The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness is holding a hearing this week titled “Department of the Air Force Aircraft Force Structure Reductions.”
The last word of this hearing—reductions—is telling. The subcommittee usually holds hearings in which military officials update the status of their respective branches. However, the U.S. Air Force’s fleet has grown so old and small that the subcommittee feels the need to hold a hearing specifically on its decline.
While many debate the appropriate size of the service branches, the Air Force fleet’s decline has been clear for some time. The B-52 bomber fleet turned 60 this year. Fighter jets have remained in service so long that they are beginning to span generations of pilots. The fleet as a whole is older and smaller than at any point in its history.
President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget request would eliminate six tactical fighter squadrons, reduce airlift capability by 130 aircraft, and delay building 179 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters beyond the “future years defense plan”—an inside-the-Beltway term for pushing something five years down the road. While the Administration lauds these reductions as cost-saving efforts, it does not identify how they will affect U.S. national security capability.
As weakening as the President’s budget request is to the defense of the nation, the cuts mandated by sequestration will make that look mild by comparison. Estimated to reduce defense spending by up to $550 billion, these cuts will be so overwhelming that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has repeatedly stated that they cannot even plan for their effect.
In August 2011, the subcommittee predicted that the Air Force’s total fighter jet fleet would shrink to 1,512 from today’s 1,990, that the number of strategic bombers would fall from 135 to 101, and that the F-35 Marine Corps variant would “likely” be eliminated.
This last projection is troubling to the Marines, because they have no alternative. There is no other short takeoff and landing fighter platform being developed, and the Marines’ aging Harrier fleet stopped production in 1997. This F-35 variant is particularly significant to allies such as the United Kingdom as well, who have publicly staked their future on this variant. The Administration, in threatening to veto legislation to overturn sequestration, does not responsibly account for these shortfalls.
The Administration has made it clear that national security is its lowest priority. The subcommittee is taking the right step by raising awareness of America’s eroding Air Force. In the Senate, Senator John McCain (R–AZ) introduced legislation mandating a Pentagon report on the effects of sequestration. Others on Capitol Hill should follow these examples and work to reverse cuts that will reduce national security.