The Air Force turns 75 on Sept. 18, a momentous three-quarters of a century.
Riding the wave of victory coming out of World War II, the Air Force symbolized American ingenuity, industrial might, and sheer audacity. The Air Force produced the world’s fastest airplanes and its most lethal and intimidating weapons.
The Berlin Airlift answered Soviet brute force with daring, sophistication, and persistence. High-flying surveillance, within and beyond the atmosphere, unshrouded the activities of America’s adversaries, lessening the risk of war. The Air Force broke into space and undergirded NASA’s victorious race to the moon.
In Vietnam, the likelihood that Airmen would return home safely after a mission increased dramatically, although twice the number of Airmen died in Vietnam compared to Korea. But the Air Force came out of that war, in which a smaller, weaker foe held and tortured more than 300 Airmen, determined to alter those odds even more dramatically.
It succeeded. The technology that emerged in the aftermath of Vietnam changed the nature of war as much as the advent of air power in the first place. Radar-defeating stealth could render a fighter aircraft all but invisible to enemy air defenses. Precision bombs and missiles, whether enabled by airborne lasers or satellite navigation, provided a new means of strategic, systematic, and progressive warfare.
Between Operation Desert Storm, to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, and Operation Allied Force, to stop the Serb’s slaughter of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999, the Air Force’s prowess, capability, and capacity to affect the outcome of conflicts was beyond question. America was the world’s lone remaining superpower, and air and space power was its not-so-secret weapon.
Were this the story of one man’s life it would be an unparalleled success. He could sit back and live out his days knowing, to quote St. Paul to Timothy, that “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
Of course, the Air Force is not a person who can live out the golden years in quiet satisfaction. It is a necessary institution of national power, vital to the preservation of American interests at home and abroad. As such, it must continually reinvent itself, anticipate the threats of tomorrow and invent new ways to challenge, confound, and deter rivals in the future.
As we celebrate the wonders of air and space power and the dominance the Air Force demonstrated in both air and space over these past 75 years, remember that there are more fights to come. The race is not over. And the time is now to rekindle the faith in air and space power that made America’s the greatest military on Earth.
Preserving and ensuring that title must be our collective goal. It is the surest way to preserve peace in a world where tyrants and despots seek to amass wealth and resources by trampling on the rights of others. This will come at a cost. It takes effort—investment, invention, and arduous work—to reach elite status in anything. It takes even more to become the elite force USAF is today.
The Air Force is not a person who can live out the golden years in quiet satisfaction.
About 17 years ago, then-Air Force Chief Gen. T. Michael Moseley offered a plan to modernize the Air Force at a cost of an extra $20 billion a year. His vision would have delivered the actual military requirement for F-22s—double the number the Air Force would ultimately acquire—and it would have done so at reduced cost through multi-year agreements. It also would have secured a new tanker, accelerated the F-35, and lined up investment for a new search-and-rescue helicopter, a new trainer, and new AWACS and JSTARS replacements.
In other words, it would have staved off all the problems the Air Force is suffering today. But Moseley was talking about the future at a time when the present was particularly grim. Poor decisions had left the United States trapped. Iraq had descended into a protracted civil war, and there was no clear way out. The Army was too small, the Pentagon was hemorrhaging money.
“Kids were dying,” recalls Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, who succeeded Moseley in 2008. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, brought in to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld and fix the broken war strategy, “was writing letters to the families of the fallen every day.”
Gates viewed the Air Force’s focus on the future as shrill and off-key. More to the point, he saw the Air Force as a convenient bill payer for up-armoring the Army in that ill-fated war.
Time proved Moseley right. Cutting the F-22 program after 187 aircraft would cost the Air Force scale and efficiency, making the planes and squadrons more expensive to sustain, and leaving the service with too few combat jets by the late 2010s. Having failed to get its programs in order 15 years ago, the Air Force is now struggling to pay, all at once, for the KC-46 tanker, the F-35, the B-21 bomber, the T-7 trainer, the new Sentinel ICBM, next generation air dominance, and soon the E-7 Wedgetail.
Gates saw himself as a wartime Secretary but missed the wider context of his job, leading the Pentagon in the midst of a global strategic shift. He ignored indicators of China’s growing ambition and squandered the opportunity to get ahead of that threat.
Now, perhaps, the world is waking up to what the visionaries saw so clearly. Russia’s war in Ukraine has finally rekindled a sense of purpose among our NATO allies, awakening them to the need to invest in a unified defense, rather than put that off for another day. In the Indo-Pacific, China’s tantrum over the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan makes clear its true ambitions there. In launching exercises that simulated a naval blockade, China aims to intimidate—Taiwan, its neighbors, and the United States.
China already has a larger navy than the U.S., and hopes to outsize the U.S. Air Force, as well. To deter China from fulfilling its territorial and political ambitions, the U.S. will have to compete on both capability and capacity. An arms race is at once economic, technological, and military in nature. To maximize effectiveness, the most valuable new weapons are those that will impose the greatest cost on China to counter.
As the Air Force enters its fourth quarter-century, it desperately needs more resources to match the demands of our defense strategy: Cutting-edge technology that imposes new costs, such as integrated satellite targeting, dynamic new weapons like the B-21 bomber and the Next Generation Air Dominance systems to challenge existing capabilities, and scale. The capacity to sustain the force through prolonged combat is as important to deterring future conflict as new capabilities like swarms, lasers, manned-unmanned teaming, and more mobile and resilient satellites.
The lessons of the past 75 years are clear enough. Our Air Force needs both new capabilities and capacity sufficient to execute the Nation’s military strategy. For the past 30 years, Americans invested less in their Air Force than in either their Army or Navy. As a result, the Air Force is the oldest, smallest, and least ready in its history. Americans must invest to make our Air Force whole again.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated for clarity.