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Ten retired generals, joined by two former Air Force secretaries, sent a letter Jan. 25 to the Senate Armed Services Committee to promote new fighters and heavy bombers.

“It is critical to recognize that the capabilities afforded by the Air Force require investment,” the group wrote. “Major recapitalization was deferred for the past 20 years, yielding a fleet that averages a quarter of a century in age.”

They added: “While other branches within the Department of Defense experienced significant growth in the post-9/11 environment, the Air Force’s share of the budget declined below 20 percent — a record low. Key modernization efforts were canceled, often derided as Cold War relics, and major portions of the fleet were filled with aircraft optimized for the permissive environments of Afghanistan and Iraq. In truth, this approach emphasized short-term operational demands over long-term global realities.”

The signers included three retired four-star generals who commanded Air Combat Command in Langley, which oversees all the service’s combat aircraft.

Gen. Deptula, one of the signers, said the only remedy is to make the F-35 work and buy it.

“You don’t want to go out and buy new old stuff because F-16s and F-15s and F-18s are not survivable against modern threats,” he said. “You need fifth-generation capabilities that are resident on F-35 and F-22. They are much more capable than their predecessors in a variety of different functions and roles.”

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link, a former fighter pilot who held senior staff positions in the Pentagon, disagrees with decisions to shrink the Air Force’s fighter count.

“The larger problem is that the world that we have inherited is one in which bad people need to be dissuaded or disabled with the least cost in American blood and treasure,” Gen. Link said. “And air and space power provide the best means to do that.

“I don’t think we should be reducing the Air Force. People look to long-range weapons like bombers and missiles and fail to understand they are not a suitable substitute for tactical air power in that tactical air power is so distributable.”

Mr. Gates‘ final decision to terminate the F-22 Raptor at 187 aircraft, less than half the original plan, still rankles the fighter community.

“It was a heinous mistake and grossly uneconomical,” said Gen. Deptula. “It just boggles the mind that Gates terminated the F-22 at less than one-half of the military requirement, when in fact all the research and development money had already been spent and we had come down on the learning curve to the point where we were producing the airplane at $130 million to $140 million a copy. And you terminate the production line when you finally got to optimal economic production?”