An Air Force at War on the Home Front

March 28, 2016

In early March, top Air Force leaders detailed the diverse and increasing challenges USAF faces worldwide.

“We’ve been watching China flex its muscles,” noted Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III at a March 3 hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee, before mentioning new and evolving threats from Russia, North Korea, Syria, and ISIS.

The nation expects the service to fight terrorists flawlessly overseas, prepare for major theater war, bring readiness up to par, maintain competitive pay and benefits, and modernize what is now the smallest and oldest Air Force ever.

These are all reasonable expectations. The problem is that Air Force funding does not match the needs, giving USAF a five-pound sack to hold 10 pounds of requirements. Things are predictably spilling out, and the results are messy.

Despite the limited relief provided by last year’s Budget Control Act, spending is still limited by law. The Defense Department “submitted a defense budget that is actually less in real dollars than last year, despite the fact that operational requirements have grown,” noted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), SASC chairman, at the hearing.

The Air Force budget is $3.4 billion short of what is actually needed for Fiscal 2017. There are shortfalls across many accounts, including in personnel where USAF seeks to grow its end strength from 311,000 airmen to 317,000 or perhaps even 321,000 by the end of next year. The disparity between mission and money forced the Air Force into tough choices that have drawn the ire of many, most prominently McCain.

McCain is particularly incensed about USAF’s plans for new equipment, including its strategy for acquiring the B-21 bomber and developing a replacement for Russian-built RD-180 rocket engines. It was on the topic of fighter and attack aircraft where tensions really boiled over, however—in particular USAF’s plans to slow F-35 purchases while eventually retiring the A-10 Warthog.

“We don’t have enough people in the Air Force to continue to operate all the equipment we have today and to stand up a new fleet of F-35s,” Welsh told McCain at the hearing. “With additional manpower and funding to cover the activity, we could certainly do [both], and I’d be a very happy air chief if we got that increase. But today we do not have the manpower to do both.”

McCain was unimpressed. “The only problem, General, with your statement about the A-10 is you have no replacement for it,” he stated.

Welsh attempted to explain that the A-10’s current capabilities will be absorbed by F-16s, F-15Es, B-1s, and other aircraft. These systems already perform the majority of the Air Force’s close air support missions.

What followed was an extraordinary exchange between a uniformed service Chief and the head of a powerful defense committee, whose state hosts A-10s at Luke Air Force Base.

As McCain astoundingly interrupted Welsh 14 times in a few short minutes, the senator said the general’s explanation “flies in the face of reality, … is really unfortunately disingenuous, … and every Air Force pilot that I know will tell you the most effective close air support system is the A-10. … Why would you want to retire the least expensive, most accurate [CAS] system?”

“I don’t want to retire it, Senator, but the Air Force has to get bigger to do all this,” Welsh replied.

“But you haven’t got a replacement for it, General.”

“Sir, we will be glad—”

“For you to sit here and say that you do absolutely flies in the face of the facts,” McCain interrupted. “So enough said, General, OK?”

“OK, chairman,” Welsh replied.

“It’s really embarrassing to hear you say something like that,” McCain countered.

The A-10 was raised again, by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who asked the Chief if he wanted to keep or retire the Warthog.

“I’d keep the A-10,” said Welsh, who flew the jet early in his career. “I’d build a new low-threat CAS platform. I’d replace the A-10 with [the new aircraft] when it was fielding. And I’d use the other money to build manpower to stand up the F-35 [for] the Air Force. We need the capability. We’re stressed, … and I think it’s a logical plan. We just don’t have the money to do it.”

Meeting a few days later with defense reporters at the Pentagon, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James noted that “if we have to live within the existing toplines, this is going to create problems because here we’re talking about how many of these choices that we’ve put forth in the budget are not popular. … It’s a question of what kind of a military do the American people want, going forward.”

McCain’s committee confirmed both James and Welsh for their positions, and charged them with organizing, training, and equipping the Air Force. USAF is forced to make tough decisions to fit its expanding requirements into a shrinking budget, and is then raked over the coals for making those tough decisions.

The Air Force is at war or trying to keep the peace around the world—but also battling with lawmakers at home over cost-saving measures that can never be popular.

Congress has the power to improve things. If lawmakers wish to preserve the world’s best Air Force, they should overturn the Budget Control Act spending caps. They should approve the top supplemental modernization and readiness spending increases USAF asked for in its March unfunded priorities “wish list.” And they should empower the Air Force leadership make the tough calls Congress requires them to make.