When the Pentagon “rebalanced” military aircraft programs on April 6, they forgot about buying new fighters to protect the United States. Remember the scare last month when the back-up Air Force One made low circles over New York City for White House photographers? It looked for a moment like an F-16 was chasing the jumbo jetliner…and that brought back chilling memories of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Let’s crop the 747 out of the mental image and focus on the fighters defending US airspace.
Alert fighters under the North American Air Defense Command are responsible for intercepting any suspicious airliner or stray plane before it can do harm. On September 11, 2001, 179 fighters flew air patrols over major cities. 300 aircraft in total joined the alert that day. Since then, Air Force fighters from the Guard, Reserve and active components have racked up over 39,300 sorties for what’s called the air sovereignty mission, also known as Operation Noble Eagle. (Due to rotational patterns Navy and Marine Corps fighters aren’t available for the homeland defense mission.) Full crisis alert draws on 18 sites supported by up to 324 fighter aircraft.
There’s just one problem: F-16s and F-15s in the Air National Guard are so old that many will begin to retire in less than five years. Back in January, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that air defense bases will soon start shutting down as their aircraft retire. By 2020, 11 of the 18 alert sites here in the US will be gone because they have no aircraft, according to GAO. Sixteen of those sites are run by the Air National Guard. Don’t think these airmen are just weekend warriors. Many air guard pilots fly full time, and Air National Guard units also rotate regularly to Afghanistan and Iraq where they support ground forces. Despite this, the Pentagon has treated air sovereignty like a pick-up game for the last eight years.
Congress is ready to act and there are several options, some wiser than others. Top priority is new fifth-generation aircraft for the air sovereignty mission. Hawaii’s Air Guard is slated to get F-22s next year, and the plane is ideal for air sovereignty because of its speed and sensors. The Air Force could shift more F-22s to the Guard if the plane stays in production.
Next up is the F-35. Air Force initial operating capability is a few years away, which may be enough time to boost production to provide more F-35s for homeland defense. Buying new F-16s or F-15s is a stop gap but a poor one. The air sovereignty mission for the future requires fifth-generation radars, sensors and communications links to plug gaps in coverage of North American airspace and cope with new threats. With F-22s and F-35s, the Guard keeps its overseas mission, too. It would be silly to have the Air National Guard flying F-16s when major allies are flying F-35s.
Protecting the US is supposed to be the number one priority. “I think the decision needs to be made where does air defense and defense of the country range on the scale of priorities of the missions that the Air Force will be required to perform,” said Air National Guard Chief Lieutenant General Harry Wyatt in a recent Congressional hearing.
He couldn’t be more right. Congress and the Pentagon Quadrennial Defense Review team need to tackle the issue before cuts in fighter buys leave America’s skies vulnerable.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: One could also argue that, absent the threat of long-range bombers invading US airspace, “stealth” is not required for enforcing air sovereignty. Further, the raison d’être of the AWACS fleet is to provide off-board sensors and management capabilities for aircraft that do not have them. Finally, other US combat aircraft will not always be deployed on overseas operations. Consequently, a fleet of inexpensive, new-build F-16s bought off the shelf could meet operational requirements for the air sovereignty mission, obviating the need to buy dedicated F-22s or F-35s.)