When the Obama Administration determined that it was necessary to halt the advance of the Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq, it turned to the Air Force and Navy. Land-based fighters, unmanned aerial systems and carrier-based aviation have conducted more than one hundred strikes over the past several weeks. Now the debate within the White House and Pentagon is over how much airpower to apply to halt the advance of IS forces and whether or not to expand the current limited operations into Syria.
At the same time as the administration is struggling to figure out a strategy for dealing with the expanding Islamic insurgency in Iraq, it is also having to address security concerns in Eastern Europe and the Far East. When Russia invaded Crimea in February, one of the first steps taken by NATO was to expand its aerial policing operation in the Baltic states. The U.S. contribution was a combination of F-15s and aerial tankers. In the Western Pacific, when Beijing announced an expanded Air Defense Identification Zone over the Senkaku Islands, the U.S. contribution was to fly two B-52s through that same airspace. Recently, a Chinese fighter “buzzed” a U.S. P-8 Poseidon surveillance airplane that was operating in international airspace. If this sort of behavior continues, the U.S. could be forced to assign fighter planes to escort its unarmed aircraft.
The demand for U.S. airpower is growing. While U.S. air units are still the best equipped and best trained in the world, numbers do count. The same airplanes cannot be in two places at once. The need to respond to contingencies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia puts a strain not only on the fighter force but on the supporting tankers, lifters and ISR platforms as well. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, a defense department official was quoted saying that extending current surveillance activities into Syria would mean taking assets from other critical areas. “The assets we have are used heavily. ISR is definitely a zero sum game. If we move collection somewhere else, we are taking from somewhere it is needed.”
While the need for airpower is exploding, the Pentagon is being forced to reduce the number of aircraft it deploys. Even before the Budget Control Act was passed, cutting a minimum of $50 billion from future defense budgets, the Air Force cut some 250 airplanes from its inventory. It now has to cut an additional 500 airframes to meet projected budget targets. If sequestration is triggered in FY 2016, even more aircraft will be cut. The other services are facing a similar problem. The Navy was seriously considering cutting the number of aircraft carriers in response to its budgetary woes. The Army is retiring its entire fleet of Kiowa Warrior helicopters.
As a result, the U.S. military is being forced to do much more with too little. The National Defense Panel observed in its final report that “the Air Force now fields the smallest and oldest force of combat aircraft in its history yet needs a global surveillance and strike force able to rapidly deploy to theaters of operation to deter, defeat or punish multiple aggressors simultaneously.”
In addition to insufficient numbers, the Pentagon is only just now taking the steps needed to modernize the Air Force and naval aviation in order to make them capable of beating current and anticipated threats. The F-35 fighter is still some years away from full rate production. The Air Force has just released a request for proposals for the new strategic bomber; it will be years before this system enters production. The same is true of the Next Generation Jammer, a vital capability if the U.S. Air Force and Navy are going to be able to deal with advanced air defense threats.
The U.S. cannot maintain a superpower military on the cheap. The time may come, in just a few years, when a President will turn to his national security advisors and ask them for airpower options with which to respond to a crisis or threat of war and the response will be that there are none — the cupboard is bare.
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