The mantra of the day around Washington is that the Pentagon will have to make hard choices when it comes to allocating increasingly scarce defense dollars. In truth, the Defense Department has made a lot of hard choices over the years, some willingly and others under the pressure of changes in policy, strategy or budgets. What the phrase “make hard choices” really means is to decide what to do without and how much risk to take. Risk is such a bureaucratic word. When the government talks about risk what they are addressing is the likelihood of conflict and the probability that Americans in uniform will die. The discussion so far has been all about what to cut and how much risk this entails.
However, some things should not be cut. In fact, there is an argument for maintaining or even increasing resources in some areas. One of these is air power. Without air power, the United States will not be a superpower, not even a great power. Without the abilities that air power, and principally the Air Force, provides to move people and cargo around the world, surveil the entire globe from air and space, strike where and when necessary virtually at will and protect our own territory, forces and allies, this country will not be able to project power, influence events overseas and deter aggression.
The Air Force — and to a lesser extent the Navy and Marine Corps — are in dire need of modernization. The buildup over the past decade pretty much passed the Air Force by. Virtually all the service’s platforms continued to age, some dangerously so. While the Air Force did acquire a lot of unmanned aerial vehicles, these are essentially only usable in permissive environments. The Air Force has one new fighter program, the F-35, a new tanker, the KC-46 and a new cargo aircraft, the C-130J. That is it. The Navy is filling the gap until the F-35 is ready with the F/A-18 E/F. A new bomber may enter production in 2020. Every other platform will either have to be scrapped or receive expensive service life extensions.
The aerospace domain is increasingly being contested by prospective adversaries. Russia and China are developing fifth-generation stealth aircraft. Many countries are either building or buying advanced air defense systems. Access to space is becoming more problematic as is our ability to operate in that regime free of interference.
The aerospace domain is also one experiencing enormous technological advancement. There is the ongoing revolution in unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Decades of R&D on directed energy is about to bear fruit and could radically alter the character of air forces and the conduct of air operations. The same could be said for precision munitions ranging from intercontinental hypervelocity weapons through extremely small, highly precise lethal UASs. Add to these the continuing improvement in communications, computer processing and sensors.
Making hard choices also means choosing where to put resources. For the future of U.S. national security, one place those resources must flow is to modernization of U.S. airpower.
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