According to QDR insiders, Air Force leaders are pushing ahead with plans to buy a small fleet of propeller-driven planes for irregular warfare. The planes are better suited than jets to some tactical applications, and easier for unsophisticated partners like the Afghans to use. But there is an unspoken fear that hangs over every step the Air Force takes to adapt its arsenal to low-end threats. The fear is that it will stop looking like the force of the future and start to resemble the old Army Air Corps.
That fear would have seemed preposterous a decade ago, but so far this year the Pentagon has canceled the Air Force’s next-generation F-22 air superiority fighter at a number well below global requirements; strangled a next-generation bomber in its cradle; moved to terminate the only jet transport currently in production (the C-17); ended development of the service’s joint search-and-rescue helicopter; and killed its next-generation secure communications satellite. The service has also failed to get a replacement of its decrepit Eisenhower-era aerial refueling tankers into production and been accused of inadequate support for military space programs — two areas where it is supposed to be the lead service.
As if all of this were not enough, critics of tactical aviation have now begun to make noises about cutting back the F-35 fighter program. Secretary Gates is dead set against that — three U.S. services and nine allies are counting on it — but at the rate air power programs are disappearing, it won’t be long before the same critics begin questioning the rationale for an independent Air Force. The service won its independence by espousing the war-winning potential of strategic bombing, but the whole heavy bomber fleet has now shrunk down to a creaky collection of less than 200 Cold War airframes.
Eventually some sage observer will pose the question — “Hey, if we can subsume the surface navy, naval aviators, submariners and marines in a single military department, why not put soldiers and airmen in one department? Wouldn’t that save money?” We should succeed in thoroughly dismantling U.S. air power just about the time that a real threat comes along.
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