Amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic, one steadying force has been our nation’s military. U.S. troops have rallied to construct and man emergency health centers in cities from coast to coast, transported vital medical supplies, and continued operating around the globe.

Meanwhile, the great power competition that pits the United States against China and Russia has taken on new meaning. China and Russia have used the pandemic crisis as an opportunity to increase their influence around the globe, offering both material and financial aid. Competition has intensified during this crisis.

America’s dominance in the air, space and cyber domains has been our asymmetric advantage for decades. Yet, this dominance can no longer be taken for granted. The National Defense Strategy Commission highlighted the nation’s need to recapitalize and modernize our forces 17 months ago to meet the National Defense Strategy. That report particularly emphasized the importance of modernizing our Air Force.

Since its resounding impact on 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, the Department of the Air Force has shrunk by a third. It is now too old and too small to deliver on all our nation requires. The Air Force deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1990 to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991. Now, 30 years later, the Air Force is the only U.S. service that has never brought home its forces from the region.

Were it called on to fight tomorrow, our Air Force would resoundingly answer. However, it could muster barely half the number of fighter squadrons it had 30 years ago.

The Air Force and our new Space Force provide the airlift, strike capability, combat air patrols, unmanned aircraft, GPS, communications connectivity, and air- and space-based intelligence and surveillance for the joint force. The Air Force provides two-thirds of the nuclear triad, and the Space Force provides the nation’s missile warning capabilities.

Without substantial investments, these forces will be hard-pressed to deter or defeat a peer enemy in the next decade.

Congress wisely created the U.S. Space Force to ensure that space does not become a parity domain. Today’s Space Force not only provides the core capabilities that enable secure cash withdrawals from ATMs and safe global navigation, but also the critical communications and data links that enable global command and control for our military and the space-based intelligence systems that provides the United States with crucial early warning and intelligence. The nation must invest to ensure these capabilities remain second to none.

Yet, the Department of the Air Force finds itself foregoing needed investments and deferring future capability to pay today’s bills. Congress must support the Air and Space forces by addressing these critical issues in the 2021 defense spending bills:

  1. End the pass-through. For decades, the Air Force budget has been used to mask other spending buried in what is known as a “pass-through.” These funds are neither controlled nor used by the Air Force, yet they have grown to encompass almost 20 percent of the department’s budget. Today, the pass-through accounts for 6 percent of the entire defense budget, masking the unequal investment in America’s air, land and sea forces. Once removed, the combined share of Air Force and Space Force spending is just 23 percent of defense spending — well below the other service departments.
  2. Expand our Air and Space forces. To meet the demands of the National Security Strategy, the Air Force must grow from today’s 312 operational squadrons to 386 operational squadrons — an increase of 24 percent.
  3. Add more F-35A Lightning IIs. The Air Force has repeatedly stated a need for at least 72 new fighter aircraft annually to refresh the force and bring down the average age of today’s geriatric fleet. Accelerating procurement of these fifth-generation jets also ensures U.S. combat aircraft can penetrate past and survive increasingly sophisticated air defenses.
  4. Keep buying KC-46A aerial tankers. Most Air Force tankers are at least 50 years old, hampering their ability to project global reach and global power.
  5. Invest in the B-21 Raider bomber. This stealth bomber is vital to U.S. defense, given that the current long-range strike force averages 40 years of age and that 90 percent of non-stealth U.S. bombers are well into their sixth decade of service.
  6. Fund the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. A modern, ground-based leg of the nuclear triad remains essential to nuclear deterrence. Delay risks permanently losing this vital component of U.S. security strategy.
  7. Invest in hypersonics. China and Russia are already ahead in this vital missile technology, and the U.S. cannot afford to fall further behind.
  8. Take care of our people. To ensure our military is ready, it must take care of its people — active, Guard, Reserve and civilian. This includes commensurate pay increases for all, preserving medical billets and maintaining access to medical services and facilities, and taking care of spouses by continuing to eliminate licensure requirements that limit the ability of military spouses to transition to new professional jobs when moving from one location to another.

Today’s Department of the Air Force is too old, too small and too poorly funded to meet the National Defense Strategy. As Congress wisely directed in 2018, the department needs robust spending increases to modernize quickly.

Now, it’s time for Congress to step up.

Bruce “Orville” Wright, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, serves as the president of the Air Force Association, where Keith Zuegel, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, is senior director for government relations.

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