With the release of the proposed 2009 defense budget, the three branches of the armed services are already clamoring for more money.
But of the three, the Air Force’s list is particularly long — and particularly pricey. President George W. Bush’s proposed budget calls for $144 billion in funding for the Air Force, but that’s not enough, say Air Force planners.
They’re asking for an additional $18.75 billion, more than double the combined unfunded requests of the Army and the Marines. The bulk of the requests are driven by the Air Force’s fleet — what Maj. Gen Paul Selva, the Air Force’s director of strategic planning, calls “a geriatric air force.”
The Air Force Association, an independent nonprofit organization that promotes “public understanding of aerospace power and the pivotal role it plays in the security of the nation,” has called for allocating an extra $20 billion annually to the Air Force during the next 20 years.
But critics argue that the Air Force squanders vast amounts of money on advanced weapons systems of limited utility. They say that new weapons systems such as the F-22 and the F-35 are built to combat a threat that no longer exists in a post-Cold War world.
However, Selva’s concerns about aging aircraft were confirmed by last November’s midair disintegration of a 27 year-old F-15 fighter, which literally came apart during a high-G maneuver. Despite injuries, the pilot managed to safely eject.
As a result, the entire fleet of F-15s was grounded. The cause of the accident was found to be a cracked longeron (a longitudinal support member). Nine other aircraft were found to have similar fatigue cracks.
But the service’s perceived needs could encounter multiple obstacles. During the next few years, fears about recession, the winding down of the Iraq conflict and rising federal deficits might substantially affect the overall military budget.
Any substantial decrease in the Air Force’s budget, or any diminution or dilution of its role in America’s Armed Forces, might be bad news for Colorado Springs. With multiple Air Force installations, as well as the service’s crown jewel, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the city’s economy is intimately linked to the fortunes of the junior service.
But Mike Kazmierski, a retired Army colonel who now heads the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp., said that prospective budget changes might conceivably benefit the Springs.
“If it’s budget shifting, for example, with more funding to space and cyberspace operations, that could be beneficial,” he said. “But if the overall budget decreases, and we see downsizing, that could dramatically affect us, and our local economy.”
In scores of military-related blogs, publications and other debate forums, lively arguments are under way about what kind of Air Force America needs, and what the future of the service is likely to be.
Critics of the Air Force say that the service has continued to cling to an outdated model of warfare, while being slow to adapt to changing strategic and tactical needs.
“… It’s time to revisit the 1947 decision to separate the Air Force from the Army,” Robert Farley wrote last November in an article entitled “Abolish the Air Force?” “While everyone agrees that the United States military requires air capability, it’s less obvious that we need a bureaucratic entity called the United States Air Force.”
In an op-ed that appeared this month in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Pierre Sprey, James Stevenson and Winslow Wheeler argued that service’s latest fighter jet, the F-22, is “expensive, irrelevant, and counterproductive.”
The Air Force said it would need 750 F-22s to battle an opposing force. Congress approved $65.3 billion to pay for the planes. However, because of cost overruns and design changes, the Air Force will only be able to buy 184 aircraft for that amount.
There are two wars going on, and the F-22 has yet to fly a single sortie over the skies of Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor has the Air Force announced any intention of sending the F-22 to either theater.
Retired Air Force Gen. Mike Dunn, a 1972 academy graduate who now heads the Air Force Association, said that the critics don’t know what they’re talking about.
“When I left the academy, the average age (of aircraft) was 8 years. Today it’s 26,” he said. “The Air Force has 5,800 aircraft in service today, and this year’s budget calls for replacing 49 of them — which means that it’ll take 141 years to replace them all.”
Air Force Secretary (and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs graduate) Michael Wynne said that the Air Force’s older fighters can’t defeat a modern air defense system or modern foreign fighter jets.
“No fourth-generation fighter would be allowed into war over Tehran or over Caracas once they buy what the Russians are selling them,” he said. “This can’t go on. At some time in the future, they (aging aircraft) will simply rust out, age-out, fall out of the sky. We need, somehow, to recapitalize this force.”