The U.S. Air Force celebrates the 50th birthday of its youngest B-52 Stratofortress this year. This historic warrior and its counterparts predate the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam War and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. The fathers and grandfathers of today’s pilots flew the exact same airframes in decades past.
Emblematic of air power’s flexibility, the B-52 has evolved consistently to give leaders an effective set of national-security options. Though it was developed to provide nuclear deterrence, military requirements saw the aircraft take on missions as wide-ranging as conventional strike and maritime interdiction. Most recently, the B-52 has provided critical close air support for ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Outside of the combat realm, the aircraft helped push the envelope of aviation technology through its role in launching everything from the X-15 to the X-51.
There is another side to this story. Significant risks and limitations exist with operating aircraft that date back to the Eisenhower administration. While B-52s still fly combat missions, the skies of Afghanistan are a far cry from hostile airspace. In the final aerial offensive of the Vietnam War – 40 years ago – the Air Force lost 15 B-52s in 12 days. Air defenses have advanced markedly and proliferated widely since then. Past the danger of getting shot down, simply keeping these veteran bombers airworthy requires herculean efforts on the part of maintenance and support personnel. Every few years, the bombers literally are torn apart, inspected and rebuilt – a process that takes upward of a year.
The Stratofortress fleet is not the only Air Force type facing age-related challenges. Many of the service’s KC-135 aerial-refueling tankers predate human space flight. T-38 training aircraft are twice as old as the students flying them. The F-15 air-supremacy fighter first flew 40 years ago – the same year President Nixon first went to China. A-10 ground-attack planes, which were developed in the Carter administration, have been flown so hard that their wings are riddled with structural cracks.
The Air Force was never supposed to have a fleet whose average age exceeded a quarter of a century. Many plans were developed to replace aging assets with modern platforms. Those initiatives repeatedly were deferred, curtailed and canceled for various reasons. During the 1990s, procurement was delayed amid a post-Cold War “peace dividend.” Recapitalization was again deferred amid the pressure to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, Air Force fleet modernization is on hold for a third time as the nation attempts to address budget shortfalls. Viewed on an individual basis, such decisions are logical within a larger national context. Yet cumulatively, this 30-year procurement holiday has yielded a service whose capabilities are balanced on an increasingly precarious precipice while global competitors have accelerated their own modernization.
Failing to invest in a modern Air Force dramatically curtails the range of U.S. policy options. As the B-52 aptly illustrates, air power provides a unique capability to focus precise, effective power at minimum risk to our service members. Sometimes this means an actual attack against a specific target, gathering valuable intelligence data or securing air dominance. In other instances, this might involve airlifting equipment to forward-based forces or rapidly delivering relief supplies to disaster victims. Often, the best use of air power involves attaining policy goals without actually fighting – showing presence in a region favorably shapes events by reassuring allies, deterring potential aggressors and dissuading enemies. In other words, air power affords leaders the opportunity to secure policy objectives without engaging in attrition warfare, boots on the ground and undue projection of young Americans into harm’s way. While other military branches have air assets to support their internal functions, the Air Force is the only air arm with the requisite capabilities and capacity necessary to engage in a sustained fashion on a truly global basis.
For our Air Force to be effective, it must be properly maintained and updated. The Air Force is slated to begin large-scale recapitalization in the 2020s with the acquisition of the new bomber F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, KC-46 aerial-refueling aircraft, T-38 replacement, new intercontinental ballistic missile, etc. Thirty years’ worth of deferred buys are scheduled for a single decade – a process that will prove challenging even under the best conditions.
Recent budget decisions are not helping the process. In a quest to husband near-term dollars, leaders once again are delaying programs. Such savings are greatly outweighed by the inefficiencies they precipitate. Program upheaval injects new costs as companies readjust staffing, tooling and facility requirements. It even can cause program cancellations. Spending considerable sums on research and development, testing and initial procurement for a system never received or used is an incredibly ineffective use of tax dollars. Additionally, delays require the Air Force to spend vast sums extending the lives of its existing systems. Given the current age of many legacy aircraft, this pattern is unsustainable. For example, even though the B-52′s replacement is scheduled for initial production in the mid-2020s, budget limitations mean the service can only afford to buy a few each year. The Stratofortress will remain in the fleet until the 2040s as this gradual modernization occurs. Delays in the new bomber program would mean that the B-52 would have to stay in the fleet even longer. The viability of a 90-year-old combat aircraft is doubtful at best.
The Air Force has arrived at a make-or-break moment. The past 10 years have seen the service’s share of the defense budget decline to record lows – hovering around 20 percent of the total – while 90 percent of the fiscal 2013 defense budget cuts were levied on the Air Force. In fact, the 2013 budget marks the fewest number of Air Force aircraft purchased in a given year since 1916, when the aviation section of the Army Signal Corps was buying Curtiss JN4 Jenny biplanes. The country actually managed to buy more aircraft in the midst of the Great Depression than it will next year. The Air Force faces a 100-year replacement rate for its fleet.
Resetting the U.S. Air Force will require investment – and it must be both substantial and stable over the coming years. While this is a tall order in our current budget climate, Air Force air power affords our leaders a broad range of critical policy options. Failing to recognize this – and make needed investments now – would be a choice the nation can’t afford over the long run.