Chinese fighter pilots trying to enforce Beijing's control of nearby airspace must be confused about the U.S. military. They have been trained to expect the latest in military technology from the world's sole superpower. But the U.S. planes they intercept look more like exhibits from the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum.
Earlier this month, two Chinese jets intercepted a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane over the East China Sea. The RC-135 is based on an airframe developed in the 1950s; the last military version of the airframe was assembled in 1965. In May, the Chinese intercepted a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries II signals-intelligence plane. The propeller-driven EP-3 traces its lineage to the Eisenhower-era Lockheed Electra airliner. The P-3 Orion maritime-patrol aircraft from which it was derived has been in service for over 50 years.
And then there are the B-52 bombers that the Air Force used several years back to challenge Beijing's air-defense identification zone in the South China Sea. The Air Force stopped buying those in 1962, which means the aircraft it dispatched to enforce America's transit rights in the region were at least half a century old.
This is what happens when a country stops buying weapons but keeps fighting wars. It ends up with a worn-out arsenal that isn't up to the task of challenging emerging military powers on their home turf. The Obama Administration announced in 2012 that it was shifting the focus of American strategy to the Western Pacific, but it didn't do much to increase spending on weapons, which had been a bill-payer for other military needs since Obama took office. In fact, by stressing readiness, it guaranteed the joint force's weapons would wear out faster.
A handful of big-ticket weapons programs seem to be going well, such as the tri-service F-35 fighter and the Navy's Virginia-class attack submarine. In general, though, the arsenal continues aging. In April, Army leaders told Congress that their Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles would probably remain in service for another 50-70 years. Those weapons debuted during the Reagan era. The Army's Chinook heavy-lift helicopter is expected to operate through 2060 -- marking a full century of service.
In the case of the Air Force, which is operating the oldest aircraft fleet in its history, even the training aircraft are aged -- the last T-38 Talon was built in 1972. The service's E-8C Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System that tracks moving ground targets is so decrepit that planners are proposing to retire it even before a replacement is fielded -- leaving troops on the ground with a huge gap in tactical intelligence. F-15 and F-16 fighters are exhibiting numerous signs of age, from metal fatigue to corrosion to frayed wiring.
You'd think that seeing such indications of decay, Congress and the Obama Administration would have moved to increase spending on new weapons. After all, training and technology are the twin pillars of American military power. Instead modernization -- investment in new equipment -- has provided most of the savings required under congressionally-mandated budget caps. So the Army literally doesn't have a single major new weapons program underway and even if the Air Force executes its entire modernization agenda, the air fleet will keep aging.
This decay in the arsenal of democracy is emblematic of a culture in which consumption is more highly valued than investment. It's the reason why railroad tunnels and bridges entering Manhattan haven't been rebuilt in over a century. It's the reason why companies spend free cash flow buying back shares rather than investing in their future. But if Congress and the next administration keep starving military investment accounts in order to fund near-term needs, the time is fast approaching when America's edge in warfighting technology will be gone.
Loren B. Thompson is Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates, a for-profit consultancy. Prior to holding his present positions, he was Deputy Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. He has also taught at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Image: US Air Force