Earlier this month, America lost an airman whose dedication to duty in the face of overwhelming odds stands as second to none: retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole.

Best known as Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot on the famed April 18, 1942, air raid against Japan, Cole and 79 other airmen took to the sky that day for a simple reason — they were the only way U.S. forces could strike key targets in Japan.

Four months after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, there was no way that troops on the ground or ships at sea could project power directly into the heart of Japan. Combat aircraft, able to rapidly transit vast distances and fly over opposing forces, offered the only viable solution. The same holds true today, which is why air power is so important. However, despite the revered status of the Doolittle Raid and other similar acts of air power necessity and airmen bravery in World War II, the era also stands as a cautionary tale for today’s leaders.

Success demands smart, realistic preparation. Too often, World War II airmen unnecessarily sacrificed their lives because the nation had failed to invest in and build the air force our nation would need. Today’s airmen find themselves facing eerily similar circumstances. With threats on the rise, the Air Force has too few modern aircraft to meet mission objectives and get crews home safe. Never has the Air Force aircraft inventory been so small or so old. The time has come to reset the force.

Sending airmen into harm’s way is a responsibility like none other. It involves a dual obligation of meeting campaign objectives as fast and effectively as possible, while also working to ensure individuals under your command return to base unharmed, ready for the next mission. The linchpin that makes this possible is capability — the right set of tools in enough numbers to empower smart strategies. American air commanders in World War II lacked the necessary capabilities and capacity for the first two years of the conflict. The price was severe — our nation and allies balanced on the precipice of near defeat and lost thousands of men in the process.

When then-Brig. Gen. Ira Eaker took command of initial bombing operation in England, the entire force consisted of six officers and no planes. The men charged with getting Eaker his bombers and crews faced nearly impossible odds. Strategic bombardment icon Curtis LeMay had only three B-17s to train 35 crews in the early months of 1942. Two of these aircraft crashed in short order. Once airmen were in combat, they did not have the capacity to overwhelm the German Luftwaffe. The vast majority were shot down, and the could not be readily replaced.

According to one air commander: “The morning after each mission saw the breakfast table growing smaller. ... The crews developed a new and morbid game. Graphs were plotted and re-plotted and discussed and examined … when the straight line crossed the abscissa, in about three months, everyone would be gone.”

Maj. Gen. James H. Doolittle, his Tokyo bombing crew and some Chinese friends are pictured in China on April 22, 1943, after the U.S. airmen bailed out following the raid at Japan on April 18, 1942. (AP)
Maj. Gen. James H. Doolittle, his Tokyo bombing crew and some Chinese friends are pictured in China on April 22, 1943, after the U.S. airmen bailed out following the raid at Japan on April 18, 1942. (AP)

Airmen were simply trying to not lose, an objective far different than winning. Things did not improve until 1944 — with the fate of the war hanging in the balance for two whole years. Summarizing this experience, Gen. LeMay later remarked: “There is nothing worse that I’ve found in life than going into battle ill-prepared or not prepared at all.”

Today, airmen are taking to the sky in a world where threats are on the rise. On the high end of the spectrum, Russia is aggressively asserting itself in ways not seen since the Cold War, and China now stands as a military peer. Nations like Iran and North Korea — once regional concerns — can now threaten targets around the globe due to their nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. Added to this, nonstate actors continue to threaten stability in the Middle East, Africa and beyond.

No matter the military operation, Air Force air power provides commanders crucial options. However, leaders outside the service opted to take a “procurement holiday” in the years following the Cold War. Furthermore, wartime priorities in Afghanistan and Iraq focused on an incredibly narrow niche of combat. Consequently, America’s airmen are flying aircraft that are literally worn out. Leaders have known about this trend for years, but budget pressures and competing priorities truncated potential solutions. Now, nearly the entire Air Force demands aircraft recapitalization, or entire missions will sunset for want of viable aircraft.

Nor are any of these aircraft mission sets equipped with enough aircraft. Each mission area is too small to meet the current national security strategy, not to mention actual wartime demands where things like attrition and unplanned complications demand numerical resiliency. These challenges are exactly the type that faced airmen in World War II.

The only way to address these concurrent shortfalls is to buy modern replacements in sufficient numbers as fast as possible. Commanders in World War II could work a holding strategy to allow the defense-industrial base and training pipeline to ramp up — but at a cost of thousands of lives. Today, things happen far faster and success or failure will be determined in a matter of weeks, days or even hours. Adversaries have studied American combat strategies for decades and understand how we operate, and have specifically designed counter-technologies and strategies that will defeat our legacy designs.

The one advantage America still holds, especially when it comes to air power, is technology. Attributes like stealth, data gathering and processing, networked collaboration, and precision are unique strengths. We no longer hold the decisive edge we once did, but we are still the leaders. That is why programs like the F-35 and B-21 are so important. They embody the very advantages airmen will need to fight and win in tomorrow’s conflicts. It is also why concepts like the F-15EX are so troubling. The notion that a design whose roots extend back 40 years can fight and win against modern threats is ludicrous. No amount of system upgrades can make up for a core design that is from the 1960s.

When Secretary of War Henry Woodring departed the War Department in 1938, he warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that “we are not prepared for a major conflict. Billions appropriated today cannot be converted into preparedness for tomorrow.”

He was right, and Dick Cole’s generation paid the price. Equipping airmen for the challenges of tomorrow is a long-term process. It cannot be achieved with a flip of a switch — or by Rosie the Riveter. It is a certainty that the aircraft we buy today will go to war, probably several times. Ensuring those airmen prevail demands that we rise to the occasion and make smart decisions now.

Retired Gen. T. Michael Moseley served as the 18th U.S. Air Force chief of staff. He also commanded 9th Air Force and U.S. Central Command Air Forces while serving as the head of Combined Forces Air Component for operations Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.