Cheer the Air Force’s 75th Anniversary, but understand the challenges ahead

Today the Air Force celebrates its 75th anniversary, and there is much to celebrate…but also much for concern.  First the good news: virtually every survey shows that the U.S. Air Force is rated as #1 in the world.  As one reviewer put it:

The United States of America maintains the strongest Air Force in the world by an impressive margin. As of late 2021, the United States Air Force (USAF) is composed of 5217 active aircraft, making it the largest, the most technologically advanced, and the most powerful air fleet in the world. 

In a thoughtful blogpost (“Happy Birthday United States Air Force) on the Council for Foreign Relations site, James M. Lindsay recounts some key facts about the development of America’s military airpower. 

Lindsay notes that the service was first a part of the Army, but eventually became a separate organization with the swearing-in of Stuart Symington on September 18, 1947 as the first Secretary of the Air Force.  Lindsay describes today’s Air Force:

The U.S. Air Force has 329,476 active duty personnel, 69,200 reserve personnel, 106,700 air national guard personnel, and 149,482 civilian personnel. The service flies more than 5,100 manned aircraft. These planes come in the form of some forty different airframes, ranging from the B-2 stealth bomber to the F-35 jet fighter to the VC-25, which is better known as Air Force One. Nineteen airmen have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Storm clouds?

All good?  Not really.  An in-depth report, Decades of Air Force Underfunding Threaten America’s Ability to Win, by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies shows a disturbing trend.  The report (which is discussed in an article in Air & Space Forces here) identifies the following as “key points”:

  • Today, the U.S. Air Force is smaller, older, and less ready than it has ever been. It now lacks the capacity to fight a peer conflict, deter elsewhere, and defend the homeland as required by the National Defense Strategy.
  • The Air Force has less than half its fighter force and only one-third of the bombers it had in 1990. Its latest proposed budget divests about 1,000 more aircraft than it buys over the next five years, which will create an even smaller, older, and less ready force in the near term. The nadir will occur the same time that USINDOPACOM warns China will be prepared to conquer Taiwan—2027.
  • Decades of Air Force “divest to invest” decisions were the result of inadequate budgets that forced it to choose between modernization, force size, and readiness. The Air Force’s budget has been less than the Navy and Army’s for the last 30 years in a row. The Army received over $1.3 trillion more than the Air Force between 2002–2021, an average of $66 billion more per year than the Air Force.
  • Due to insufficient modernization funding, about 80 percent of its fighters have now exceeded their design lives, and only about 24 percent of its total fighter aircraft are stealthy or survivable against modern threats. That may result in excessive loss rates in a conflict with China.
  • The Air Force must both modernize and increase its force capacity to defeat peer aggression. This will require growing its budget by 3 to 5 percent annually over inflation for a decade or more. Without additional resources, the Air Force will have no choice but to further cut its forces and delay modernization. This puts all U.S. armed services at risk of losing a war with a peer aggressor.

The report furnishes this chart about fighter aircraft to illustrate the issue:

The statistics beyond mere numbers of airframes are also disturbing (and I’d bet surprising to many people).  For example, the average airplane in the Air Force is over 27 years old.  More specifically, the average for the bomber force is more than 40 years.  Moreover, when I came on active duty in 1976, there were 585,416 Airmen.  The number for 2023 is projected to be just 332,000.

Not all doom and gloom

The future for the Air Force is especially daunting because the multi-domain operations at which it excels – air, space, and cyberspace – are increasingly seen as central to success in future conflicts.  Unlike other nations, the U.S. is expected to defend not just this country, but allies and friends around the worldamounting to a quarter of humanity.

Fortunately, the service has an energetic and thoughtful leader in Air Force Chief of Staff General CQ Brown.  General Brown has articulated his vision very plainly as “Accelerate Change or Lose” and has relentlessly pursued it with some real success.

One of those successes is the F-35. This aircraft is the most complex war machine ever built.  In an article earlier this year, Popular Mechanics said:

The F-35 can fly at speeds as high as Mach 1.6 and can carry an internal payload of four weapons without compromising its stealth. But it’s not the F-35’s firepower that really makes the difference, it’s the computing power. It’s why F-35s have come to be known as “quarterbacks in the sky” or “a computer that happens to fly.”

“There has never been an aircraft that provides as much situational awareness as the F-35,” Major Justin “Hasard” Lee, an Air Force F-35 pilot instructor, tells Popular Mechanics. “In combat, situational awareness is worth its weight in gold.”

Popular Mechanics also pointed out the bumps the program has suffered from time to time – set-backs on which critics have pounced – but the program now seems to be headed in the right direction.  The reality is that when a phenomenally complex machine (the F-35 is reported to have 24 million lines of code) is initially developed, there will always be problems to overcome.

Probably the best evidence that those problems have been overcome to the satisfaction of airpower experts is the growing number of allies and friends who have acquired the F-35 aircraft or are planning on doing so (Switzerland recently announced it will buy 36 of the fighters).  Everyone wants to have the finest fighter on the planet.

There is also the B-21, the new bomber the Air Force is developing.  Here’s what reported recently:

By all indicators, the B-21 programs seems to be proceeding remarkably, almost shockingly, smoothly. At least for now.

The Raider’s first flight is projected to come in 2023. A recent Bloomberg report indicated that the B-21 is actually staying under its projected budget for the time being, an exceedingly unusual status for an advanced aircraft project. There seem to be few doubts inside or outside the Air Force that the B-21 will hit or come near enough its benchmarks.

To be sure, manned aircraft are hardly the only aspect of the Air Force’s portfolio. The development of greater space capabilities is vital as are advances in the fields of cyber, artificial intelligence, and drones.  

Defense News reports that in order to meet the challenge of China and other peer-competitors, the Air Force is shifting “funds toward advanced technology like the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systemshypersonics research, procurement of the B-21 Raider bomber and research for an autonomous drone wingman.”

But these capabilities are costly, and shifting money around can only take you so far – new funding will be needed  Will Americans be willing to pay more for defense?  Tough to say.

And, of course, there is the most important resource of all: people.  Like the other services, the Air Force finds itself in the most challenging recruiting environment since the implementation of the all-volunteer force.  So the question is this: will enough young Americans – especially those with critical technical skills upon which the Air Force depends – choose to serve?  Again, hard to predict.

Clearly, there are very tough challenges ahead, but as the Air Force’s current leader says:

“Air Force trailblazer Gen. Hap Arnold wrote, ‘We must think in terms of tomorrow,’” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. “For 75 years that’s exactly what our Airmen have been doing. By envisioning tomorrow, they have found new ways to make the impossible … possible.”

Happy Anniversary, Air Force!  As we mark this 75th milestone, we cheer the successes of the past and present with hope for the future as the service seeks to “innovate, accelerate and thrive” to keep our nation, and those of our friends and allies, safe.



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