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US Air Force/ Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald
Last month, the Obama administration began noticeably increasing military shows of force on or near the Korean peninsula, as the North’s young leader increasingly took steps of his own to increase tensions. Some of the earliest high-profile decisions by the president included bolstering missile defense capabilities in order to protect the American homeland, deployment of B-52 and B-2 bombers in military exercises, and the mobilization of stealthy fifth-generation F-22 fighter jets.
The moves are designed to highlight American military technological supremacy and power, warn the North and show support for our treaty ally.
But the biggest irony of all is that the Obama administration has targeted many of these weapons and capabilities for budget cuts and cancellations previously.
Early on in President Obama’s first term — before sequestration and debt reduction started chipping away at the defense budget — missile defense was singled out for major reductions. In 2010, the administration cut $1.4 billion from the Missile Defense Agency. This included eliminating 14 planned ground-based interceptors in Alaska, cancelling the second Airborne Laser prototype aircraft, and terminating the Multiple Kill Vehicle. The president also reversed course, backing away from Bush Administration efforts to deploy elements of a missile defense network in Poland and the Czech Republic, and killing the Kinetic Energy Interceptor.
Yet in the face of North Korea’s recently bellicose behavior, the administration seems to have pulled a 180 on missile defense. Last month, the Pentagon announced it would spend roughly $1 billion by 2017 to restore the 14 ground-based interceptors in Alaska that were canceled four years ago. The shift is all the more remarkable given that sequestration is underway, meaning that an unexpected $1 billion boost for added missile defenses is no small investment.
Also curious is the administration’s embrace of stealthy aircraft like the F-22 and B-2. The F-22 was perhaps the highest profile of all Obama’s defense cuts his first year in office. Not only did this decision permanently shut down America’s only fifth-generation fighter production line then open, the president refused even to allow himself to be photographed next to the aircraft on a trip to an Alaska air base his first year in office.
Long regarded as the most capable fighter in the U.S. inventory, the Obama administration terminated production of the F-22 at 187 planes — less than 25% of the total number the Air Force originally envisioned. While the total military requirement was in dispute around Washington, senior Air Force leaders repeatedly maintained that the United States needed more than 187.
In 2009, General John Corley of Air Combat Command wrote to Senator Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., saying only a fleet of 381 F-22s could “deliver a tailored package of air superiority to our Combat Commanders and provide a potent, globally arrayed, asymmetric deterrent against potential adversaries.” Corley added that a fleet of roughly 250 F-22s would put the execution of the national military strategy at “moderate risk,” while a fleet of 187 would create a “high risk in the near to mid-term.”
Corley went so far as to note that “[t]o my knowledge, there are no studies that demonstrate 187 F-22s are adequate to support our national military strategy,” and that, in making the decision to terminate production at that number, the Pentagon’s top civilians “did not solicit direct input from Air Combat Command.”
Corley’s letter is a reminder of the administration’s apparent preference to cut capabilities first and deal with the consequences later. Now, as the North Korean threat rises — and most American warplanes face risk from modern air defenses — the administration is only now reluctantly embracing the value of advanced, radar-eluding aircraft.
The Obama administration’s hostility to funding but not deploying the kind of advanced aircraft necessary to deter or win a modern conventional war does not end there.
The president’s 2010 defense budget also delayed the start of the Air Force’s new bomber program, which was supposed to be ready by 2018. Now as the Air Force looks to jump start delayed bomber R&D, initial projections are that it will not enter service until the mid-2020s. This delay means the U.S. must put its entire stealth bombing capability into the hands of 20-year old B-2s for the foreseeable future. Sure, it’s an extremely capable airplane, but the Air Force only has 20 of them — and the number available for use at any given time is actually much lower.
In the opening hours of the invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001, for example, only 55% of America’s B-2 force was mission capable. While the B-2 is unquestionably an intimidating platform, there are simply not enough of them to give the U.S. real flexibility to employ them in multiple contingencies worldwide. After all, B-2s flying missions over Korea are unable to deter Iran or keep a lid on tensions in the South China Sea.
Worse, as former Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz has argued, the B-2 is becoming less and less survivable due to the proliferation of advanced enemy air defenses. The reality is that only a next-generation bomber — fielded in larger quantities — can provide the kind of deterrence the U.S. needs in order to maintain peace and stability.
Taken collectively, the administration’s response to the unfolding crisis on the Korean peninsula is a clear reminder that credible national and military power helps maintain stability. Credible military power allows the other elements of national power to become more influential and effective.
Despite the White House’s tendency to target modern military weapons systems for cuts before other pots of defense dollars, the administration was surely pleased it had these capabilities on hand when needed in recent weeks.
In light of sequestration and further defense cuts, the administration would do well to ponder how it would have reacted if those that had come before had not invested in the capabilities being used to protect us today. Tomorrow’s presidents will need to call upon the tri-service F-35 fighter, the Ohio Replacement Ballistic Missile Submarine, and the Long Range Strike Bomber.
President Obama has the tools he now realizes he needs to defend the nation and its allies because presidents that came before him made sure they’d be there. He should do no less for presidents yet to come.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.
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