Several former senior officers are sounding the alarm about the current state of the US Air Force (USAF) fleet of combat aircraft.
The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a Washington DC-area think tank that focuses on space and airpower aspects of national security, says the USAF is currently smaller, older and less ready than any time since the service’s founding in 1947.
“The air force lacks the force capacity, lethality, and survivability needed to fight a major war with China, plus deter nuclear threats and meet its other national defence requirements,” a new policy paper from the Mitchell Institute claims.
The report’s lead author, retired USAF Lieutenant General and dean of the Mitchell Institute David Deptula, said on 12 September that as the USAF fleet has been shrinking, demand for combat airpower has been growing around the world.
“The fact of the matter is, the nation requires much more from the air force, than the resources allocated to it allow,” the Boeing F-15 pilot argues.
Deptula’s report, titled Decades of Air Force Underfunding Threaten America’s Ability to Win, notes that the USAF fleet contains less than half the number of fighter aircraft and just one-third of the bombers it counted in 1990.
Some 80% of those fighters now exceed their design lives. Only one-quarter are considered stealthy or survivable against the advanced anti-air capabilities of a near-peer adversary like China.
The report’s assessment of the strategic bomber force is similarly bleak.
Deptula’s co-author, retired colonel and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber pilot Mark Gunzinger, notes that the low-observable Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, of which the USAF purchased just 20, is the country’s only strategic bomber asset that is capable of operating in contested air space.
“None of our other bombers can,” Gunzinger said at a presentation of the paper on 12 September. “That risk was created by that decision back in the ’90s,” he adds.
The 1990s marked the end of the Cold War and a substantial US military build-up, followed by a sizeable reduction in funding for the USA’s armed forces, often called the “peace dividend”.
Deptula argues that this began a cycle of what is known as “divest to invest” decisions for the USAF, in which inadequate budgets forced service leaders to choose between focusing resources on modernisation, force size and readiness.
The principle behind the tactic was to cut older platforms, and direct the cost savings into developing newer, more capable systems.
However, Deptula notes what he describes as a major flaw with that approach.
“The [USAF] has no control over the money it saves through divestment, because it all goes back into the US Treasury,” he notes. “It’s not earmarked for future air force spending.”
While the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and subsequent military actions across the globe, did produce a surge in US defence spending, Deptula says that most of those resources were given to the US Army.
“The army budgets since 2002 alone add up well over a trillion [dollars] more than the air force’s,” he notes.
This discrepancy can be explained by the national strategic priorities of that period.
Following the launch of the so-called “Global War on Terror” after the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon substantially expanded the size of its ground combat forces to meet the demands of sustaining counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq over 20 years.
Personnel typically represent the largest expense within the annual defence budget, and the army is by far the largest branch of the US military. With roughly 455,000 active duty service members, the army is substantially larger than the USAF, which by comparison has just 312,000 active troops, according to analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations from 2018.
The creation of the US Space Force in 2019 shifted some USAF personnel to that service.
While the Pentagon was largely focused on combat, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a still-developing China left the USA and NATO without a significant threat requiring substantial investment in strategic assets like nuclear bombers and large fleets of air superiority fighters.
However, both Deptula and Gunzinger say that civilian and military leaders in Washington are now facing the consequences of those choices.The rise of a more militaristic China and expansionist actions from Russia have brought so-called great power competition back to the forefront.
“We can’t take that kind of a decision and accept that kind of risk in the 2020s, 2030s, 2040s,” Gunzinger says of the previous cuts to strategic air assets.
Both write that rebuilding the US fleet of tactical and strategic aircraft should be an “imperative for the nation”.
They argue that while the army would play an important role in a European conflict, and the US Navy would be critical in the Indo-Pacific region, it is the USAF that would be asked to commit significant resources to both theatres, potentially at the same time, while still defending North America.
The service currently lacks the ability to do so, they say, perhaps in contrast to public perception.
“I think America is used to an incredibly effective air force,” says Joe Guastella Jr., a retired USAF three-star general who spoke alongside Deptula and Gunzinger.
He credits the USA’s total air dominance in campaigns such as the 1990-1991 Gulf War as the source of that public confidence. However, he cautions that may also lead to complacency in maintaining the USAF’s edge.
“We’re a ready air force today, but we’re barely ready,” warns Guastella, whose final position on active duty was as the USAF’s deputy chief of staff for operations.
He cites the 2021 evacuation of Kabul, Afghanistan, in which some 120,000 people were airlifted from the Kabul International airport by USAF transport crews, as an example of the capability the service can still bring to bear.
However, the former Lockheed Martin F-16 pilot notes that current aircrews are routinely flying “less than half” the cockpit hours he logged during the prime of his career. Guastella says the USAF is currently “on the cusp” of readiness levels that will leave it ineffective, should conflict arise.
As a remedy, the Mitchell Institute report argues for increasing defence spending on new aircraft procurement for the USAF, including upwardly adjusting the service’s annual budget for 3-5% over inflation.
Those funds would be used by the USAF to “maximise its acquisitions” of advanced capabilities like the Lockheed F-35 fifth-generation fighter, Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider strategic bomber and the secretive Next Generation Air Dominance programme, which seeks to produce a sixth-generation aircraft system.
Read the entire Mitchell Institute report here.