A year has passed since Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Budget Control Act-the legislation mandating sequestration. Funding cuts that once seemed politically remote now loom large for leaders increasingly anxious about the impact $1.2 trillion in automatic budget reductions will have upon their respective districts and states. An estimated two million jobs at risk is a possibility no lawmaker can ignore.
Sequestration threatens the country’s ability to allow those in uniform to do their jobs. To understand what it means in real terms, look at the Air Force. Over the past decade, the service has been hit with numerous cuts and now the 2013 budget risks pushing airmen over the brink. There comes a point when people simply cannot do more with less. Unless Congress passes a sustainable and viable alternative to the Budget Control Act, challenges arising in the Air Force will be mirrored throughout the Army, Navy and Marine Corps — curtailing the number of key policy options upon which our nation’s leaders depend.
Pentagon Seeks To Tread Water in Asia; Lacks Resources for Pivot
When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta introduced the Pentagon’s new strategic guidance this past January, he said that the country faced a “strategic turning point.” Panetta highlighted that the time had come for the nation to rebalance its broader security priorities-especially those in the Asia-Pacific region. A change in strategic focus involves a new set of mission requirements and associated capabilities. The tools optimized for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan tend to be very different than those needed elsewhere. That means a meaningful Asian pivot demands investment, not just rhetoric.
Unfortunately, recent defense budget decisions made by the Obama Administration and Congress illustrate that leaders are not adequately resourcing the military’s new global strategy. Between the existing reduction of $487 billion and sequestration’s additional half-trillion dollar cut, the Pentagon faces a very profound strategic turning point — one entirely different than that articulated by Secretary Panetta. Instead of prudently posturing for future successes, America’s armed forces are headed for a crash.
These pressures are perhaps best illustrated within the Air Force. The service absorbed 90 percent of the cuts levied on the Department of Defense in the 2013 budget — $4.8 billion of $5.2 billion. The effects have been immediate and pronounced: nearly 10,000 airmen are being cut; 227 aircraft are being prematurely retired; and critical capability shortfalls are on the rise.
The Air Force’s planned purchase of 54 aircraft in 2013 translates into a 100-year replacement rate. That’s like asking current airmen to leave their jets on the tarmac and instead fly into harm’s way in one of the Wright Brothers’ kite-like biplanes. One has to look back to 1916 to find a year when the Air Force purchased fewer aircraft. While DoD’s new strategic guidance emphasized the need to pursue “acceptable risk,” these numbers demonstrate a clear divide between the Department’s rhetorical goals and budget realities.
Today’s Defense Builddown Is Not Like the Past
These budget cuts would not present such dire effects if the Air Force had been able to use the past decade to recapitalize its fleet and overarching infrastructure. At the end of World War Two, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Cold War, the service was able to weather post-war budget downturns precisely because it had reset the majority of its capabilities during wartime.
Circumstances were different this past decade. The Air Force, already stretched thin by the 1990s procurement holiday, actually saw its percentage of the defense budget decline by one-third during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The service canceled or delayed the vast majority of its modernization portfolio to sustain wartime operational demands.
So 20 years of underfunding has given us an Air Force on the brink. Its aircraft average a quarter of a century in age-with many dating back to the Eisenhower Administration. The wings of Carter-era A-10 ground attack airplanes are riddled with structural cracks. Airmen learning to fly are strapping into T-38s over twice their age. B-52s, all of which pre-date the Cuban missile crisis, are spending up to a year in depot-level maintenance. In light of the F-22 shortage, the Air Force is now extending the lifespan of its 28 year-old F-15s to 18,000 hours — more than three times their original design life.
The Air Force also spent the last decade retiring nearly a quarter of its bombers, fighters, and cargo aircraft in an attempt to free up money for immediate priorities. While helpful on a budget spreadsheet in the near-term, this has stretched the remaining tails even thinner. Shrinking the fleet makes little sense when the mission demand is constant. Aircraft availability rates and maintenance statistics clearly illustrate the rising costs associated with this decision.
Approaching the Point of No Return
Budget pressures have also shaped the type of Air Force that now exists. Key leaders over the past decade adopted a myopic litmus test when assessing the relative value elements the U.S. military offered policymakers. Since al Qaeda did not have an air force, many firmly asserted that there was no need for an aircraft with the survivability and speed of the F-22. With regional basing and air dominance secured, many perceived there was little need to think about a next-generation of ISR platforms beyond Predator and Reaper drones. With B-52s and B-1s safely flying over Afghanistan and Iraq, virtually no thought was given to the operational challenges associated with projecting power in a denied environment.
Pentagon leaders, acting upon these false perceptions, restricted the Air Force from building an air arm capable of operating in domains that differed from Iraq and Afghanistan. Numerous air leaders who challenged these notions were fired or prematurely retired. “Go along to get along” became a defining element of modern Air Force culture. Retiring Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has indicated as much on his way out the door. In his own words, he made a “conscious choice” for the service to not promote air power and instead focus on being a supporting agent to forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In mortgaging the long-term health of the Air Force for the present, officials took significant risks when they decided against maintaining and building a balanced force reflective of America’s global interests. The Air Force now lacks the capability and capacity to project power on a sustainable basis throughout vast swaths of the globe-especially in the Pacific domain. In a region defined by vast distances and a burgeoning anti-access environment, today’s Air Force simply falls short. The service has 20 long-range bombers and 185 air superiority fighters that are capable of projecting credible, survivable and sustainable power in this region.
Given combat force generation needs, that equates to about four B-2s and 20 F-22s engaged at a given moment. Newly-acquired platforms like the Predator are of immense value over Kabul, but they simply lack the range and survivability to be of any use in a demanding environment like the Pacific. Airframes like the F-16, KC-135, C-17, and U-2 present immense value to a combatant commander, but they can only be employed once the threat environment is sufficiently degraded. The same holds true for a Navy carrier strike group, a Marine air-ground task force, or an Army Stryker brigade.
Few Ready to Give Up Military Supremacy
The military does not exist for its own benefit. They train, organize, and equip to give national leaders policy choices. For the Air Force, this translates into shaping regions, deterring potential aggressors, and reassuring allies. This could take the form of a C-17 delivering disaster relief supplies or a fighter squadron deploying abroad to help cultivate allied capacity. In wartime, this means giving leaders a global set of options to net results without projecting undue vulnerability-i.e. getting the mission accomplished without reverting to attrition warfare or occupation-based strategies.
These missions include securing and maintaining air dominance; long range strike; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; global logistics; and much more. These are all capabilities essential to our nation’s leaders, combatant commanders, the joint team, and allied partners.
Today’s Air Force leaders are aware of the challenges facing their service and the overwhelming need to reset the fleet. That is why the 2020s are so heavily laden with necessary and overdue acquisition programs – including the F-35, a next-generation bomber, KC-46, a new trainer, CSAR-X, and various initiatives to upgrade the legacy fleet.
Modernization really must start today, but contemporary systems require several years to prep for production. The bills associated with these programs will be significant, especially in light of concurrent execution. However, after decades of underinvestment, the 2020s are a make-or-break moment for the Air Force. And the fates of those outyear budgets are largely being set now.
Failing to recapitalize the fleet would yield a mix of planes that would no longer be survivable in a contested environment or would simply be grounded due to structural fatigue. This would rob the country of several irreplaceable national security options. That is why draconian budget measures like sequestration are so harmful.
Air Force Fratricide a Symptom of Budget Cuts
In this budget environment, it is tempting for leaders to fixate on parochial interests at the expense of the country’s broader security concerns. Once again, the Air Force serves as an illustrative example. Faced with nearly $5 billion in cuts in 2013 alone, there were precious few new “efficiencies” to offer. Instead, the Air Force has begun cutting into core capabilities.
Air Force leadership opted to divest over two hundred aircraft — primarily A-10s, F-16s, C-130s, Global Hawks, and C-5s-airframes necessary to sustain global operations, but no longer deemed affordable. This mass retirement represented a major gamble since new replacement tails are far from a certainty. Realizing that there are too few aircraft to sustain existing units, the service components — Active, Reserve, and Air National Guard – - spent the past winter and spring fighting one another to gain control of the remaining airframes. This struggle rapidly spilled into the Congressional domain, with members of Congress eagerly defending their local air assets. Instead of recognizing the contributions all airmen make to the nation, congressional hearings devolved into parochial battles at the expense of debating the service’s true requirements.
Such contests distracted from the core issue that regardless of whichever bases survive in the near-term, the Air Force is slowly going out of business over the long-term because it cannot sustain its force structure based on a 100-year replacement rate. While lawmakers may win short-term victories today, a failure to focus upon the bigger picture will ultimately drive their units into extinction. It is simply a matter of basic math.
Most importantly, this steady erosion of deployable tails deprives combatant commanders of the tools they need to facilitate key policy options for the country. While the number of deployable F-16s the country possesses today may seem rather academic, the time will come when world events will leverage stark clarity upon the issue. A commander cannot employ aircraft that no longer exist or were never procured. Leaders need to consider such possibilities before it is too late.
Air Force Cuts Foreshadow Other Services’ Next Steps
The problems facing the Air Force are but a harbinger of what will soon confront the other services. The Navy is dealing with a historically small fleet, while the Marine Corps and Army must reset after a decade of combat operations with precious little funding in sight. Addressing these problems demands responsible requirements-driven resourcing, not reckless cuts. It is important to realize that these resources represent an investment in the nation’s future survival and success.
The defense strategic guidance was right on target in highlighting that “U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked.” As Secretary Panetta and others have illustrated, this nation faces very serious challenges around the globe. While previous leaders failed to maintain a balanced force, that does not excuse those in power today from ensuring that our national security establishment is properly resourced.
Mackenzie Eaglen, former congressional staffer and defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors. Doug Birkey is head of government affairs for the non-partisan Air Force Association.