On Jan. 14, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a stark warning to members of Congress: “The readiness of our Armed Forces is at a tipping point.”
The combined effects of sequestration and the continuing resolution risk yielding a hollow military force. Put simply, this boils down to inadequately resourcing our men and women in uniform for the tasks the nation is asking them to undertake. Not only does this risk breaking faith with our troops, but it also projects an array of national security vulnerabilities.
Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, delved into these points at a recent press conference: “Strategic agility and responsiveness require a high state of readiness for airmen, equipment — and that’s based on training. And sacrificing that readiness really sacrifices the strategic advantage of airpower. “
Welsh’s remarks remind me of a statement Secretary of War Henry Woodring made to President Franklin Roosevelt three years before U.S. entry into World War II:
“We are not prepared for a major conflict. Billions appropriated today cannot be converted into preparedness for tomorrow.” The secretary was right. Years’ worth of budget shortfalls had yielded a military undermanned, underequipped and undertrained.
Transforming an austerity force into one viable for combat was far from simple. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the Army Air Corps. When Adolf Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938, the air arm’s long-range heavy bombardment fleet consisted of 12 B-17s and a single, experimental XB-15.
Fighter pilots were prohibited from practicing aerobatic maneuvers because it was deemed too risky. Airlift was a vague concept embodied in a few DC-2 transports scattered around the country. Aviation relied on a small, inadequately funded research and development establishment.
It took nearly two years, after the attack at Pearl Harbor, until U.S. airmen were properly trained, organized and equipped to wage an effective, sustainable set of air campaigns. Efforts in 1942 and 1943 were defined by operating on the precipice — trying to sustain missions against overwhelming odds with too little of everything.
As one Eighth Air Force commander said, “The delicate balance between combat losses, morale and the value of victory is impossible to gauge in peace, but it is the essence of military worth in war.”
It was not until 1944 that airmen were afforded the capabilities and capacity necessary to fight and win in a sustainable, decisive fashion.
Nor was World War II the last time an underprepared force was sent into harm’s way. Korea, Vietnam and special missions such as Desert One afforded key instances where airmen had to rely on bravery and sacrifice to fill the void yielded by a lack of preparation. We honor their dedication but also owe it to those serving to avoid such shortcomings in the future.
Consider that lesson when reflecting upon those who fought above places like Schweinfurt, Ploesti, MiG Alley and Thud Ridge. It is a moral imperative to provide airmen the training, equipment and support needed for success.
This challenge is only growing. The service spent the past decade reducing end strength by more than 30,000 looking for increased efficiencies. Total force figures — active duty, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and civilians — are at levels not seen since North Korea invaded the South in 1950.
The Air Force retired nearly 1,900 aircraft in the past decade, the vast majority of which were not replaced. Fighter, bomber, tanker and airlift inventories are down by nearly a quarter. While intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance fleet growth has certainly been pronounced through purchases of remotely piloted aircraft, Predators and Reapers lack the speed, range and survivability to operate in key areas around the globe.
The space field has also absorbed cuts, leaving satellites on station far past their design lives. The remaining fleet averages nearly 25 years old, with key roles and missions premised upon the successful acquisition of F-35 fighters, the long-range strike bomber, KC-46 tanker, T-X trainer, a new combat search-and-rescue helicopter and intercontinental ballistic missile recapitalization and an array of satellite systems. Funding cuts and budget instability portend an exceedingly tenuous future for such programs.
These cuts mean the remaining force structure must be maintained with utmost care. It is no longer possible to step to another jet because those tails are no longer in the inventory.
Further cuts will severely degrade core capabilities, future buys will not succeed without dependable funding streams. That is why sequestration and the continuing resolution portend such disastrous effects — they will curtail fundamental national security options because there is nowhere else to cut.
In the words of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, “We must ensure we have the resources we need to defend the nation and meet our commitments to our troops, to our civilian employees and their families.”
Rarely do we get a choice regarding when and where to send forces into harm’s way; that demands a ready force with modern equipment, ample training, robust research and development, and adequate capacity. History demon-strates the cost of underinvestment: lives sacrificed and strategic objectives lost. It is one thing to be prudently efficient, quite another to be strategically foolish.
Douglas Birkey is director of government relations for the U.S. Air Force Association.