- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Is America building the necessary air and space capabilities to defend our nation at home and abroad? This is the essential question with which I have to wrestle as the strategic planner for the United States Air Force. As we are situated today, I have to say that the answer is no.

The dilemma is the age-old one for military planners: how to support our forces engaged in today’s fight while investing in the skills, technologies and equipment to confront future strategic challenges. For nearly two decades straight — the length of an entire strategic planning cycle — our Air Force has been hard pressed by current operations which have absorbed our resources and attention.

From the opening sorties of the first Gulf War, when we unveiled a lethal combination of stealth and precision, to today’s operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force has been continuously engaged in defense of our nation. Year after year we conducted seemingly endless Deny Flight patrols over Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, and, without risking ground-force involvement, fought and won an intense air war against Serbia.

During this time, the Air Force has worked aggressively to adapt its existing force structure to changing threats. In the last six years, we have reconfigured combat, airlift and reconnaissance capabilities to meet the challenges of irregular warfare. Airmen are operating in new ways — with boots on the ground and with unmanned surveillance planes overhead. We have rapidly developed and fielded new capabilities to tighten integration and increase the effectiveness of ground forces in a complex urban counterinsurgency.

We have also worked aggressively to free up resources for rebuilding and modernizing our fleet even while sustaining this constant battle tempo. We have become lean, shrinking our fighter forces by more than 40 percent since the end of the Cold War.

But savings alone cannot cover the bill for our future force. In an era of explosive cost growth for major weapon systems, our inventories will continue to shrink: Our current budget projects continued significant reductions in equipment and people through 2025.

Our air crews and mechanics know this firsthand: U.S. aircraft are aging and experiencing more wear and tear than their designers ever envisioned. An Air Force general officer recently told the story of bringing a new F-15 fighter onto the flight line when he was a young captain nearly 30 years ago. He flew this same aircraft in combat during Desert Storm in 1991; today, his son flies the very same fighter.

Unfortunately, the acquisition cycle for our major new programs takes almost two decades from scientific and technological development to combat capability. The needs of today are for the most part fulfilled by the decisions that we made many years ago. For tomorrow, we must develop our force by focusing on the challenges we are likely to face 20 years from now.

As the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States reported, our country was unprepared for the terrorist attacks on our soil in September 2001. In the decades before that tragedy, we missed several opportunities as a nation to better guard ourselves. We must not repeat that mistake. We would be derelict in our duty if we did not anticipate challenges 20 years hence and lay the technological, organizational, and doctrinal foundations to ensure future success.

What do we know about these future challenges? We know that global demand for air and space power is increasing. We are in an age of rapid change, and potential adversaries are advancing technologically. Striking developments in the biological, information, and space sciences are driving new revolutions over which we hold no monopoly.

We also know that our Air Force is a national treasure. To preserve this treasure, we must continue to invest in specialized training, sustain the combat tempo required of us and acquire high-quality weapon systems in sufficient numbers.

Air power is especially vital to our nation’s security as the Iraqi conflict continues to sap the strength from our precious ground forces. We are the nation’s flex force, able to respond and mass power anywhere at short notice. This will not change.

For the near term, we can maintain our capabilities through dynamic leadership and innovation, by advancing our concepts of operation and by organizing for greater effectiveness. At some point, however, our airmen must have new equipment and technology to meet the demands of a new generation.

To furnish these capabilities before our Air Force is dangerously depleted, we must accelerate the replacement rate of our aircraft and modernize their effectiveness beginning today. This will not come cheaply. It is likely to cost an average of $20 billon per year above current fiscal limits.

Is it worth the investment? It’s been more than 50 years since an American soldier or Marine was killed by enemy air forces. If this investment can keep it that way for another 50 years, I’d call that money well spent.

Lt. Gen. Raymond E. Johns Jr. is the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Programs at Headquarters Air Force.



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