Is America's Air Force Dying?

Today's U.S. Air Force is the smallest and oldest since its inception. Of its roughly 5,000 aircraft, the average age is 25. 

Excluding remotely-piloted aircraft, the Air Force has proposed divesting about 634 aircraft from 2010 through 2015—nearly 160 percent more aircraft than it bought over the same period. This harsh reality demonstrates the intense pressure on Air Force modernization accounts as the service struggles to allocate shrinking resources to buy newer and more expensive airframes.

Of those aircraft proposed for divestment, just under 400 were combat aircraft, including F-15s, A-10s, F-16s and B-1s. Even more are on the chopping block to be let go early if Congress cannot compromise with the Pentagon and agree to allow some fleets of aircraft to retire entirely.

But even if full sequestration does not continue throughout the decade, “sequestration-lite” is here to stay. Congressional and Pentagon leaders have a variety of tools at their disposal to help ease the budget crunch, including requests for additional funds, the war budget, reprogramming authorities and acquisition tools like block buys and multi-year contracts. Air Force leaders have done their part, and should be commended for carefully thinking through sequestration along with their robust outreach to the aerospace industry to help bring the costs of systems down while fielding capability much sooner. It’s time for Congress and this administration to do theirs.

All efforts, including more creative ones, will have to be employed to keep America’s Air Force dominant for the next fight. The Air Force needs to begin robust investment now for a new cargo aircraft, a sixth-generation fighter aircraft or family of systems, a new tanker, a trainer jet, a combat search and rescue helicopter, and recapitalization of select intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance fleets.

To maintain the same level of service to the nation as has come to be expected in recent decades, the Air Force needs an unwavering partner in Congress, the White House and, by extension, the American people.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow her on Twitter: @MEaglen.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force

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