They say the future can’t be foretold, but here’s one prediction you can take to the bank: It’s all over for military transformation. Although the policy wonks around defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld continue to gin out term papers about netcentricity and jointness, the simple truth is that America’s trillion-dollar defense establishment is losing the war in Iraq to a poorly-equipped rabble of religious zealots. Military transformation has become a bad joke, and whoever follows Rumsfeld will be quick to bury his failed ideas.
Once all the fashionable fluff is forgotten, Americans are going to be shocked to discover what a mess the Bush Administration has made of their military. Despite throwing scads of money at trendy ideas, the administration has neglected the sinews of military power. Many voters have heard stories about how worn out the Army’s helicopters and ground vehicles are, but how many realize what has become of their Air Force?
Command of the air is supposed to be one of America’s key warfighting advantages — a crucial enabler of every other military skill. But after 15 years of buying very little besides cargo planes, the U.S. Air Force is beginning to look like a Smithsonian Institution annex. Its fighters train on flight restriction due to age-related metal fatigue, and are frequently defeated in exercises by countries like India. Its aerial refueling tankers — which make it possible for other aircraft to reach places like Afghanistan — average over three times the age of the commercial airline fleet. Its long-range bomber force has shrunk to less than 200 planes, most of which would be unlikely to survive prolonged operations in hostile air space. And the fleet of transport aircraft it uses to airlift the Army to overseas hotspots is so inadequate that Pentagon bean-counters had to invent ridiculous assumptions to justify the small size of the force.
Against this backdrop, the recent remark by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley that his service is short $20 billion per year for the foreseeable future is a telling commentary on what a poor trustee Donald Rumsfeld has been of the treasures he inherited. The Pentagon is awash in redundant networking initiatives, but the military service likely to carry most of the burden of dealing with countries like Iran and North Korea can’t afford to replace dangerously decrepit aircraft — even after deciding to get rid of 40,000 people.
Congress did the right thing when it voted to extend production of the next-generation F-22 fighter and C-17 airlifter. Both planes should be kept in production for at least another decade. But it needs to complete the job by funding modernization of tankers, authorizing another multi-year contract for C-130J transports, and demanding upgrades of aging surveillance planes. It also needs to drop restrictions on the retirement of planes too old to be useful in future wars. Without these steps, the service that has prevented any American soldier from being killed by enemy aircraft for over half a century will lose its edge, and warfighters will die for no better reason than bad management.
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