Presentation to the American Enterprise Institute
As the author of the Air Force chapter in the book being released today, I set two tasks for myself…
— First, to describe the continuous erosion of U.S. air power that has unfolded since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
— Second, to explain the peculiar dynamics of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, which not only failed to arrest the decay but actually made the problem worse.
You know, I often hear President Bush derided as a poor leader these days, and it makes me wonder whether critics have any grasp of how well our economy is performing.
The aftermath of the stock-market collapse in Bush’s first year could have been far worse, just as the aftermath of 9-11 could have been much more traumatic than it actually was.
Nonetheless Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as defense secretary was a true disaster for America’s military, and the fact that Dick Cheney thinks otherwise should be viewed with suspicion since the decline of U.S. military power began when Cheney held the same post.
During his brief four-year stint as defense secretary, Cheney killed a hundred weapons programs — everything from the Abrams tank to the Seawolf submarine — with minimal reflection or analysis.
It was Cheney who terminated the B-2 bomber at a mere 20 planes, Cheney who began the downward spiral of the F-22 fighter program, and Cheney who slashed the C-17 airlifter — now regarded as the best plane of its kind ever built.
Cheney’s excuse — and it was a powerful excuse — was that the cold war had ended and the world seemed headed for a prolonged era of peace.
That same excuse was invoked by President Clinton’s defense secretaries to rationalize their own low investment in new weapons.
One consequence of this trough in demand was that purchases of military aircraft, which had averaged 262 planes per year during the 1970s and 1980s, plummeted to a mere 60 planes per year in the 1990s.
And so the Air Force’s fleet began aging, and aging, and aging — to a point where Air Force planes today are older than Navy warships.
An air fleet that averaged eight years of age a generation ago now averages 24 years, and if the service gets every plane in its current modernization plan, the fleet will go right on aging until it reaches an average airframe age of 30 years in the next decade.
These trends were already apparent when Donald Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon in 2001, and many observers assumed he would act to reverse the decay.
What they failed to realize was that Rumsfeld and his advisors were enthralled by the notion of military transformation, a variant of dot.com mania that led candidate Bush in 1999 to propose “skipping a generation” of military technology.
Since Cheney and Perry and Cohen had already done that — canceled a generation of weapons — Bush’s campaign-trail pronouncement was dismissed as a rhetorical flourish.
But it wasn’t; Rumsfeld wanted to put a lot more money into research, while avoiding purchase of traditional weapons systems such as fighters.
Over the next six years, senior policymakers steadily resisted Air Force efforts to buy new manned aircraft, preferring to invest in networks, space systems and unmanned vehicles.
In fact, if all Rumsfeld’s initiatives regarding termination of manned-aircraft programs had been implemented, every major production line building military aircraft but one would have closed by the beginning of the next decade.
So by the time the Pentagon completed its second quadrennial defense review under Rumsfeld, here’s the situation the Air Force faced…
— Its F-22 fighter program was scheduled for early termination, even though the cold-war planes the new fighter was supposed to replace were flying under flight restriction due to metal fatigue.
— Its fleet of aerial refueling tankers averaged over 40 years of age, with no replacement program begun despite years of wrangling.
— Its inventory of long-range bombers had shrunk to a mere 180 planes, most of which were built during the Kennedy Administration.
— Its two active production lines for cargo planes were both scheduled for shut-down despite a shortage of flexible airlift.
— And its fleet of reconnaissance aircraft had no replacement program in sight, even though the existing fleet was based on planes developed in the 1950s.
The service couldn’t even afford to buy a suitable new search-and rescue aircraft, opting for a conventional helicopter rather than faster, longer-range tilt-rotors.
American air power thus fell to a low ebb under Donald Rumsfeld — a situation summed up by the story of a general who lost cockpit power over Iraq because the insulation on aged wiring had rotted away, causing a short circuit.
It turned out the general was flying the same F-15 he had first piloted as a young captain in the Pacific 20 years earlier.
Today, that very plane is still being flown in the Pacific, 30 years after it was built — as it turns out, by the general’s son.
Back in 1999, when President Bush made that campaign speech about skipping a generation of military technology, he titled his remarks, “A Period of Consequences.”
Well, after 20 years of neglect by both political parties, a period of consequences has arrived for American air power.
The Air Force that prevented any American soldier from being killed by enemy aircraft for half a century may not be up to the task in the years ahead due to lack of adequate investment.
Other countries have begun to field tactical aircraft that match the performance of our existing fighters, and they are deploying sophisticated surface-to-air missiles that few non-stealthy aircraft can escape.
We got an indication of what lay ahead in 1999 when Serbia — a country that spends less on defense in a year than NATO spends in a day — managed to shoot down a first-generation stealth fighter and drive European fighters from its air space.
NATO commanders were so concerned about Serbian air defenses that they flew B-2 bomber strikes all the way from the United States to avoid putting non-stealthy planes over the country.
We got another indication of what lay ahead in 2004, when pilots from the Indian Air Force repeatedly defeated American F-15s in joint exercises using a combination of new technology and new tactics.
The Indians benefited from superior numbers in the exercises, but that’s the sort of edge you would expect defenders to have in a real war — we can’t count on outnumbering enemy air forces in their own air space.
One other harbinger of things to come can be seen in the growing number of Air Force planes grounded or restricted due to age-related cracking, corrosion and parts obsolescence.
As we speak, structural concerns have forced flight restrictions of one sort or another on all of the Air Force’s F-15 fighters, all of its B-1 bombers, dozens of airlifters and dozens of tankers.
These problems are likely to grow worse in future years, because a fleet built mainly in the Reagan era and earlier is beginning to wear out.
If we do not accelerate current plans to replace cold-war aircraft, we are risking a catastrophic loss of global air power in the near future.
I estimated in my chapter that an increase in annual procurement outlays of $10 billion for the Air Force would be necessary to address the most critical problems, concentrated mainly in four areas:
— First, continued production of the F-22 Raptor fighter at the rate of 20 planes per year through the next decade.
— Second, continued production of the C-17 and C-130 transports to support ground forces through the next decade.
— Third, expedited production of next-generation aerial-refueling tankers to replace Eisenhower-era airframes as soon as possible.
— Fourth, expedited development of a new long-range bomber that can provide speed, persistence and survivability missing in the current force.
I should note in closing that my chapter also deals in some considerable detail with problems in the military space program, but there I think the real challenge has been mismanagement rather than money.
When we get to the core of our global air power, the planes that support global knowledge and mobility and strike capability, the challenge is a simple lack of money.
We either spend more, or in the very near future we lose our most important war-fighting advantage.
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