Preserving a National Asset: Air Force Airpower
Americans expect that the nation’s armed forces will always deter or, if necessary, defeat adversaries across all domains—air, space, cyber, sea, and land. For decades, Air Force weaponry, expertise, and valor have provided a significant share of the actual power underwriting this security guarantee.
Air Force airpower dominance has been a bargain for the nation. But today, the nation finds itself in a $16 trillion deficit. As Washington struggles to cope with this historic US debt, the nation has reached a strategic turning point that will shape our defense posture and military options for decades.
The Administration has outlined a new national defense strategy, shaped by rising threats abroad and economic challenges at home. With the new approach, the United States military no longer will be sized, shaped, and trained to conduct long, large-scale, ground-oriented stability operations. We have already withdrawn forces from Iraq and are withdrawing large numbers from Afghanistan. This tracks with the Administration’s avowed strategy, which calls for creating smaller, more agile forces better suited to intervention operations in the Asia-Pacific region.
But even with a smaller American military, the US will still need to counter terrorism and irregular military threats, and it must also be able to deter and defeat large-scale, cross-border aggression; maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent; and defend the homeland.
Air Force airpower will shoulder a large share of this new strategy. The Air Force, which comprises the Total Force—Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve components and civilians—stands forth with its speed, unique range, and flexibility to project rapid decisive power. Airpower, with in-flight refueling, can quickly cover long distances—a perfect fit with a strategy emphasizing the Pacific Region and tough challenges in the greater Middle East. However, our nation’s economic health endangers our ability to modernize and sustain these capabilities. Hasty or ill-advised decisions made in a time of austerity could dangerously limit the options of future Commanders in Chief.
Savings are needed, but it is possible to cut our forces too deeply. The Air Force’s air and ballistic missile fleets are older and smaller than they have ever been. Every T-38 trainer, KC-135 tanker, and B-52 long-range strike aircraft is old enough to join AARP, and the Air Force aircraft inventory is the smallest it has been in its entire history. The men and women who volunteer to defend this country, in times of war and peace, to engage in conflict and humanitarian efforts, deserve sufficient and reliable equipment to execute the nation’s national security strategy.
Without USAF’s air dominance, our land and maritime surface forces will be more vulnerable to attack and our enemies will enjoy a sanctuary from such attack.
Without the Air Force’s space communications and airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), other US forces will have great difficulty finding the enemy, much less mounting an effective attack.
Without Air Force transport and refueling aircraft, US forces cannot get to the battle quickly or sustain action for long periods.
The Air Force is a national asset. Its actions serve not only its own operational needs and requirements but those of other armed services and allied forces and civilian communities in times of humanitarian crisis. Our Guard and Reserve components continue to be superb investments, providing critical Air Force capabilities during challenging times.
Since its founding by law as a separate and independent service in 1947, the Air Force has had a clear and singular military role—to be "organized, trained, and equipped for prompt and sustained offensive and defensive air operations."
The role of Air Force airpower is not solely to serve as support to ground and sea forces; it can be even more valuable to the nation when its capabilities are employed to deter and defend attacks against the United States, maintain regional stability, ensure the success of indigenous forces (such as in Bosnia or Libya), and achieve desired outcomes independently of other force elements (such as in Kosovo). In short, the Air Force provides alternatives to achieve national security objectives with less risk to American life and treasure—the Air Force projects power without the same level of vulnerability as surface forces. Fortunately, as global threats have proliferated, so have the capabilities of the Air Force. Today’s Total Force provides:
Global Vigilance—worldwide military awareness.
Global Reach—worldwide scope to project military capabilities.
Global Power—worldwide effects, from rapid mobility to rapid strike.
In military strategy, global awareness, range, and power as appropriate to mission needs are vital. Air, space, and cyber power are fundamental assets for projecting and sustaining US military power abroad in any form.
Four core capabilities define the Air Force:
Control of air, space, and cyberspace. Before the US military can do anything on the Earth’s surface the Air Force must control these domains to assure access and freedom of operation. Air, space, and cyberspace will be increasingly contested as states and non-state actors acquire advanced kinetic and non-kinetic technologies. Jamming, anti-satellite, electromagnetic pulse, cyber attack, and anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities are growing. This means we must continue to strengthen our own capabilities in cybersecurity, missile warning, positional navigation and timing, satellite communications, space situational awareness, and space launch.
Without such control, our ability to conduct military operations will be severely limited, our joint teammates will be subjected to unacceptable risk, and our strategic choices will be increasingly constrained.
Provide responsive, persistent, accurate, and predictive ISR. The Air Force’s unique air, space, and cyber ISR capabilities provide America an unparalleled decision-making advantage. The Air Force, national leaders, and joint and combined partners depend on Air Force ISR to plan and execute operations.
Rapidly move people and materiel/cargo. Military operations rely on USAF airlifters and tankers to haul people, fuel, and equipment quickly and precisely around the world. Rapid global mobility underpins US crisis response, long-range strike, joint combat support, humanitarian relief, and global logistics.
Hold any target at risk. The Air Force possesses unique abilities to achieve precise lethal and non-lethal effects that shape the strategic behavior of others, often at long range and in heavily defended environments. This requires specially trained people, modern systems, and meticulous planning.
Taken together, the nation’s air, space, and cyber power—embodied predominantly in the Air Force—are indispensable components of America’s military prowess. The Air Force can shape the global environment, deter adversaries, rapidly mobilize and deploy in a changing battlespace, deliver precise combat effects on a global basis, and underwrite the joint force in its many and varied operations.
The Air Force’s Airmen and equipment have rarely been under greater stress and strain than today, thanks to more than two decades of sustained combat operations combined with wholly inadequate investment in modern equipment.
In recent years, the Air Force has been engaged in either concurrent or continuously sequential combat operations—in Iraq, Serbia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya—as well as in the decade-plus enforcement of the UN-mandated no-fly-zone over Iraq. Furthermore, numerous difficult and long-running humanitarian operations have added to that stress.
Yet the Air Force continues to shrink. It has fewer personnel than at any time since it became an independent service in 1947. Force structure and inventories of aircraft and spacecraft have fallen to record low levels. Last year’s request for new aircraft was the lowest since 1915. Underinvestment has resulted in fleets of aircraft, ballistic missiles, and satellites in operation well beyond original design expectations.
The Air Force is running out of bandages to cover these cuts. Over the past decade, the service has eliminated multiple layers from its command structures, combined staff offices, retired older aircraft, and reduced training hours, all while continuing to carry out its assigned missions around the world. This comes at a cost:
The nation’s airmen have been run ragged, and essential career fields, such as pararescue, combat control, and explosive ordnance disposal, are officially categorized as undermanned and stressed.
Old aircraft take more and more time—and money—to keep ready.
Readiness indicators of Air Force hardware have fallen throughout the last decade.
The Air Force fields the oldest aircraft inventory in its history. B-52 long-range strike aircraft and KC-135 tankers are now over 50 years old.
The service is buying few replacements. In fact, the Air Force replacement cycle now stands at 100 years, and if remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) are removed from the equation, the replacement rate soars to 160 years. Both the Navy and Army have been authorized to acquire more aircraft in the upcoming fiscal year than the Air Force. In fact, the Navy aircraft procurement budget for Fiscal Year 2013 is 53 percent higher than the Air Force’s.
At this low rate of modernization, the Air Force the nation has come to rely upon is not sustainable.
The shrinkage has not ended. If Congress permits, the Air Force plans to retire more than 500 aircraft in the coming years and to refurbish F-16s, F-15s, and A-10s until the F-35 comes on line to replace them. Even relatively new Air Force aircraft, like the stealthy B-2 bomber and the C-17 airlifter, have been in service for over 20 years, making them old by any objective standard.
An Air Force cannot be built overnight. It takes years of sustained investment to acquire and train the force to a well-honed cutting edge. The Administration’s new defense strategy makes the nation more dependent on the Air Force than ever before. Yet it is contradicted by budget actions that impose disproportionate cuts on the service. The Air Force’s share of the Department of Defense budget fell by nearly 10 percent over the past decade to a record low of 21 percent. While the Army topline budget grew by almost a billion dollars, DOD took a $5.2 billion cut from FY12 to FY13 with the Air Force absorbing $4.8 billion of the cut. The new strategic guidance needs to be empowered with a balanced and meaningful reallocation in resources.
The American public expects its Air Force to be the best in the world. We must support the needs of airmen and their families and provide the best equipment possible—in sufficient quality and numbers and at the time needed—to protect our nation.
The nation must have alternatives to achieve national security objectives which leverage the advantages of our technology, limit the need to project vulnerable surface forces, and avoid attrition warfare. Therefore, it must maintain a modern Air Force—and that means sufficient and consistent modernization. Further, if we expect the industrial base to continue to produce the innovative systems that have proved essential to deterring and winning conflicts, we must stabilize the industrial base.
The Air Force Association will continue to promote a dominant United States Air Force and a strong national defense, to honor Airmen and our Air Force heritage, and to meet the pre-eminent tenet in the preamble to our Constitution—"to provide for the common defense." We will educate the public on the need for unmatched air, space, and cyber power. That is our pledge to America.
This editorial is extracted from the Air Force Association’s full 2013 Statement of Policy, which is available in its entirety at http://www.afa.org/AboutUs/SOP2013.pdf
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag