After more than 20 years of advocating for the U.S. Air Force, I continue to be surprised how the world’s most dominant air force has been taken for granted, and even ignored, in Washington, D.C. Congress remains fixated on shipbuilding, and the ground services dominate the military’s senior positions, policy and defense budgets.

The Department of the Air Force, responsible for training and equipping two military services — the Air Force and the Space Force — has been underfunded for decades, resulting in significant shortfalls in readiness and modernization. While the Air Force forfeited future modernization to pay for current operations, China and Russia made great strides toward parity.

Politicians protect airplanes on military installations to prevent closures, so the U.S. Air Force has been unable to right-size its basing and has been stonewalled in managing its force structure.

For the past couple years, the Air Force requested funding to grow its force by 23 percent to 386 squadrons. Congress authorized it — but fails to provide the commensurate funding.

Air Force leaders have long insisted that the service needs investment; however, their requests go largely ignored. The force has grown too old, too small and not ready to meet future global threats. Meanwhile, China and Russia increased investments in technology and are leaping ahead in capabilities such as hypersonics.

An intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia. The Russian military said the Avangard hypersonic weapon has entered combat duty. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
An intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia. The Russian military said the Avangard hypersonic weapon has entered combat duty. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

The U.S. Air Force is continually forced to choose: Win today’s fight, or modernize for tomorrow’s conflict. To fund newer aircraft, it must divest resource-draining legacy aircraft — designed for past conflicts and unable to penetrate modern defenses. Yet, Congress continues to force the service to keep dated aircraft, or even procure more old fighters.

After 1991′s Operation Desert Storm, the Air Force was downsized by a third. It is now too small for our nation’s requirements. Of all the services deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1990, however, only the Air Force has yet to return — 30 years of continuous combat operations.

The need for modernization grows more dire each year. The Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile force is now beyond repair and must be replaced. Ninety percent of Air Force bombers predate stealth technology and are unable to penetrate modern air defenses.

The Defense Department’s budget is confusing — and misleading. On the surface, it appears that the departments of the Air Force, Army and Navy receive comparable shares of the budget.

That’s false.

There is a little-understood provision, referred to as the “pass-through,” which quietly transfers more than 20 percent of the Department of the Air Force’s budget to programs outside its control. Pass-through funds that seemed to go to the Air Force for space were inaccessible for Air Force space investment.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has exacerbated readiness challenges for the military. Four huge stimulus funding bills will jeopardize future defense budgets, and the Department of Defense will assuredly be the major bill payer for future federal spending.

The Air Force is not without fault. Its messaging must be more persuasive and consistent. The F-35 program was slow out of the box, and the KC-46 air refueling tanker, arriving years late, still can’t reliably pass fuel to other aircraft. Yet, the Department of the Air Force is far too modest to boast about all it does so well.

The Space Force is the sixth branch of service that was established during the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act on Dec. 20, 2019. (Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett/U.S. Air Force)
The Space Force is the sixth branch of service that was established during the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act on Dec. 20, 2019. (Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett/U.S. Air Force)

The Air Force provides the airlift to the joint force and is the nation’s primary deterrent to both nuclear and conventional war, possessing two-thirds of the nuclear triad and almost all of the nuclear command-and-control systems; it also provides much of the nation’s forward presence, and is the reliable provider of precision strike capability, day or night, around the globe.

The new Space Force was carved entirely from the Air Force, and provides intelligence and communications for the joint force. It offers GPS to billions, providing accurate signals for navigation and timing that fuels whole industries and ensures the accuracy of ATM withdrawals.

America’s dominance in the air, space and cyber realms can no longer be taken for granted. The National Defense Strategy Commission stated: “Regardless of where the next conflict occurs or which adversary it features, the Air Force will be at the forefront.”

The nascent Space Force needs investment to increase capability and the authorities to organize for efficacy to meet the capabilities that were promised when it was founded in December 2019. It needs to become joint — not just have personnel change name tags from U.S. Air Force to U.S. Space Force. And the National Reconnaissance Office should be part of the Space Force.

The Department of the Air Force needs stable and predictable funding — at adequate funding levels. Continuing resolutions degrade readiness. Currently, two services — both the Air Force and the Space Force — must train and equip their forces within the Air Force’s original budget level.

To ensure our military is ready, it must take care of its people — active, Guard, reserve and civilians. That means commensurate pay, preserving medical billets, maintaining access to medical services and facilities, eliminating restrictive licensure requirements that limit the ability of military spouses to transition to new professional jobs after moving, sufficient child care centers, and adequate military housing.

Planned reforms of the DoD’s Military Health System would eliminate up to 18,000 military medical personnel — 4,000 from the Air Force, 7,000 from the Army and 5,000 from the Navy. Dozens of military treatment facilities would be downsized, with access limited to active-duty personnel.

The services need legislative relief to overcome a six-month restriction before hiring military retirees possessing a security clearance.

The U.S. Air Force remains the world’s predominant air force; however, its dominance is endangered. Air superiority is not a birthright. The fledgling U.S. Space Force remains the world’s leader in military space; however, without resources and congressional focus, it will be challenged by other world powers.

This is the fourth quarter of the budget season, so Congress should recognize and support both services now — before it’s too late.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Keith Zuegel served in combat operations during Desert Storm, during which he received a Silver Star. Most recently, he was the senior director of government relations at the Air Force Association.