The time is fast approaching when the west must decide if it wants to have armed forces with teeth or makeshift bands of rundown warriors

The US Air Force has a major problem. It has 2,000-odd tactical fighters all of which were originally deployed in the 1970s and some of which will still be in-service post 2025.

Although replacement programmes for the Boeing F-15 Eagle, Fairchild A-10A Thunderbolt and the Lockheed Martin F-16 are in train, these fighters will have to hold the line for the foreseeable future. This is because the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor will not be procured in large enough numbers to be a total replacement for the F-15, while it will take some years for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to replace the 1,300-odd F-16s and 366 A-10s. Average ages today range from 12 years for the F-16 to 20 years for the A-10. And even though this tactical aircraft triumvirate is to be updated, each has a shopping list of still unfunded upgrades.

That the USAF has got itself into this position is surprising, and means the USA will - against its stated doctrine of fielding the world's best equipment - face enemies operating arguably better aircraft. This will make the zero-casualties requirement of modern conflict difficult to achieve. The world has already seen the effects of this position with US - and therefore allied aircraft - forced to operate at medium and high altitudes over the Balkans and Iraq simply to avoid the threat posed by unsophisticated man-portable air defences such as the ubiquitous SA-7.

This capability gap has been widened by the gradual improvement in Russian aircraft - particularly Sukhoi's impressive Su-27/30 Flanker family - which highlights the need to ensure that today's replacement programmes continue to progress and do not get sidelined or cancelled. And when they enter service, the F-22 and JSF must be the leap forward that is being promised by their advocates.

It is easy to see how the USAF has ended up in this position. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the clamour to turn swords into ploughshares resulted in a series of shelved programmes, cutbacks in spending and a wholesale reduction in the size of the military. As we all now know, with the benefit of hindsight, the changes have led to greater utilisation of existing aircraft, which are facing new threats and using up airframe hours at a prodigious rate.

The USAF is not alone, either among the US forces or elsewhere in the western world. All NATO European countries similarly slashed their defence spending and postponed and cancelled new equipment programmes and, unlike the US where there is some signs of upward movement in defence spending, there is little evidence of a change of heart in the majority of European capitals.

Some European air forces have upgraded their fighters. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway have put F-16s through a mid-life upgrade (MLU), but slashed the numbers of aircraft being upgraded. The UK has upgraded its Panavia Tornado ground attack aircraft, but scaled back the numbers and breadth of the work. Germany and Italy are also planning a Tornado MLU - and have been for years.

The problem as ever is budgets. Western governments have been very good at jumping in to the world's trouble spots in an effort to resolve crises. And to do so they rely on the armed forces. But many armed forces are suffering, as no extra money is provided to pay for the contingencies. The result is an ever-increasing pressure to find savings from elsewhere and the procurement budget tends to suffer the biggest attacks. A knock on effect is often seen in a reduction of spares and the resultant reduction in flying both training and operational missions.

Even in the USA where defence budgets appear to be on the increase finally, there is no guarantee that the extra money will be funnelled into maintaining the existing fleets or instead ring-fenced for politically high profile programmes such as missile defence.

It's fast approaching the time when western governments are going to have to decide whether they require armed forces with teeth, or whether they will follow the New Zealand example and retire their air combat capability. Doing so does not remove a country from participation in coalition operations, but simply limits it to transport and air mobile missions.

If tactical fighters are to be retained then funding must be found to ensure that the frontline fleet is capable of dealing with the likely threats.

This may not be a cheap option, but not doing so runs the risk of casualties, collateral damage, fratricide and a whole host of other politically unacceptable issues.

Source: Flight International