Nothing Left to Fight With

Nothing Left to Fight With

Visiting the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Poland last March, President Biden declared that they are “the finest fighting force in the history of the world”. A U.S. president trumpeting the prowess of the American military is a familiar refrain but a new paper from the Mitchell Institute details an underfunded U.S. Air Force which may not be able to win against China.

Entitled “Decades of Air Force Underfunding Threaten America’s Ability to Win”, the paper outlines the decline in relative spending on the Air Force, the decreasing number and increasing age of its tactical aircraft fleet and the prospects it faces if funding for modernization and new aircraft is not made available.

The paper makes for stark reading. In the first paragraph, authors, retired Air Force Lt.Gen David A. Deptula and former Air Force Colonel, Mark Gunzinger, plainly state that the USAF “now lacks the capacity to fight a peer conflict, deter elsewhere, and defend the homeland as required by the National Defense Strategy.”

The decline in combat power and morale in the Air Force has been self-evident to those paying attention. Flying hours are one of the key barometers to overall readiness, force mentality and esprit de corps. In 1990, Air Force pilots averaged approximately 29 flight hours per month. In fiscal 2021, flying hours across all types of aircraft in the active-duty force averaged 10.1 hours per month, up from just 6.8 per month in 2019.

In decades past, Air Force pilots cited their experience and training as a competitive advantage over greater numbers of technologically improving aircraft fielded by U.S. adversaries. By 2013, they could no longer boast.

That year, USAF General Herbert Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces, noted that training hours for U.S. pilots had dropped to the level once occupied by Soviet pilots during the Cold War. American pilots flew fewer training hours than Chinese, Indian, or some European pilots. That trend has largely remained, buffeted by other anxiety producing numbers.

For the last five years the USAF has hovered around 2,000 pilots short, unable to attract, produce and retain sufficient numbers of people to fill its cockpits. The lack of people is more than matched by a lack of equipment. The Mitchell paper points out that the service now has less than half its fighter force and only one-third of the bombers it had in 1990.

“Its latest proposed budget divests about 1,000 more aircraft than it buys over the next five years, which will create an even smaller, older, and less ready force in the near term,” Deptula and Gunzinger note.

That force now stands at 2,176 aircraft. It compares with a fleet operated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force of China and its sister branch, the PLA Naval Air Force, of around 1,700 combat aircraft.

The running commentary re the numbers has been that the tight margin is “not that scary” given the quantity of older, 3rd and even 2nd generation tactical aircraft in China’s fleet let alone 4th and 5th generation equipment. The PLA’s lack of combat experience and constricted training approach ameliorate the threat goes the logic.

But the numbers of aircraft and pilots are absolutely scary when one considers that China will almost certainly choose any future conflict on its own terms. If it does, it will bring the full weight of its numbers and strength (including surface-to-air missiles) to bear in its own back yard. America will inevitably fight with smaller forces 7,000 miles from its own shores.

Those forces are being depleted. With respect to the Air Force, the nadir, the Mitchell paper notes, will occur at the same time that USINDOPACOM warns China will be prepared to conquer Taiwan—2027.

As former USAF weapons systems officer and Chief of Fighter Programs, Legislative Affairs for the Secretary of the Air Force, Mike Benitez, noted in a recent Mitchell Institute podcast, “One of the enduring principles of all joint operations is mass… Capability is not a replacement for mass. It goes against doctrine. It goes against history. It goes against how air operations work.”

Yet, the Mitchell paper argues, the Air Force has been compelled to substitute capability for mass for the last three decades.

Bad Math

The so-called “peace dividend” that America’s leaders sought to harvest after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 inspired three decades of reduced spending on modernizing and maintaining the strength of the U.S. military. There is a distinction between investing for modernization and capacity and spending on conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Deptula and Gunzinger raise another one – the difference between the budget numbers allocated to the Air Force and what it has actually received.

They point out that in its latest budget, the Biden administration asks Congress to fund a smaller allocation for the Air Force in Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 ($169.5 billion) than it requests for the Navy ($180.5 billion) and the Army ($177.5 billion).

However, it doesn’t look that way to a casual observer. The USAF’s true budget the authors note is masked, as in previous years, by an arcane DOD practice that reports it is requesting $209.6 billion for the service in FY23

“The $40 billion difference is money that will ‘pass-through’ the Air Force’s budget and go to non-Air Force organizations and programs,” the paper notes. “The Air Force cannot use this pass-through funding to buy new aircraft, increase its readiness, and otherwise organize, train, and equip its forces.”

Much of the pass-through money is being spent on modernizing America’s nuclear forces, a vital investment that the Mitchell Institute asserts is being made on the Air Force’s back rather than coming out of the budgets of all of the services. For context, the paper illustrates, the $40 billion difference would buy the Air Force 400 5th generation F-35A fighters designed to fight in the high threat operational environments the U.S. would face against China or Russia.

While calling for dropping the deceptive reporting practice, the Mitchell paper asserts that (not counting pass-through funding) USAF budgets have “chronically lagged” those of the Navy and Army. The Army and Navy it says received about $1.3 trillion dollars and $914 billion dollars more, respectively, than the Air Force after removing pass-through between 2002 and 2021.

The paper also points to budget allocation precedent set after 9-11. Prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Army, Navy and Air Force received relatively equal funding. But in the press to fight the global war on terror, congress increased funding for the Army by nearly 250% between FY01 and FY08. The Air Force’s budget “increased by a far more modest amount.”

That has come at an additional cost to national security. Mark Gunzinger argues that the peer threat to the U.S. lies in a region – the Pacific – where the most important forms of force projection are airpower, space, maritime and cyber – not ground forces. He’d likely find disagreement from historians who point out that wars have only been won by holding and occupying ground. But one might counter that effective control of the domains mentioned above should be enough to prevent war in the first place.

Whatever inter-service funding imbalance and friction exist the fact is that the U.S. Air Force is too small for the job it may be asked to do.

The Air Force of 2022 looks substantial on paper. The fourth column in the chart above shows the Air Force has 1,420 mission fighters after subtracting test, training, and other assets. But after applying mission capable rates—the percentage of total time an aircraft can perform at least one of its assigned missions—the count decreases to 975 fighters. In a fight against China not all of those 975 aircraft would be available.

A similar chart for bombers tells much the same story with just 59 airplanes ready for a fight. Add to the physical numbers the fact that about 80% of USAF fighters have now exceeded their design lives and that only about 24% of the fleet is stealthy or optimally survivable against modern threats.

There is yet another jarring figure in the report. The proportion of Air Force spending on new aircraft (of whatever variety) is just 7% of its overall budget. It actually hit an all-time low (below 6%) in 2013, edged back to 8% in 2016 and has remained at 7% or less since.

Where does the other 93% go? To fund operations and maintenance of its old, shrinking fleet as well as other operational needs. The money is devoted to personnel costs as well including financial re-enlistment incentives to help the USAF meet its recruiting goal – a goal it will likely fail to achieve in 2022.

With the above spending allocation and a flat defense budget (one that is declining in real terms thanks to inflation), the Air Force continues with what both its rank and file and outsiders have recognized as a failed strategy for decades – “divest to invest”.

Put simply, the Air Force has pursued a policy of shrinking its fleet to free up money to invest in new, more capable aircraft – in ever smaller numbers. Over the next five years the service projects it must divest another 1,463 aircraft and procure only 467 new aircraft of all types. That’s simply not enough to reverse its path to becoming yet smaller, older, and weaker.

The report provides much more detail but the bottom line is that the U.S. Air Force is approaching a point where it will have nothing left to fight with. The deficit is in more than equipment. It lies in priorities and a lack of leadership.

Priorities and The Will to Speak Out

National priorities matter as much as military service priorities. The authors might just as well have noted that the cost of expanding the IRS as part of the Inflation Reduction Act which the president eagerly touted and signed is roughly $80 billion over 10 years. That would theoretically buy 800 F-35As.

They might have pointed out that, like the other services, the Air Force is arguably better known to the public for its social policies including its commitment to abortion, LGBTQ and diversity demographic targets than for its fighting effectiveness, modern equipment and training.

Deptula and Gunzinger do stress that fixing the shortfalls facing the Air Force will require 3% to 5% annual budget increases on top of adjustments for inflation. But they pass over the fact that senior Air Force leadership – from current Chief of Staff Gen. Charles ‘CQ’ Brown Jr. and Secretary Frank Kendall all the way back to General Norton A. Schwartz and Secretary Michael B. Donley – has failed to ask and forcefully advocate for what it needs.

The last time senior USAF leaders truly stepped up to the plate, a number of experts say, was in 2008 when Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and USAF Secretary Michael Wynne raised the need to re-orient the force in size and technology to face China. Moseley and Wynne were fired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates for the high profile mishandling of nuclear weapons that plagued the Air Force then but others cited their advocacy for growing the Air Force as a major factor in their dismissal.

What are the chances current Air Force leaders will forcefully challenge the administration and the nation today?

“There’s no question in my mind that the Air Force fully agrees with every point in this paper,” Mark Gunzinger says. “But they are part of this [Biden] administration and I just don’t see any movement toward increasing DoD’s budget. Someone needs to stand up and say we have hit the limit for doing more with less. We have reached the point where we can only do less with less. That’s the reality.”

As the aerospace industry and senior USAF leaders gather this week in Washington DC for the annual Air Force association conference, they should speak boldly and loudly about what little the service has left to fight with. Against what is at stake nationally, any jeopardy to their careers from speaking out is moot.

They may also want to remind President Biden of what he said in a speech to Air Force personnel during a trip to the UK on June 9, 2021.

“I’ve long said that, as a nation, we have many obligations, but we only have one truly sacred obligation, only one. And that’s to properly prepare and equip the women and men we send into harms way, and to care for you and your families both while deployed and when you come home. And now that I have the incredible honor of serving as your Commander in Chief, I believe that even more strongly.”

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