The endless string of overseas military engagements and long-running missions–from Desert Storm to Southern Watch to Kosovo to the most recent Operations Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom–have inflicted wear and tear on the U.S. inventory of fighter aircraft.
“Flying day after day after day with a full load of bombs, fuel tanks and missiles slung underneath is bad enough in terms of what it does to the aircraft’s structural life expectancy,” said one U.S. defense industry executive familiar with the pace of operations, “but what is even harder on these aircraft is what happens with these fully-laden aircraft while they are taxiing several times a day. The sortie rates are just higher than had ever been anticipated.”
This wear and tear on the fleet will result in an attrition rate much higher than the pace of deployment of new aircraft like the F-35. But that’s not the only challenge facing America’s blue-suiters.
“In the Army and the Marine Corps machines support people, while in the Air Force and Navy people support machines,” is the often-stated axiom, but the ability to support those machines will wane in the coming years. The need to retire a large number of such combat aircraft will come at about the same time the government institutes a new round of base closures in the U.S.
From Cold War to Iraq
The upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) will likely come to conclusions similar to that of other previous assessments of the future for U.S. air power. “The U.S. military is larger than needed for the current global environment,” concluded an assessment last year from the U.S. Air National Guard Bureau. “There is too much Cold War garrison force and too little expeditionary force.”
But that puts the USAF into a classic Catch-22. As the service continues its transformation into an increasingly expeditionary force, it must possess the ability to ramp up and down and deploy abroad with very little notice. But to do so requires a robust Reserve and Guard force, but high attrition rates threaten the very capacity it needs.
As the USAF must retire more and more active-duty aircraft at the end of their structural life, the branch must pilfer aircraft from Guard and Reserve units to maintain force levels in the field. Thus, projections show that by 2012 the Air Guard will have about 600 fewer fighters and 250 fewer airlift planes than it has today. With that, many units will have nothing to fly, leaving 17,000 Air Guardsmen with no meaningful mission or job security.
However, not everyone agrees with that gloomy assessment. “The difficulty with this argument is that you have to buy into the ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ argument that says the stealth, speed, etc. of one F/A-22 makes it equal to several F-15s, and likewise that one F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can do the work of multiple F-16s,” said one Pentagon insider familiar with the debate.
Traditionally, power brokers in Washington, D.C., base decisions on facilities closures and which programs to cut not on real operational requirements, but instead on favor-trading by local congressmen. Surviving this period of severe budget pressures, forced aircraft retirements and the need to expand capacity to deploy abroad, will likely prove to be the most difficult task the USAF has faced in its post-Cold War history.