During his four-year stint as defense secretary, Dick Cheney killed the service’s cold-war fighter programs, terminated the next-generation B-2 bomber at a mere 20 planes, slashed the future C-17 cargo plane program, and decimated every other facet of U.S. air power. Clinton’s defense secretaries added back some planes that Cheney had cut, but delayed and decreased the next-generation F-22 fighter that was the centerpiece of plans for future air dominance.
Then Donald Rumsfeld launched the entire department on a leap-ahead trajectory to military transformation that ignored air power for another six years.
The end result is that the Air Force now flies 45-year-old aerial refueling tankers using a plane retired by commercial airlines a quarter-century ago; its F-22 fighter program has been cut 75% even though the aging fighters it would replace are so old they operate under flight restriction; its production lines for C-130 and C-17 transport planes are scheduled for closure despite lack of adequate airlift; and the service has canceled its planned family of aircraft for replacing cold-war radar and reconnaissance planes.
The only bright spot on the horizon is the tri-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but Navy efforts to slash funding for JSF suggest the Air Force can’t even count on that program coming to fruition.
Air Force pilots have a favorite story they tell that captures the meltdown of American air power over the past 20 years. Brigadier General David Deptula [incidentally this was the officer who was in Kalaikunda during Cope India 2005 with the USAF team] was flying his F-15 over northern Iraq in 1999 when cockpit gauges went haywire and the fuel reading plummeted to zero. It turned out insulation on the plane’s wiring had rotted away with age, shorting out the electrical system. The punch-line of the story was that Gen. Deptula was flying the same F-15 he had flown 20 years earlier as a young captain. But most of the people who tell the story don’t know it has a new punch-line: Gen. Deptula’s son, a first lieutenant, is now flying the same plane in the Pacific — nearly 30 years after it was built.
Back in 1999, when President Bush made that campaign speech about skipping a generation of military technology, he titled his remarks, “A Period of Consequences.” Well, after 20 years of neglect by both political parties, a period of consequences has arrived for American air power.
The Air Force that prevented any American soldier from being killed by enemy aircraft for half a century may not be up to the task in the years ahead due to lack of adequate investment.
Other countries have begun to field tactical aircraft that match the performance of our existing fighters, and they are deploying sophisticated surface-to-air missiles that few non-stealthy aircraft can escape.
We got an indication of what lay ahead in 1999 when Serbia — a country that spends less on defense in a year than NATO spends in a day — managed to shoot down a first-generation stealth fighter and drive European fighters from its air space. NATO commanders were so concerned about Serbian air defenses that they flew B-2 bomber strikes all the way from the United States to avoid putting non-stealthy planes over the country.
We got another indication of what lay ahead in 2004, when pilots from the Indian Air Force repeatedly defeated American F-15s in joint exercises using a combination of new technology and new tactics. The Indians benefited from superior numbers in the exercises, but that’s the sort of edge you would expect defenders to have in a real war — we can’t count on outnumbering enemy air forces in their own air space.
One other harbinger of things to come can be seen in the growing number of Air Force planes grounded or restricted due to age-related cracking, corrosion and parts obsolescence. As we speak, structural concerns have forced flight restrictions of one sort or another on all of the Air Force’s F-15 fighters, all of its B-1 bombers, dozens of airlifters and dozens of tankers. These problems are likely to grow worse in future years, because a fleet built mainly in the Reagan era and earlier is beginning to wear out.
If we do not accelerate current plans to replace cold-war aircraft, we are risking a catastrophic loss of global air power in the near future. I estimated in my chapter that an increase in annual procurement outlays of $10 billion for the Air Force would be necessary to address the most critical problems, concentrated mainly in four areas:
— First, continued production of the F-22 Raptor fighter at the rate of 20 planes per year through the next decade.
— Second, continued production of the C-17 and C-130 transports to support ground forces through the next decade.
— Third, expedited production of next-generation aerial-refueling tankers to replace Eisenhower-era airframes as soon as possible.
— Fourth, expedited development of a new long-range bomber that can provide speed, persistence and survivability missing in the current force.
I should note in closing that my chapter also deals in some considerable detail with problems in the military space program, but there I think the real challenge has been mismanagement rather than money. When we get to the core of our global air power, the planes that support global knowledge and mobility and strike capability, the challenge is a simple lack of money. We either spend more, or in the very near future we lose our most important war-fighting advantage.