- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2011

If the bipartisan supercommittee assembled by Congress fails to agree on more than a trillion dollars in deficit reduction before Thanksgiving, federal spending will be slashed by that same amount in indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts. Fully half of those cuts would come out of defense.

This is not a good way to make policy, for it does nothing to assess and deal with the emerging threats to our national security in a world where Iran is becoming a nuclear power and terrorist organizations are getting ever more dangerous, high-tech weapons.

I am as interested as anyone in seeing us cut deficit spending. But such deep and indiscriminate cuts in defense could do great harm to our military capabilities. As a pilot who flew 189 F-4 combat missions in Vietnam, I think first about the harm those cuts would do to the unparalleled dominance of American fighter jets in the skies.

For decades, America’s superior fighter jets have owned the skies in unchallenged fashion and enabled the United States to bomb enemy targets, shuttle supplies and move troops without fear of attack from enemy aircraft. But now our adversaries are nipping at our heels.

Today, countries including Iran, North Korea and Pakistan have fighter jets that match the capabilities of the workhorses of the U.S. fighter fleet, which were designed during the 1970s. The Indian air force surprised many by defeating American fighters during recent war games. Russia and China are developing fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft that will rival our most advanced fighter jets.

Even small countries can create a formidable air force on the cheap by buying Soviet-made MiG-21s on the global weapons market for the low cost of $100,000 each, upgrading the engines and avionics and outfitting them with self-guided missiles. Coupled with ever-more sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries, determined despots the world over could soon be capable of shooting down any American fighter jet that dares enter their airspace.

On that day, our options will dwindle. Having shattered America’s long-standing air superiority, our adversaries could increasingly challenge us to dogfights in the sky. We could lose our unflinching confidence in the power of American airstrikes. Our entire military strategy - and that of our adversaries - would then undergo change. Ground troops once again would have to be put on the table as a key option.

While many budget cutters are no doubt sincere in their effort to deal with deficit spending, cutting fighter-jet capability would be like saving money by not paying for car insurance, only to be forced later to pay thousands in repairs, hospital bills and legal fees when you get into a fender-bender.

Defense analysts have said that our air superiority, while clear today, is precarious and could be lost within six years. China has just introduced its advanced J-20 stealth fighter. If we don’t make the necessary investments in new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, F-22 Raptors and the more inexpensive but modernized F-15s and F-18s, we might find ourselves up against a real threat.

Both deficit hawks and doves in Congress should agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Investing in fighter jets today is far less expensive than getting drawn into another Iraq or Afghanistan war tomorrow.

Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Pinckney is a decorated fighter pilot who served in the U.S. Air Force for nearly 30 years before retiring.

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