Facing severe budget cuts over the next decade, the U.S. Air Force faced some extremely difficult choices. More than the other services, the Air Force needs to modernize. The average age of its tanker fleet is 45 years, the strategic bomber force is 35 years and the tactical fighter fleet is around 25 years. Many of these aging systems continue to perform well. However, the price of keeping them flying continues to rise, crowding out other investments. The proliferation of modern air defenses and fourth-generation fighters is a growing challenge to the lock the Air Force has had on air superiority for almost fifty years. Currently, only 20 B-2 bombers are considered capable of penetrating a high threat environment. Then there is the ongoing revolution in unmanned aerial systems (UASs) which has produced the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk.
The Air Force also faced the requirement to modify its force structure to meet the demands of the new defense strategy. The strategy places particularly significant demands on airpower. In addition to participating as a component of the Joint Force in one major theater contingency, the Air Force (and naval aviation assets to be sure) must provide the bulk of the assets to halt aggression in another theater. Consequently, the Air Force leadership believes that it needs to have units that are modern, well trained, ready and immediately available. The Army can consider going to tiered readiness, the Air Force does not believe that it can.
As a result, the Air Force has looked to meet its budget targets by making force structure cuts that fall disproportionately on Air National Guard (ANG) units and equipment. The way the Air Force explains their reasons for focusing more on the ANG is because the new strategy requires maintaining the capability in the Active Component to address multiple crises. In addition, the ANG units targeted for elimination are flying older systems, primarily C-130s and A-10s, which cost more to maintain and have less flexibility or capability than platforms that are being kept. So even though the ANG is a more cost-effective way of meeting force structure goals in peacetime, it is being cut more than the Active Component.
ANG proponents have protested the unbalanced nature of the reductions. Some in Congress have even questioned the cost-effectiveness of the Air Force’s approach.
What is important to realize is that the Air Force is being forced to choose between two unwise courses of action. It can cut the ANG and risk not having sufficient bench depth to meet greater than expected threats or it can preserve ANG capabilities while cutting the Active Component further and risk not having an adequate quick reaction capability to deter, forestall or rapidly defeat one or more threats. I suppose there is a third choice: the Air Force could always cancel vital modernization programs and just keep all the people and equipment it has currently. That would be the worst choice of all.
The Air Force was put in this position by an Administration that is willing to cut military capabilities but unwilling to reduce what it demands of them. One senior Pentagon official described the strategy as “doing more with less.” In reality, however the Air Force and the other services choose to meet the challenge of declining budgets, it really will mean doing less with less.
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