Left to right: Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall; Kristyn Jones, performing duties as Under Secretary of the Air Force; Gen. David W. Allvin, Chief of Staff of the Air Force; and Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations during Reoptimizing for Great Power Competition: A Senior Leaders Discussion panel. Jud McCrehin/staff
Photo Caption & Credits

Editorial: Change and Shortchanged

March 28, 2024

Anticipation was high and the crowd was oversized as the AFA Warfare Symposium opened in February. Department of the Air Force leaders had been meeting daily since September to “re-optimize” the Air Force and Space Force to better compete with China.

Now, as the Secretary, two service chiefs, and undersecretary took the stage, more than 4,000 people crowded the ballroom. Thousands more tuned in for the livestream. 

Over the next 60 minutes, one after the other, each made the case for overhauling how the services organize, train, and deploy operational forces, plan for and develop future weapons, retain, and attract technical talent, and ensure optimal operational and institutional readiness in the face of growing competition from China. 

We can’t buy … capability on a 1 percent budget increase.

Supported by dozens more senior leaders, they spent the next two days drumming home the urgency and purpose of changes that will affect every member of the forces, no matter how junior. It was an electric moment and the buzz coming out of the conference magnified the excitement. After years of talk, the conversation had shifted from accelerating change and increasing agility to clear and specific actions. 

Among the announcements: 

  • Realigning Air Force Major Commands, including renaming Air Education and Training Command as the Airman Development Command, with broader responsibilities; creating a new Integrated Capabilities Development Command to accelerate future weapons development; elevating Air Forces Cyber to a direct-reporting unit under the Air Force Chief of Staff; and giving Air Combat Command wider scope of responsibility for readiness across the force.
  • Wings are back as the Air Force’s units of action, a clear recognition that two decades of rotational deployments rendered much of the Air Force unprepared to pick up and go to war tomorrow; also back are spot inspections and readiness drills, throwbacks to the Cold War era that are once again relevant in an era of peer competition. 
  • Squadrons will be the Space Force’s comparable units of action, and though they deploy in place, they too will cycle through operational and training rotations in order to maximize readiness. 
  • Warrant Officers are making a comeback in the Air Force as a specialized career track, initially for cyber and perhaps related information technology fields, but maybe later to other fields as well. This provides a means to pay and retain a corps of cyber specialists without having to take them away from their keyboards and screens—and to better compete in a world that cant produce enough of such talent.
  • A new Space Futures Command, comprised of the Space Force’s key technical centers, will focus on future systems and strategy development in space, where Russia now appears poised to deploy a nuclear weapon and where China and Russia have teamed up to focus on the moon in clear competition with the U.S. and its allies. 

In all, 24 changes were released, and further details and adjustments will continue  over the coming months. 

And then the balloon seemed to burst.  When the Pentagon released its fiscal 2025 budget request exactly one month later, reality descended like a de-orbited spacecraft plunging through the atmosphere. 

All that readiness and deterrence costs money. 

Approaching the half-way point in fiscal 2024, the Pentagon was still operating on Congress’ third Continuing Resolution since Oct. 1, and the 2024 budget has not yet to been approved, yet here we were perusing a 2025 plan that was, like the Grinch’s heart, two sizes too small. 

The four-year-old Space Force, which like any good preschooler should still be on a high-protein diet for rapid and expansive growth, sustained a 2 percent funding cut; the Air Force, trying to recover after being starved of modernization funds for a generation, eked out a scant 1 percent increase. 

That’s looking at the bright side. After accounting for 3.4 percent inflation, both services suffered substantial losses. 

While the Air Force budget finally surpassed the Army’s—for the first time in 32 years—it was cuts to the Army rather than additions to the Air Force that made that possible. Indeed, USAF had to slash investment in new aircraft and weapons by $2.1 billion—5.9 percent—including cutting planned F-35A purchases by six jets, from 48 to 42, and cutting planned F-15EX buys from 24 to 18 jets. Munitions, always a convenient bill-payer—until war needs show there aren’t enough weapons in stock and so they must be rationed—also took a hit. 

So did combat capacity. The Air Force wants to retire some 250 planes of all sorts, while buying just 91 new aircraft—none of which will be flyable for another two to four years. For the first time in its history, the Air Force will dip below 5,000 aircraft—extending its decline as the oldest and smallest Air Force in America’s history.  

In contrast, China’s military and airpower are growing, and its 2025 military budget is set to rise 7.5 percent. 

Leaders will tell you that help is on the way. More F-35 fighters, new B-21 bombers, a super-secret Next-Generation Air Dominance family of systems, new autonomous Collaborative Combat Aircraft, a future stealthy refueling tanker known as NGAS, the new T-7A jet trainer, a host of new sensor-to-shooter integration technologies under the rubric of Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control (CJADC2), and the Sentinel ICBM replacement—perhaps the most expensive military program ever. 

But we can’t buy that capability on 1 percent annual budget increases. Secretary Frank Kendall is focused on ensuring new capabilities can be developed in the future, and that is great—provided we buy enough, fast enough that we can deter China’s worst instincts in the Pacific. He’s trying to preserve the seed corn, but the future is threatened by drought and locusts. 

“Change is hard,” Kendall says with some regularity. “Losing is unacceptable.” But in the budget discussion, another truism applies: “You snooze, you lose.” It’s time to wake up our country to that fact.  

Three decades of underfunding and deferred modernization have left the Air Force ill-equipped for peer conflict, and there’s only one way to fix that: Spend big. 

The Air Force has overcome such deficits before. Just 50 years ago, in the wake of the Vietnam War, our Air Force was old and broken and not up to the Soviet challenge. But a generation of innovative Airmen answered the call, developing new aircraft, weapons, and training and altering the course of history. From the 1970s through the 1990s, America introduced the F-15 and F-16 fighters, the stealthy F-117 Nighthawk, the B-1 and B-2 bombers, the Global Positioning System satellite constellation, and laser- and GPS-guided weapons. These, together with new tactics and operating concepts, generated a true revolution in military affairs.

Properly funded, we could be on the cusp of another, similar revolution today. The new technology and concepts in the offing—manned-unmanned teaming, CJADC2, space-based moving target indicators—will raise the cost of both competition and conflict for our adversaries. It may well deter them in the future. But only if our leaders make the investment. 

Somehow, this imperative is absent from our national politics. It shouldn’t be. In a contentious presidential year, the candidates should debate how they intend to solve this puzzle. We must demand they do.