Warning Signs on National Security

Nov. 1, 1993

It is abundantly clear by now that the new world order of the 1990s will not be peaceful or benign. The threat of global war has receded, but regional instability and conflict have intensified. It is clear also that the United States cannot and should not retreat from a position of strength and leadership. Our security, our interests, and our responsibilities make it imperative that we remain a world power.

Contrary to the expectations of some, the mission for US armed forces did not end with the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. In 1993, US forces were engaged in three extended contingencies abroad. Since the end of the Persian Gulf War, the Air Force has flown more than 155,000 sorties in Somalia, Iraq, and the Balkans. Throughout the spring and summer, the nation’s leaders debated whether US combat power should be committed in Bosnia. Limited US military force has been used nine times this year against Iraq. The probability is very high that American troops will fight again somewhere before this decade is over.

Much of the world is at war or on the brink of it. As the year began, fifty-four armed conflicts–twenty large enough to be defined as wars–were in progress around the world. The vast area of the former Soviet Union is engulfed by political challenge, territorial dispute, violence, and instability. These troubles could easily escalate and spread. New conflicts threaten in the Middle East and on the Asian rim.

The number of nations with high-technology armament and weapons of mass destruction is increasing. More than a dozen nations have operational ballistic missiles today. The capability to employ missiles at intermediate and intercontinental range will proliferate with time.

To defend its security and protect its interests, the United States plans to follow a strategy that is notably reliant on airpower. The Department of Defense has determined that the primary characteristic of the future force structure should be the ability to fight and win two major regional conflicts, nearly simultaneously. The strategy assumes that we do not know where the next conflict will occur but that it will be in a location where we do not have sufficient forces in place to deal with it.

That is not a complete or an automatic formula for calculating force structure, nor is it intended as such. It is, however, a sensible focus for a reasonable strategy. Unfortunately, the US defense program as currently planned is not consistent with such a strategy.

The Air Force Association believes that a dangerous gap is developing in our national security posture. We do not believe that the projected defense program is adequate, either to carry out the declared strategy or to secure the nation’s interests.

One year ago, the Air Force Association expressed its support for the careful plan to draw down to a considerably smaller but highly capable “Base Force,” designed to deter or defeat aggression, defend the nation’s interests, respond to crisis, and provide a modest forward presence abroad.

Since then, the Base Force plan has been abandoned in favor of a program that will make the structure of the armed services conform to radical and predetermined budget reductions. The force we get should not depend on what some arbitrary percentage of the Gross Domestic Product will buy but rather on what valid military requirements indicate is necessary.

In our assessment, the Administration’s plan will not provide the capabilities required, nor will it support the kind of force described by either side in last year’s Presidential election campaign. We believe that the defense program as currently projected will give the nation appreciably fewer troops, combat units, and weapons than has been officially acknowledged. The US Air Force, critical to the evolving strategy, could lose more than half of its force structure and field fewer than 800 fighter aircraft and well under 150 operational bombers before the turn of the century.

US technological superiority, a vital advantage for the smaller forces of the future, is also in doubt. Every major weapon system in development is under attack by factions that want to divert the funding to other uses. It is preposterous to argue, as some do, for example, that four tactical aircraft developments, spread over twenty-five years to meet the needs of both the Air Force and the Navy, would be excessive and unaffordable. Proposals to upgrade existing systems are routinely challenged as well. Our space-launch capability is obsolete and inadequate, and funding for essential military assets in space is precarious.

Much of the nation’s defense industrial base is gone. More of it is going. The industrial base needed to support US military strategy of the future may not be available. The continuing loss of production infrastructure and of a work force with critical skills weakens US security strategy, which posits “reconstitution” (the creation of new forces and the mobilization of industry to meet new challenges) as a central element.

Early warning signs on national security have begun to appear. Force readiness is not a problem yet, but it is on the edge and vulnerable. A modest difference in resources at this point could leave airplanes on the ground and ships docked in port.

Morale and confidence of the troops are growing concerns. The men and women of the armed forces are more apprehensive than we have seen them in many years. This, we believe, is the combined effect of continual force cuts, extended deployments and the work load borne by the smaller force that remains, pay caps targeted on military members and veterans, the Administration’s headlong push for homosexuals in the armed forces, doubt that national leaders understand or respect the military, and general anxiety about the future of their nation, their service, and their careers.

The United States no longer needs a military force of the size it maintained at the peak of the Cold War. In fact, the armed forces have been reducing steadily since the 1980s. Even under the Base Force plan-which has now been undercut-defense expenditures as a percentage of GDP would have fallen to their lowest level in more than fifty years.

As we draw down and pull back from bases abroad, however, the forces remaining must be of sufficient size and capability to deter or defeat aggression across the spectrum of conflict. They must be prepared to project power with assurance to any point where it may be required. For this, the nation must have a balanced mix of land, sea, and air forces, trained to a high state of readiness and equipped with the best systems and weapons we can provide. All of these forces will be critically dependent on airlift.

The bulk of this force would typically deploy to combat from bases in the United States, prepared to strike hard and fast to counter an enemy assault that may already be under way. That puts special emphasis on landbased, long-range airpower, which offers the rapid global reach, flexibility, penetration, airborne battle management, and sustained sortie generation that a major regional conflict will demand. Among the capabilities and features essential to air combat units committed to a major regional conflict are these:

  • A significant force of stealth aircraft. Stealthy platforms can pass through an enemy’s airspace with low probability of being engaged effectively by radar-directed or radar-assisted air defenses. This is an important advantage for our nation in combat operations.
  • Precision guided weapons. Not long ago, such terms as “surgical strike” and “pinpoint accuracy” were not to be taken literally. Surgical strikes have become a fact. Pinpoint accuracy may not be far away.
  • Highly reliable systems to sustain the number of sorties required with a smaller force and to minimize extensive field maintenance.
  • Intelligence from air and space to enable the commander to put striking power where it counts and to deny the enemy the advantage of surprise.
  • Rapid, all-weather target acquisition and identification. In today’s warfare, information (and the effective use of it) ranks alongside firepower and maneuver in military importance.
  • A full complement of modern airlifters and tankers. Without modernization and replacements, airlift capability will decrease by about half in the years ahead. That would constrain disastrously the nation’s power to respond to crises abroad.
  • A high caliber of electronic warfare systems for defense, offense, and battle management, well integrated with other forces.

The force that won the Gulf War no longer exists. The existing force, not yet drawn all the way down to the size forecast, is operating at an arduous tempo to meet operational commitments. Fighter and mobility forces are particularly pressed. The Air Force of the future may draw combat units from a service half the size of the Air Force that waged the Desert Storm air campaign. Unless system modernization proceeds, that force will be left to fight the conflicts of the twenty-first century with the same equipment-obsolescing and in reduced numbers–employed in the Gulf War.

The nation expects its security and interests to be protected whenever and wherever they are threatened. When its armed forces go to war, it expects them to prevail. These expectations are not realistic if we impose an arbitrary and unreasonable ceiling on what we are willing to invest in our national security.

The defense share of federal outlays has declined from fifty-seven percent in the 1950s to forty-three percent in the 1960s to twenty-seven percent in the 1980s and was dropping toward sixteen percent in the 1990s before the latest reductions were prescribed. At that level, further losses will have a devastating impact.

The time is urgent for us to notice the warning signs on national security and correct our course. We must not wait until it is proved over some field of battle that our accounting was misguided.