The ongoing conflict in Ukraine should serve as a wake-up call to U.S. leaders regarding our military’s inability to meet the scale of modern threats, especially when it comes to airpower. Two decades of low-intensity operations in Afghanistan and Iraq masked a precipitous capability and capacity erosion. Never has the Air Force fielded such an old, small aircraft inventory. The FY23 budget request will stand as an important test as to whether the Biden administration takes action to reverse this trend. The time has come for topline growth, while also spending the money we have more effectively.
First and foremost, we need to get real about force sizing. The 2018 national Defense Strategy directed the services to be able to fight a single conflict with either China or Russia, sustain the nuclear deterrence enterprise, defend the homeland, and deter a lesser aggressor. Here’s the problem with that: adversaries get a vote. Conflict does not happen in an orderly sequence. Just look at Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine at a time when we are trying to check an increasingly assertive China in the Pacific. We cannot do both, but world events demand that response. It’s time to grow the military, particularly the Air Force.
Consider that the Air Force has 326 F-35s in its current inventory. Of those, 166 aircraft are assigned to training and test roles. That leaves 153 operational airframes. Assuming all of those would be available for deployment, 51 could be in the air at a given time. Aircraft are operated in rotations—one-third executing the mission, one-third coming back to base, and the remaining third preparing to launch. 51 fighters spread across Europe is beyond thin. It also leaves nothing for the Pacific. The numbers are even worse for the F-22, with a total inventory of 186 translating to 30 in the air at a given time. If you do not like that, then you really will not like how numbers break down for the nation’s only long-range stealth bomber, the B-2. We only have 20 of those, which means single digit airframes available for a mission at any given point.
Air Force leaders have long known about these shortfalls and that’s why in 2018 they openly declared the service too small for what the nation is asking it to achieve. However, instead of getting bigger, numbers fell further. The service is now cannibalizing itself by retiring airframes still in demand and buying too few new types to maintain baseline capacity. To this point, three aircraft flying intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions along the Ukrainian border are the E-8 JSTARS, RQ-4 Global Hawk, and MQ-9 Reaper. The Air Force is retiring JSTARS without a tangible replacement, the Global Hawk was gutted last year, and the service and has been posturing to retire MQ-9s even though the type remains in high demand. Absent necessary resources, Air Force leaders are cutting into bone without the ability to bring on new aircraft in the volume and timeframe global events demand.
The Air Force is in this position because it received the least amount of funding out of any of the military services over the past two decades. In fact, the Army received $1T more than the Air Force during this period. This disparity is amplified by an additional $39 billion in annual intelligence community funding that is lumped into the Air Force budget, over which the service has no control. Things got even more challenging with the creation of the Space Force. Resources did not increase in the Department of the Air Force, but fiscal demands did. Add in that the Air Force is responsible for modernizing two legs of the nuclear triad.
Whether the FY23 budget will help redress these shortfalls has yet to be seen. Telling indicators to watch include key aircraft buys. Is the Air Force buying more F-35s or fewer than it acquired last year? The same holds true for programs like the HH-60W Combat Search and Rescue Helicopter, KC-46 tanker, and munitions stockpiles. Commitment to B-21 and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) must remain strong. It is also important to assess upgrades for existing aircraft like the B-52, B-2, F-22, and MQ-9. Shrinking inventories and eroding modernization efforts while threats are surging is dangerous. We must also look at the flight hours aircrews receive, and other factors tied to readiness.
Adversaries recognize the Air Force’s precarious position. Their increased aggression signals that the U.S. is no longer the deterrent it once was. Our diminished airpower is a key part of that equation.
This is a fiscal problem. Top leaders recognize this, with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) remarking: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine fundamentally altered what our national security posture and what our defense posture needs to be. It made it more complicated and it made it more expensive.”
We must also reduce costly duplication between the services and seek solutions that present best value. Consider the lack of national security space mission consolidation under the Space Force, or how the lack of discipline on roles and missions has yielded costly, duplicative investments. The race by all the services to pursue long-range strike options and associated targeting infrastructure is a glaring example. There comes a point where joint interdependence needs to return to the conversation. Otherwise, we spend more and get less.
National security requirements demand the Air Force stop shrinking, but absent consequential changes, the decline will continue. Current events should stand as a stark warning to leaders. The FY23 budget release marks an opportunity to reverse the Air Force’s decline. Effective joint power is not viable without airpower. It is time for the budget to reflect that.
Douglas A. Birkey is executive director at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.