In 2018, then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson sounded the alarm regarding the size of her service: “The Air Force is too small for what the nation expects of us.” Her response was direct: The service needed to grow from 312 to 386 operational squadrons.
Given the concurrent demands presented by China and Russia at the high end of the threat spectrum, Iran and North Korea in the middle, and the continued danger posed by nonstate actors at the lower threat tier, this imperative for growth was grounded in clear requirements. However, instead of marking a positive turning point for the service, subsequent years saw the Air Force grow smaller, older and more fragile.
The burgeoning security environment demands that this downward spiral end now. This is exactly why the Senate’s version of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act includes specific aircraft inventory floors for the Air Force. With positive intentions having fallen short year after year, it is time for legislation to stop the bleeding.
No form of power projection is possible without the capabilities afforded by the Air Force. Ships at sea, forces on land and rear echelon operating locations will not survive long if not defended from aerial attack. Long-range strike affords the unique ability to hit critical targets deep behind enemy lines. Air mobility empowers joint force operations. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance was the most in-demand mission area over the past two decades, and remains so today. Added to this, the Air Force also provides two-thirds of the nuclear triad.
Despite the value provided by these missions, the Air Force has struggled to earn its fair share of the defense budget. It absorbed the largest fiscal cuts out of all the services in the years after the Cold War. Between 1989 and 2001, the Air Force saw procurement funding drop by over 52 percent — nearly 20 percent more than the other services. FY13 saw aircraft procurement funding hit the lowest levels in Air Force history.
To add insult to injury, the Air Force also sees nearly 20 percent of its top-line budget diverted to the intelligence community — enough money to buy over 400 F-35 fighter jets a year. No other service gets hit like this.
With budget pressures a perennial problem, the Air Force has continually sought to divest aircraft to free up cash. The problem is that the demand for Air Force missions never went away. Quite the opposite, it increased. In 1990, the Air Force had 2,893 fighters; today it has around 1,800. This same period saw bombers drop from 327 to 157. Combat operations have been unending since 1991, which means a smaller number of aircraft and crews simply get spun harder to meet demand.
This is an unsustainable pattern, with the B-1B bomber standing as a cautionary tale. It has been flying combat missions on a nonstop basis since the 9/11 attacks. The Air Force retired a third of the B-1B inventory in the 2000s to save money that could be reinvested in the remaining aircraft. Budget pressures in subsequent years saw these savings evaporate, maintenance dollars run too thin and the aircraft pressed to the limit. They hit the breaking point last year, with less than 10 percent of the Air Force’s B-1Bs mission-capable.
With nearly every mission area in the Air Force inventory labeled as “high demand, low density,” expect to see similar challenges proliferate. These stresses are also a major driver behind the pilot crisis.
Shrinking the Air Force in the hopes that expected savings could fund modernization has served as a continual mirage for Air Force planners. Indeed, the Air Force’s answer to funding the Advanced Battle Management System and other priorities in the FY21 budget submission was to retire more aircraft. Better networks are of little use without the ability to complete the kill chain, and that takes aircraft. Presumed areas of growth hang precariously years into the future. There’s little chance that cash will remain protected given COVID-19 budget pressures.
The problem is that even when divestiture plans appear plausible on internal spreadsheets, service officials are not the ultimate arbiters of their resources. The broader Department of Defense, Office of Management and Budget, and Congress each have a vote on how funds are managed. This pattern clearly has not worked for the Air Force for the past 30 years. Playing this losing hand again will break the force at fundamental levels.
That is why the Senate’s proposed aircraft floor is not just a good idea — it is a necessity. A prudent negotiator does not enter a meeting with a high-risk position as the starting point, but that is exactly what the Air Force has done for far too long. The time has come to openly articulate what is required to meet national security requirements. That is what the 386 operational squadron goal is all about. It comes down to acknowledging what airmen will need to fly into harm’s way, get the job done and come home safe. This takes both capability and capacity. It is time to rebuild the Air Force we need.
Douglas Birkey is the executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, where he researches issues relating to the future of aerospace and national security.