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Seoul, South Korea — Last month, in a show of force, President Obama sent America’s most advanced aircraft here to the Korean peninsula. The same week, U.S. Air Force officials began grounding one-third of America’s combat fleet, thanks to budget cuts imposed by the president and Congress. Air Combat Command, which controls the Air Force’s fighters and bombers, announced that it will stand down 17 combat squadrons, to absorb a loss of 44,000 hours of flying time and a reduction of funding for operations and maintenance. While some thought that cost-cutting and sequestration threats would have little effect on the U.S. military, with its $500 billion budget, the reality has turned out to be quite different. This is the new normal for the U.S. military: Keep fighting and working, but do it on the cheap.
Air Force officials say the grounding is necessary to allow other, “mission critical” squadrons to maintain their flying hours and full operational status. Those no longer flying include reconnaissance units and squadrons of F-22s, F-16s, F-15s, B-1s, and B-52s. Other units are being kept at what is known as “basic mission capable,” meaning they can do basic flying and maintenance but cannot perform combat missions. The commander of Air Combat Command, General Mike Hostage, said bluntly in announcing the groundings, “We’re accepting the risk that combat airpower may not be ready to respond immediately to new contingencies as they occur.”
What does this mean regionally? A partial answer was given last week, during the confirmation hearing for U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove to become Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander, U.S. European Command (EUCOM). Several times during his testimony, either General Breedlove or the senators questioning him mentioned that four of America’s six combat squadrons in Europe are grounded through September. That would make a mission like the one in Libya in 2012 impossible to carry out today. Given that EUCOM has Israel in its purview, is central for providing support for operations in Afghanistan, and would support any intervention in Syria or Iran, the options that the U.S. Air Force can provide to the president and secretary of defense have declined dramatically these past few months.
That is worrisome, as the role that the U.S. Air Force plays in enabling America’s joint military operation is essential. From providing intelligence to supplying troops and watching over combat operations, the Air Force allows the rest of the military to move with impunity around the world. As shown by the dispatch of advanced fighters and bombers to the Korean peninsula, to deter the North Korean regime from potentially aggressive actions, the demands on the Air Force are not shrinking, although its money is.
Today’s senior Air Force officials all joined during the years of the infamous hollow force of the 1970s, when planes sat on the tarmac, without engines. From Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh on down, they have been warning against a new hollowing out, which is especially risky in a world where China is building new fighters, while rogue regimes are pursuing weapons of mass destruction. The news this week suggests that the fears of Air Force officials are being realized. An Air Force flag officer told me that force-wide readiness levels have now dropped to 70 percent, a decline of 17 percent since the beginning of the year. That means pilots are losing their flight qualifications (which can take as much as three months to recover), maintenance is being delayed, and the ability to carry out even regular operations is degrading. All that puts the force at greater risk when it carries out its regular missions, let alone when tasked to respond to an emergency.
For America’s combat commanders, who will shoulder U.S. commitments with reduced and underfunded American forces, the coming years will present a great challenge. Even without a new crisis — which will almost surely crop up in some part of the world — their job of maintaining America’s global presence will grow increasingly burdensome. Nor are our global competitors staying in neutral. China’s official military budget increased 11.2 percent last year, to over $100 billion, according to its defense white paper released this week. Many analysts believe the actual amount of Chinese military spending, which has been growing by double digits for nearly two decades, is much higher. Russia, too, is modernizing its military and upgrading its nuclear-weapons stockpile.
In a few years, the view from abroad may well be that of a worldwide shell game, as U.S. commanders continually shift forces from spot to spot in order to keep up the image of a globally responsive and capable force. But we are asking our young men and women in uniform to accept even greater stress and uncertainty, expecting them to act as guarantors of security in a more unstable world. As that Air Force general told me sarcastically, “We’re doing more with zero.” That is a recipe for disaster, should we be unlucky enough to face a serious crisis.
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