Sequestration cuts endanger the Air Force

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Richard Longoria

A NATO E-3A Sentry approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker for air-to-air refueling Aug. 1, 2013, over St. John's, Canada. The air-to-air refueling allowed the E-3A to complete its 13.5 hour, trans-Atlantic flight from NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany, to Seattle.

Article Highlights

  • America's Air Force is shrinking fast with little relief in sight

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  • To the Air Force, modernization is not optional--but to Washington, it is

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  • The Air Force is being squeezed at a time the nation can least afford to fall behind

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This spring, it was headline news when one-third of America's active duty Air Force combat aircraft, including fighter and bomber units, were grounded due to automatic budget cuts. This became a real and tangible problem when the U.S. military started seriously evaluating available options for the Commander-in-Chief in Syria. A no-fly zone was considered one choice at the top of the list.

But had the Air Force been called into short-notice action, there would have been serious problems with mission execution and success as a result of these widespread aircraft groundings.

Now the military is again updating its choices for President Obama in Syria if called upon after the latest devastating news of potential chemical weapons use by the Assad regime. While combat air squadrons are all flying again, this is only a temporary Band-Aid.

America's Air Force is shrinking fast. Worse, there appears to be little relief in sight even as demand holds steady on airmen and their families.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently announced that the Air Force is the second biggest loser, after the Army, if sequestration sticks (an unfortunate but likely outcome at this point). Up to seven tactical fighter squadrons could be lost. Heavy lift C-130s will be reduced from 326 today to possibly as low as 280 aircraft. All B-1 bombers will be retired as part of the latest defense drawdown from an already small fleet. Even the needed new bomber and Joint Strike Fighter would both be gone in a worst-case scenario.

All of this combat power is on the chopping block at the very moment nearly all of the Air Force fleets of aircraft are older, on average, than ever before. This is why the Air Force's chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh recently summarized the situation so starkly: "Modernization is not optional." 

Unfortunately, in Washington, it is.

The Air Force is being squeezed at a time the nation can least afford to fall behind in its generational dominance in air, space and cyber power. Though the United States currently dominates the skies, this is not our automatic right. Options to meet potential threats are being lost as diminishing resources continue to chip away at America's air power. If left unaddressed, sooner or later this too will become headline news.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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