One of the first postings of the Trump White House was a link entitled “Making Our Military Strong Again.” The new administration faces an enormous challenge in fulfilling this objective.
First, it has to put in context just what that statement means. I suggest the following. There are two enduring tenets of our national security strategy that over the years have served the United States well: one, that we will engage on every continent around the world to promote peace and shape the security environment to ensure stability; and two, in the event we do need to fight, we will do so in an expeditionary fashion, away from U.S. territory, and be able to win more than one major conflict at a time.
In order to accomplish both of these fundamental tenets, we need a set of robust, capable and ready forces with a rotational base sufficient to sustain operations.
We currently cannot meet these goals. Making our military strong again should be defined as building sufficient forces and capabilities to accomplish both.
Second, the new administration needs to introduce a discussion of the first-order principles and the priority of resource allocation for the U.S. government. It is vitally important to remember that the first responsibility of the United States government is the security of the American people. As the Preamble of our Constitution states, the federal government was established to “provide for the common defense,” and subsequently to “promote the general welfare.”
Recent decisions have confused this prioritization, with the Budget Control Act taxing defense spending at a rate greater than twice its percentage of the total federal budget.
It is time to return to first principles and get our priorities straight. For too many years, arbitrary spending limits have determined U.S. military force structure instead of our national security strategy determining it. Said another way, we have a growing strategy-resource mismatch.
Third, while all the services are under-resourced, some need attention ahead of others. The Air Force is an enterprise that provides capabilities that truly make it the “indispensable force” for U.S. military operations. We cannot fight as a nation — in any contingency — without the U.S. Air Force. It provides the global vigilance, global reach and global power that all the combatant commands require to succeed. Yet, among the services, the Air Force has been the hardest hit by resource neglect, and as a result, it is the oldest, smallest and least ready it has ever been in its history.
This is a result of: 1) over 25 years of continuous combat; 2) budget-driven manpower reductions of 40,000 over the last 10 years; 3) neglect of Air Force fighter procurement in the 1990s, where no new fighters were purchased; 4) an excessively aged force of bombers, over half of which predate the Cuban Missile Crisis; 5) “advanced” training aircraft that were bought when John F. Kennedy was president; and 6) sequestration that did to our Air Force what our worst enemies could only hope to achieve — grounding over 20 percent of our combat air forces and destroying our traditional high levels of readiness.
Today, the Air Force operates a geriatric force of bombers over 50 years old; trainers and helicopters over 40; and fighters over 30. During Desert Storm — where we won quickly and decisively — we had 134 fighter squadrons. Today, we have 55 — a 60 percent reduction in fighting forces. To put this more clearly, today there are more World War II-era P-51 fighters flying in the world than fifth-generation F-22s in the entire Air Force inventory. While great for the air show industry, that’s not healthy for America’s air dominance capacity that the rest of the services rely upon to effectively operate.
So the Air Force requires serious recapitalization, but not just aircraft: The land-based nuclear missile force is over 40 years old. Its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) forces have been in great demand, and not just the vehicles and sensors, but the analysts that turn all that ISR into knowledge. Our space forces provide the world a global utility in the form of GPS and communications, and ISR satellites must be modernized to survive modern threats. Then there is the growing demand for cyber warriors, and the list goes on.
Recapitalizing our Air Force will be expensive, but the only thing more expensive than a first-rate Air Force is a second-rate Air Force. With a first-rate Air Force, we deter conflict. With a second-rate Air Force, we encourage conflict and may lose. War is the most costly and wasteful of endeavors, so it is best to achieve peace through strength, and that is what must be the first priority of the Trump administration.
• David A. Deptula, a retired Air Force Lt. General, planned the Desert Storm air campaign, orchestrated air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, directed Air Force Intelligence, has flown over 3,000 flying hours in fighter-type aircraft, and is now dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies.