The greatest number of Air Force (Army Air Corps in those days) planes destroyed or damaged on a single day was 205 during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. An additional 123 Navy aircraft were destroyed or damaged for a total of 328. To put these losses in perspective, the average daily loss of American aircraft during World War Two from all causes was 170.
Now the United States Congress has beaten the record set by Japan as well as the average for the entire war. According to published reports of a speech by the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh, sequestration has forced his service to ground about 33 squadrons, 12 of them “combat-coded” fighter and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) units. In addition, seven more squadrons, apparently including four strategic bomber units, have been reduced to doing only basic “takeoff and landing” training. Included on the casualty list is at least one squadron of F-22s, the most advanced fighter in the U.S. inventory, four F-15E Strike Eagle squadrons, the Air Force’s premier air-to-ground platform and two squadrons each of B-1Bs and B-52s. By my admittedly back-of-the-envelope calculation, without firing a shot sequestration has already inflicted “losses” on the U.S. Air Force alone on the order of 300 aircraft. If one includes the additional squadrons placed in a similar status by the Navy and Marine Corps, the total cost of sequestration in terms of “downed” U.S. aircraft rises to something like 600.
This bloodbath amounts to approximately 20 percent of the air combat capability of the U.S. military. There are additional casualties in the form of squadrons involved in training, airlift, intelligence and support. Moreover, the costs imposed by sequestration extend over time. According to the above-referenced article, General Welsh said that “it takes 150 percent more money to get a fully grounded squadron combat-ready again than it would to simply keep it trained up all along.” That, of course, assumes there is time to bring the grounded units up to full combat qualifications. If our little soiree in Syria results in a war, we may have to send units into the fight without adequate preparation. That might up Congress’s score of “downed” U.S. aircraft considerably.
The White House and the Pentagon were accused by some in Congress of overstating the impact of sequestration on military capabilities. After all, they would argue, sequestration amounted to a ten percent cut in defense spending. However, given the fact that Congress has vetoed virtually every rational measure that the Department of Defense might take in order to mitigate the impact of sequestration on the military – base closures, raising health care fees, revising compensation standards and retiring older aircraft – the impact of the declining budget on the resources available for modernization and operations and maintenance is greatly magnified. More important, the demand for U.S. military presence in the world and power projection capabilities is not declining. Even in the face of sequestration’s impact on available forces, the military is being asked to do more with less.
The impacts of sequestration can no longer be characterized as theoretical, much less hyped. We are witnessing the loss of real critical capabilities. It is one thing when an enemy inflicts losses on the military as happened at Pearl Harbor. It is quite another when our own elected representatives do the same thing.
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