When I traveled to Taiwan recently with a coalition of business, political and academic leaders, Taiwanese officials delivered a stark and urgent message: China’s rapid military buildup will have serious implications for Taiwan and the free world. In response, the United States must hold true to its core values: freedom and friends first. That requires a defense appropriations bill addressing decades of inadequate budgets that have forced our military to reduce its readiness and forgo the modernizing of aircraft designed half a century ago.
“The Air Force lacks the force capacity, lethality, and survivability needed to fight a major war with China” is how the Mitchell Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, described America’s military readiness in a recent report. A former member of the National Defense Strategy Commission warned that “alarm bells should be ringing in Congress” over defense budget cuts that are endangering our ability to respond to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Equally concerning, The Heritage Foundation’s 2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength rated our nation’s armed forces as “weak” for the first time ever — including a “very weak” rating for the Air Force that detailed how deteriorating aircraft would “struggle greatly against a peer competitor.”
These sobering findings send chills down my spine, but they are heart-stopping for the Taiwanese. Underfunding our Air Force weakens the United States and endangers key allies such as Taiwan. Properly equipping the Air Force to have the capacity to support allies like Taiwan must be a top priority. Our allies need us to deliver, and for that, the Air Force needs the F-35 Lightning II.
The F-35 scares our enemies. Its stealth capabilities outwitted the Russians in the Middle East for months as Israel operated reconnaissance missions with the F-35 completely undetected. The aircraft’s superior firepower, agility and maneuverability have halted further Russian encroachment into Europe, with NATO F-35s patrolling the eastern border near Ukraine.
The deterrent power of the F-35 has sent China scrambling to develop its own fifth-generation fighter. The United States should seize on this narrowing window of opportunity to produce F-35s at breakneck speed.
America’s domestic supply chain companies stand ready to meet this increased demand and to support our nation’s defense readiness plans. My company, Atlas Tool Works, is a small business in Illinois whose employees take great pride in building dozens of parts that go into the F-35 Lightning II — one of our nation’s most advanced war fighters. Working alongside other supply chain partners in conjunction with Lockheed Martin, we have increased the affordability of the F-35.
Today, the F-35 is more advanced and costs less than much older aircraft like the F-15. With the U.S. Air Force in desperate need of revitalization, and with the F-35 in intense demand among our allies, the question everyone should be asking is: What’s stopping us from buying them?
In its fiscal 2023 budget, the Biden administration proposed cutting F-35 production by over 30% — and the Pentagon agrees. As Congress considers fiscal 2023 funding, however, lawmakers must recognize that the F-35 supports nearly 300,000 American jobs — most of them in small businesses like mine. Voting to slash funding for our most advanced aerial weapon is an active choice to imperil U.S. national security and jeopardize commitments to our allies, while laying off American workers in good-paying, high-tech jobs across the nation.
The warnings of our national security experts should shock our leaders into action. Following through on promises to come to the aid of Taiwan starts by making sure our military can defend our home, too. We are counting on Congress to adequately fund the F-35 program in the fiscal 2023 defense budget. The world, our allies and our enemies are watching. Now more than ever, the F-35 must be fully funded to boost the program to peak production levels. America’s security and alliances depend on it.
• Zach Mottl is president of Atlas Tool Works in Lyons, Illinois, and chairman of the Coalition for a Prosperous America. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachMottl.