Sequestration and the War on Terror: The U.S. Air Force in crisis

As sequestration and second term defense priorities set in, don't forget the value of the Air Force. 
Photo: A Hawaii F-22 sits in a hangar at Red Flag. / U.S. Air Force file photo

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 14, 2013 ― Last month, the U.S. Air Force released a vision statement which proclaimed “America is – and always will be – an aerospace nation. To fully realize the Nation’s aerospace potential, President Truman established an independent Air Force in 1947 to better protect America, its citizens, and its allies. From this beginning, we have grown airpower into the ability to project global military power through air, space, and cyberspace. Today, complex security and fiscal challenges demand that our Air Force develop innovative Airmen who find better and smarter ways to fly, fight and win.”

Though that preamble does not explicitly state it, an informed observer can read between the lines to see that America’s military and especially her Air Force is in a crisis. For starters, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the U.S. military has been continuously deployed abroad in support of the Global War On Terror (GWOT) which has cost taxpayers almost two trillion dollars since Fiscal Year 2002.

Because raising taxes to pay for increased government spending – let alone an open ended war with no clear definition for victory – is politically dangerous for elected leaders, America chose to finance the GWOT  through a combination of deficit spending and sacrifice of funding which would have in peacetime gone towards recapitalization and modernization of our defense infrastructure.

In 2009, the GAO issued report 09-184 which warned, “The Air Force has not implemented [Air Sovereignty Alert] operations in accordance with DOD, NORAD and Air Force directives and guidance, which instruct the Air Force to establish ASA as a steady state (ongoing and indefinite) mission. The Air Force has not implemented the 140 actions it identified to establish ASA as a steady-state mission, which included integrating ASA operations into the Air Force’s planning, programming and funding cycle. The Air Force instead has been focused on other priorities, such as overseas military operations.”

The GWOT has significantly gouged the Air Force’s capability to fund and maintain its existing fleet of aircraft – particularly those in the National Guard – and it has allowed the United States to lose its solid technological aerospace monopoly to peers in Europe, Russia and China. One August 2008 study even suggested that the United States, if it were to fight a war with China over Taiwan, would not necessarily be effective outnumbered even with the force multipliers of stealth and beyond-visual-range missiles.

That was five years ago. Today, we should be especially concerned. The Air Force was created in 1947 as an independent service for the purposes of maximizing its energies and procurement toward aerospace dominance not parity or minimal deterrence. Though the Air Force traces its origins to the Army, the Air Force is separate because if attached to a land warfare service the priorities of the Air Force would be almost entirely ancillary and of a support role. By being an independent service, the Air Force had the benefit of perfecting and focusing on aerospace as a core competency.

Today, in the world of joint service operations, joint basing and operationally synthesized missions with intelligence agencies, the Air Force finds itself in a position where the demands of other services and agencies take precedence over the individualized needs of the service itself. This is evident by the fact that the Air Force, traditionally a combat force is now based on the DoD’s Annual Aviation Inventory and Funding Plan, Fiscal Years 2013-2042 transitioning into support service specialized primarily in ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) aircraft – much of which will be unmanned – versus combat aircraft, whose existing numbers will shrink considerably.

This paradigm shift suggests that policymakers have “drunk the Kool Aid” that all future wars will be post-modern international security operations consisting of low intensity conflicts against inferior, lightly equipped developing nations or raids against non-state actors such as terrorists or insurgents. In truth, the GWOT has only served to reinforce the strength of traditional Westphalian states such as China and Russia which – even as the United States expends itself on suppressing terrorists – are aggressively modernizing their conventional forces to defeat a Western-style adversary in aerospace, sea, land and cyber.

It should be understood that the United States in large part was the dominant superpower for most of the 20th and early 21st century because her aerospace was superlative and without peer. The Chinese can be expected over the next ten years to develop anti-satellite weaponry as well as air dominance to deny not only America’s increasing drone force, but her aging manned bomber and fighter force. The diplomatic consequences of a China which has conventional aerospace capability at parity or in excess of the United States and her allies is a frightening concept.

In the past, America paid dearly for incorrect assumptions of defense. To presume that the United States can remain secure and superlative armed only with commandos and light unmanned systems is a dangerous policy gamble.

If the Air Force does not receive the political and fiscal priority from Washington D.C., the very structure of our world could change in negative ways which, though not readily apparent now, could be disastrous over the long term. We need an Air Force that not only has the capability to fight tactically, but to deter strategically to prevent conflict in the first place.

This does not mean that we should buy more F-22s or F-35s, but what it does mean is that we should never fixate so intensely on the current war that we are woefully unprepared for the future. Peace can only be achieved through strength and vision, not confusion and ill-preparedness.

Heed the timeless warning of Sun Tzu: “He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared” and “the general is the bulwark of the State; if the bulwark is complete at all points; the State will be strong; if the bulwark is defective, the State will be weak.”

Aerospace is inescapably the key to the future. The future battlefields may be fought with commandos supported by orbiting unmanned drones and support from light ships operating in the littorals, but wars will be won by states equipped with the aerospace capability to deny access to such forces. If America does not lead in aerospace, others will – and that future may not be one where America leads the world.


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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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