The Air Force Is Missing Its Best Opportunity to Replace Aging Aircraft
When the Air Force Association holds its annual conclave in Orlando later this week, there will be a palpable sense of relief among participants about the outlook for modernization. After two decades of depressed spending on cutting-edge technology, the service is finally getting the kind of budget boost from Congress that it needs to sustain both readiness and investment in the future.
It's no mystery why the funding increase is required. As the very first sentence in the Air Force's 2019 budget overview states, "this budget prioritizes long-term competition with China and Russia." The expectation of previous administrations that great power rivalries were abating have been confounded, and military planners must again prepare to contain the aggressive impulses of Beijing and Moscow.
It is going to take hundreds of billions of dollars for the joint force to catch up to where it needs to be, and the biggest increment of that will probably be spent by the Air Force on new aircraft, new nuclear capabilities, new space systems and new command networks. The Air Force's 2019 budget request unveiled on February 12 detailed a series of leap-ahead initiatives aimed at assuring U.S. mastery of all five warfighting domains -- land, air, sea, space and the electromagnetic spectrum.
But something is missing in the proposed budget. Although the Air Force is likely to have a budget in the next fiscal year similar in scale to what China spends on all its armed forces, almost none of the funding increase is being spent on accelerating the production of fifth-generation fighters and new aerial refueling tankers. The new money is being channeled mainly to long-term investment goals that may take a decade or longer to come to fruition.
This is not the way modernization was handled in the last big surge of modernization spending during the Reagan years. Recognizing the erosion in America's warfighting edge and the uncertain longevity of spending increases, each of the services bought a great deal of new equipment quickly. For example, the Army bought the "Big Five" combat systems around which its maneuver operations are still organized today, and the Air Force bought hundreds of new fighters each year.
The Air Force has been relying on aircraft procured during the Reagan buildup to sustain global air dominance ever since. Plans to purchase up to 750 stealthy replacements of the twin-engine F-15 fighter were gradually winnowed down to a mere 187 F-22 fighters before the program was terminated by the Obama administration. And plans to replace the single-engine F-16 with 1,763 stealthy F-35 fighters have only recently begun to yield significant production due to numerous delays in the program's original plan.
Similar delays have afflicted efforts to field a replacement for antiquated KC-135 tankers which extend the reach of other aircraft in the joint fleet. The Air Force lost a decade in controversy surrounding its tanker recapitalization program, and as a result, is only now beginning to replace aging aerial refuelers whose age typically exceeds half a century.
The good news is that the F-35 fighter and KC-46 tanker are far, far superior to the planes they will be replacing. The bad news is that there's no sign the Air Force intends to use its bigger budget to raise the very modest rate at which each plane is being built. Only 48 Air Force variants of the F-35 will be purchased in 2019, and then 54 per year in 2020-2023. The KC-46 will remain at an annual production level of 15 planes.
At those rates, it will take decades to recapitalize the Air Force's aging aircraft fleet, which already is the oldest in its history. Nobody can say for sure how much longer the Cold War planes remaining in that fleet can be kept airworthy, or what military challenges might arise before replacement that will reveal how ill-suited old aircraft are to an era of digital air defenses and proliferating electromagnetic threats.
More importantly, nobody can say for sure how long the current surge in military spending will last since the two-year budget deal that Congress cobbled together raises annual deficits to the vicinity of a trillion dollars at a time when interest rates are rising. If the very low interest rates engineered by the Federal Reserve during the last decade give way to, say, a 5% rate over the next several years, it would require a quarter of the entire federal budget to cover interest on the nation's accumulated debt.
In such circumstances, funding for military modernization would undoubtedly dry up fast. There's no way of predicting how far or how fast rates will rise, but most experts agree they are going up. So the current military buildup could be one of the shortest on record, possibly not continuing beyond 2020 -- especially given the fact that spending caps mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act are still in place for 2020 and 2021.
The smart thing to do today is buying new planes faster because money for modernization could plummet in the near future. Instead, the Air Force has rolled out an argument that it needs to buy new fighters on a "manageable ramp" because of all the costs associated with integrating them into the force. In the 17 years since F-35 development began, this is the first time such reasoning has been offered. The service used to say it planned to buy over a hundred F-35s per year.
What this dubious argument reflects is that Air Force leaders do not grasp how quickly the current spending surge could end, and they are not thinking about where U.S. and allied troops would stand without an adequate number of fifth-generation fighters if war broke out in Europe in the near future. Stealthy strike aircraft would be essential to countering Russia's local dominance in air defenses, long-range fires and electronic warfare. Without enough F-35s, the West would likely lose the war.
Similarly, sustaining combat air operations in the vast expanses of the Western Pacific requires better aerial refueling assets than the hundreds of decrepit KC-135 tankers that dominate the current fleet. If the Air Force continues buying the KC-46 at its current, leisurely pace, the U.S. could lose a war to the rising regional hegemon long before most of the existing tankers are replaced. All of the military services would benefit from the range-extending benefits of better tankers if the joint force needed to fight on China's home turf.
There's nothing wrong with pursuing the various leap-ahead ideas that the Air Force has recently embraced in its pursuit of future air dominance. But none of the leap-ahead ideas is likely to come to fruition anytime soon, including the B-21 bomber. One lesson of the Reagan buildup and similar spending surges in the postwar period is that new programs begun in the midst of a buildup tend to falter for lack of funding or feasibility long before they reach the force. It's a lot easier and faster to buy more of what is already being produced.
The Air Force is falling into a modernization trap. It needs to buy more new planes now with its fiscal windfall because it won't be long before the budget walls begin closing in and all its futuristic plans need to be rethought.
Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and taught nuclear strategy at Georgetown University.