Issue Brief: The Slow Death of American Air Power
(Source: The Lexington Institute; issued Jan. 16, 2007)

(© The Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)
By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.

Now that America has an Islamo-centric security posture, any danger that doesn't fit within the counter-fundamentalist framework tends to be ignored. That's sort of ironic, since the biggest military threats to democracy in the last century came from atheists.

Five years into the "global war on terror," the evidence suggests that Islamic radicals are real good at blowing each other up, but not so good at projecting power abroad. As long as western nations maintain halfway decent domestic security arrangements, the fundamentalists seem to be hobbled in repeating their one major success of 9-11. Given that fact -- five years and counting without a second big terrorist attack in America -- maybe we ought to be paying more attention to the kinds of state-based challenges that roiled the world so much in the past. But we aren't.

No one gives much thought to Russia's vast nuclear arsenal, which could still obliterate America in a few hours, even though that nation is reverting to authoritarian rule.

Nobody seems to care about China's buildup of naval forces, its development of long-range missiles, or its new fighter.

And nothing decisive has been done to prevent North Korea's march towards an indigenous nuclear arsenal.

Each of these countries wields far more destructive power than the handful of nuts scattered across Arabia that we call Al Qaeda. But because Al Qaeda is a current irritant and other concerns seem less pressing, the capacity of U.S. forces to cope with state-based challenges is allowed to atrophy.

The decay is most pronounced in the U.S. Air Force, the service that would have to take the lead in coping with urgent threats posed by Russia, China and other industrialized countries. After 20 years of neglect, the Air Force's fleet of combat aircraft is older than the Navy's fleet of warships.

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 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.

Maybe it's time the Air Force finally gets some new planes, before a real threat comes along.


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