Yesterday the Air Force fired the first volley in what is likely to be an extended and intense “food fight” between the military services over their respective shares of future defense budgets. Everyone understands that even under the most optimistic scenario, defense spending will decline significantly over the next decade. All the services maintain force structures and are pursuing modernization plans well in excess of what an equal division of projected defense budgets will support. Thus, none of the services can pursue their preferred strategy except at the expense of the others.
In his speech yesterday to an Air Force Association conference in Washington, DC, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley made the case for the Air Force’s plans to modernize virtually its entire array of major platforms and weapons systems. In view of the fact that it has been nearly thirty years — in the case of bombers around fifty — since many capability areas were modernized, the Air Force would seem to have a strong case. If the Air Force is to maintain preeminence in core mission areas such as air superiority, long-range strike, global reach, space and nuclear deterrence, then pretty much the entire inventory will require an overhaul.
Not surprising, the highest priority for the Air Force is the F-35 program. As the Secretary said, “Simply put, there is no alternative for the F-35 program. It must succeed.” Next in priority is a new long-range bomber, what the Air Force is calling a long-range family of strike systems. According to Secretary Donley, the Air Force must build on its decade-long investment in new ISR capabilities. Then he added to the list the new aerial refueling tanker, modernized space systems and an upgrade to the ICBM force.
There is a larger issue involved here than just what is best for the Air Force. If the U.S. is to remain a global military superpower it will need to dominate the air and space domains. This will require being able to seize control of hostile air space as needed, project power at intercontinental ranges, prevail in the battle for high quality ISR and maintain a credible nuclear deterrent. The Navy can contribute to the attainment of these goals with its carrier-based aviation and sea-launched cruise missiles. But ultimately, dominating the skies is the Air Force’s reason for being.
So, if the United States desires the advantages accruing to the world’s dominant military it will have to invest in air power. This means that the other services will have to help foot the bill.
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