Air superiority — the ability to deny enemy forces access to key portions of the sky — is a bedrock mission within the U.S. Department of Defense. The viability of soldiers on the ground, ships at sea, space and cyber installations, other military aircraft, logistics lines, and command-and-control facilities are fundamentally dependent on this mission. Budget cuts enacted by the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee targeting the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, program are putting the future of the nation’s air superiority at risk.
As the Office of Management and Budget recently explained: “This fifty percent reduction in funding would result in a three-year slip in advanced development timelines and the cancellation of critical new production technology programs.”
America’s air-superiority capability is exceedingly fragile. The vast percentage of this mission is executed by the Air Force, which saw its fighter aircraft inventory cut by over half in the years after the Cold War — from 3,206 F-4D/Es, F-15A/Cs and F-16A/ Cs in 1990 to roughly 1,753 F-15Cs, F-15Es, F-16s, F-22s and F-35s today.
New fighter programs like the F-22 were prematurely canceled and F-35 full-rate production was delayed for far too long. The result is increasingly geriatric airframes dating from the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations on flight lines today, far past their intended service lives.
During this same period, the combat-demand signal for these aircraft increased — starting with Operation Desert Storm, extending through the no-fly zones over southern and northern Iraq, campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, and then nearly two decades’ worth of nonstop deployments to the Mideast, extending the time the Air Force has been in nonstop combat operations to 28 years. Meeting this sustained tempo with an increasingly limited supply of aging aircraft pushed pilots and support personnel to the brink. The resulting circumstances present severe risk for the nation — especially with Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and other significant threats on the rise.
The NGAD program is especially crucial for the Air Force and the Department of Defense writ large because it will allow a clean-sheet approach to merge the demands of securing air superiority with the attributes necessary to prevail in the information age. Every aircraft sitting on an Air Force ramp today was designed before the smartphone revolutionized the world through redefining the way in which people gather, process and share information. These same trends have had a profound impact on modern combat operations.
Just as a landline is of increasingly diminishing value, so too are the vast percentage of aircraft that currently comprise the Air Force’s fighter aircraft inventory. With the F-22 and F-35 standing out as exceptions, over 80 percent of the service’s fighter aircraft are based upon designs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is precisely why Air Force leaders in written testimony to Congress explained that “to meet emerging worldwide threats across the spectrum of conflict … the cornerstone of the Air Force [must be a] shift from 4th/5th-generation to a 5th/6th-generation fleet.”
Considering that the Air Force bought too few F-22s and circumstances have significantly delayed planned F-35 buys, the NGAD program represents a crucial need to reset the nation’s air-superiority force. Design concepts are still classified, but it is expected that stealth-enabled survivability, advanced electronic warfare capabilities, robust sensors, processing power and the ability to share data in a real-time, collaborative fashion will stand as key attributes.
It is also highly likely that NGAD will not be one specific aircraft. It will likely comprise an integrated system of manned and unmanned aircraft that will integrate networked teaming to deliver desired mission effects.
Regardless of the system specifics, it is crucial that the NGAD program move ahead as scheduled. As then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein explained at a Capitol Hill hearing: “Our military advantages and readiness [shrank] due to the longest continuous stretch of combat in our nation’s history, coupled with years of inconsistent and insufficient funding. At the same time, our strategic competitors, notably China and Russia, have closed gaps in capability and capacity. The result is an overstretched and under resourced United States Air Force.” NGAD is essential to help redress these risk-laden circumstances.
While some may question the cost of the program, it is important to consider a different question: What is the cost of not securing the sky? Victory is simply impossible without it, and countless lives would be at risk. Taken in that light, the Defense Subcommittee’s 50 percent cut to this program stands as the truly unaffordable path forward.
David Deptula is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general with more than 3,000 flying hours. He helped plan the Desert Storm air campaign, orchestrated air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies. Douglas Birkey is the executive director of the Mitchell Institute, where he researches issues relating to the future of aerospace and national security.