We need, somehow, to recapitalize this force.”
The KC-X tanker program is the Air Force’s top priority, Wynne said, because his “biggest fear” is that the Eisenhower-vintage aircraft will simply start to crash. If that happens, they would either have to be kept flying—forcing USAF to “essentially accept the risk”—or grounded, leaving the nation with only a few dozen 1980s-vintage KC-10s to refuel the nation’s air armadas.
He chided critics of the F-35, saying the US can’t just—yet again—defer buying the state of the art and wait for the next generation of aircraft to come along. The last time the Air Force did that, it wound up buying only 21 B-2s, Wynne said, which fighter critics tout as the best type of weapon to counter far-away China.
“How big do you think China is?” he asked.
Wynne also stumped for modernization of the US satellite constellation, pointing out that all of it would need replacement in less than a dozen years. China’s test of an anti-satellite system this year, he said, was “a little message: ‘Don’t think you’re safe up there.’ Space is not a sanctuary anymore.”
Wynne said the Air Force has now been at war for 17 years, that its people and equipment are “wearing out,” and that action must be taken at once to make the service well again.
He also warned that the nation can’t just wait for the wars in Southwest Asia to end before beginning the process of rebuilding the Air Force. It has to begin now because Wynne expects the current conflicts to continue until 2010 “and perhaps beyond.”
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