The U.S. Air Force has awakened from the Clinton Administration’s “procurement holiday” with a massive hangover. Almost everything it owns is aging rapidly, and needs to be replaced. Like the other services, it is looking for relief in next year’s Quadrennial Defense Review. Unlike the other services, it has developed a persuasive case for why its needs should come first.
The core of this case is not that high operating tempos are running the service ragged, or that the service is on the cutting edge of information-age warfare. All of the services will make those claims in the QDR. The core of the Air Force case is that America cannot preserve global military supremacy unless it invests adequately in aerospace power — something it is not doing today. Every facet of U.S. military power hinges on securing and exploiting command of the air and of space.
All of the services benefit from aerospace power, but the Air Force carries a disproportionate burden in providing it. It provides all of the long-range strike aircraft, all of the strategic airlift, almost all of the space-based sensors and communications, and most of the air-superiority assets. In order for the nation to continue receiving these benefits, the QDR needs to give priority to four areas of Air Force need:
* The F-22 is the only stealthy air-superiority fighter the nation has under development. The F-15 is too old to assure air superiority for another generation, and the Joint Strike Fighter depends on F-22 for its effectiveness. F-22 must be kept on track.
* The B-2 bomber proved itself in the Balkan air war, but 21 planes are not enough. The service needs to build more with updated electronics and improved maintainability. The QDR should embrace moving toward an all-B-2 bomber fleet.
* Space is the arena of greatest warfighting leverage for the U.S., but Air Force efforts to exploit it have been hobbled by low budgets. The service needs funding to develop cheaper launch vehicles, space maneuver capabilities, and a space-based radar for tracking ground targets.
* Tankers, transports and surveillance aircraft have grown decrepit with age. The Air Force needs to buy more C-17 transports (for a total force of over 200 planes) and identify a common airframe for replacing aging AWACS, JSTARS and KC-135 tankers.
Lexington Institute estimates the Air Force’s unfunded investment needs can be covered by allocating $14 billion more each year — about the amount Medicare lost to overbilling and fraud in 1999.
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