- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Since the Wright brothers’ flight in 1903, Americans have embraced being the leading edge of flight development. We embraced aerospace power to improve our quality of life; to improve our economy; to improve national security to protect friends; and to rapidly project military power. Our nation’s personality — loyal, freedom-loving, independent, innovative, determined and visionary — is perfectly suited to exploit aerospace power.

We are an aerospace nation in many ways. Our commercial air arm towers over any other nation. Our Navy’s ability to project airpower from the sea is unmatched by any other navy. Our Marines’ ability to provide close support to surface forces is “par excellence.” Our Army’s helicopter force — more than 6,000 strong — is the largest in the world. Our Air Force leads the world in aerospace capability in all aspects of the third dimension. Charged with leading military operations in air, space, and cyberspace, the Air Force provides the global vigilance, global reach and global power that underpin us as the world’s sole superpower.

National security actions are conducted much faster today than in the past; therefore, the speed and accuracy of air, space and cyber operations has become increasingly important. With other nations’ growing ability to conduct precise kinetic and cyber attacks against us, we must preserve our capability to preempt, defend and rapidly respond.

But, as the rest of the world moves quickly toward the aerospace capabilities we possess, our Air Force is aging badly. It now comprises the oldest major weapon systems of any U.S. military service, and other nations rival aspects of our aerospace leadership.

Potential adversaries have not stood idly by as our Air Force has aged.

They are developing highly advanced air/missile systems to challenge us.

Meanwhile, our Air Force has become a geriatric force with bombers older than the pilots that fly them, many fighters more than 30 years old, and tankers beyond 44 years old. If these aircraft were cars, they would qualify for “antique” license plates. The average age of AF aircraft — 24 years — is much older than the average age of Navy ships and Army vehicles. Just to maintain an average aircraft age of 24 years, we must replace 165 aircraft a year, but only 125 aircraft per year are being financed. Our aerial refueling fleet is the limiting factor not only on the amount of airpower we can apply, but on our ability to rapidly project power on land and at sea as well. Aircraft tankers are a single point of failure for our force-projection capability with an average age spanning the difference from World War II to Desert Storm.

This past November, one of our 666 F-15s literally fell out of the sky from structural failure. Last week we lost another one. Only 73 percent of those fighters have been returned to flight and we do not know how many of the remaining 182 aircraft will fly again. Beginning in 2008, 764 aircraft — nearly 14 percent of the Air Force — are grounded or operating under restricted flying conditions. The Air Force that prevented death to any American soldier from enemy aircraft for over half a century may not be up to the task in the years ahead due to lack of adequate investment.

The Air Force could erode by 66 percent over the next 10 years if this trend is not corrected.

With an eroding capacity in the air, America’s space force is also severely stressed. Current investment levels will require more than 100 years to replace our space systems. As other nations accelerate their space capability, our investment lags well behind what it was 40 years ago. Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey warns that the Air Force is “badly under-funded, its manpower is being drastically cut… its modernization program of paradigm shifting technology is anemic — and its aging strike, lift, and tanker fleets are being ground down by non-stop global operations with an inadequate air fleet and maintenance capabilities.” The nation, not at the expense of any military service, must invest improving this condition.

America invented powered flight and has commanded the skies since World War II. America is the only nation to place men on the moon. While many nations have looked for asymmetric advantages to counter our overarching military capability, America’s main asymmetric advantage is America’s aerospace advantage. To secure our future we must exploit this. As other nations rapidly close on America’s edge in air and space capability, it is paramount that we invest to maintain that lead. We must — or our adversaries will challenge us in ways we have not experienced in over half a century.

Air Force Col. Mace Carpenter is an instructor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Lt. Gen. David Deptula is deputy chief of staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance for the Air Force.


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