Washington, D.C. is a city of monuments and memorials. The Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials, each iconic in its own way, loom large not just in the cityscape but in the national consciousness. They are destinations for families and school groups, political activists, and foreign tourists. They pay tribute to three Presidents and their foundational contributions to the American experiment.
Looming even larger than these, however, are the working monuments of American power and symbols of our democratic republic. The Capitol, with its great wedding-cake dome and repetitive pillars, and the White House, with its stately porticos, are recognizable not just to Americans, but to people the world over.
The Capitol was brand-new when it was burned by British raiders in the War of 1812. Americans rebuilt it, bigger, grander, greater than before. When President Harry S. Truman moved into the White House following Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, it was approaching its sesquicentennial and in deep disrepair. In letters home to his wife and daughter in Missouri, he mused that the creaks and groans he heard overnight were the ghosts of Presidents past. “I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches—all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right here in the study,” Truman wrote his wife in 1945. “The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth.”
Ghosts or not, the old mansion was falling apart. In 1948, he moved out, the White House was gutted, and then completely rebuilt.
That is what we do with national treasures: We preserve them.
Our Air Force is also a national treasure, and it too is in need of renovation, preservation, and reinvention. As the Department of the Air Force turns 75 this month, Washington will enjoy a grand Air Tatoo, host a gathering of international air chiefs, and converge on National Harbor, Md., for the Air & Space Force Association’s largest-ever Air, Space & Cyber Conference. There is much to celebrate. Yet, there is much to be done. The U.S. Air Force and Space Forces of tomorrow must not be allowed to decline into memorials to a greatness of the past; they must, rather, be reinvigorated and reinforced to be the working monuments of American power our nation needs.
Four years ago, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson shared the broad overview of a classified analysis she called “The Air Force We Need.” This analysis identified requirements for 386 operational squadrons, 74 more than the Air Force had at the time. This was arguably the most definitive study to date comparing the national defense strategy’s requirements and the operational capability and capacity of its Air & Space Forces.
Wilson and then-Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein were sounding an alarm, declaring an emergency that should have galvanized the American public to a crisis in their midst. But the warning was lost amid the crazy politics of the time. Within months, Defense Secretary James Mattis would quit the Pentagon; Wilson would depart the Air Force for a new role in academia; and the Air Force We Need would be set aside, viewed as an academic exercise incompatible with the Air Force We Can Afford.
This month we share the second of a three-part series of interviews with every former Air Force Chief of Staff since 1990 (the series concludes next month with Gens. Michael Ryan and Goldfein). Collectively, their story is that of an Air Force on a downward trajectory, managing resources and preserving capability, but gradually being strangled by endless budgetary debate and the unyielding economics of supply and demand. With too few airplanes, not enough people, and insufficient resources (supply), the Air and Space Forces have struggled to meet combatant commanders’ requirements (demand).
Well-informed air power aficionados know this story well. We talk about it among ourselves all the time. The problem is that the rest of the country is largely unaware. The occasion of the Air Force’s 75th birthday is a good time to tell that story, because it’s not the story Americans expect to hear. It is, however, the story they need to hear.
Elsewhere in this issue Lt. Gen. David Deptula and Col. Mark Gunzinger offer a deep and compelling analysis demonstrating the scale of the financial shortfall the Air Force suffered over the past three decades and the decline in our nation’s prioritization of air and space power. The charts unmask the effects of budgetary gimmicks and lays bare the fact that the Air and Space Forces receive a smaller net investment than the Departments of the Army, the Navy, and the collective “fourth estate” of other defense agencies.
“The question for the United States of America,” says former Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh, “is who do we want to be in the future? Do we want to be the global superpower? Do we want to be a major regional power? Do we want to roll up the sidewalks, draw a line to the ocean, and say, ‘Stay away and leave us alone’? That’s a national decision.”
That question has been before the country for a generation. “Primacy remains our grand strategy,” Welsh said. “But as a nation, we haven’t been able to do that since the mid-’90s. We can’t respond everywhere on Earth, we can’t do all those things anymore. We don’t have the force structure, period. People can act like we do, but we do not.”
Take that message far and wide.
It does little use to talk amongst ourselves about the good old days or about what’s wrong today if the sources and solutions for fixing these problems lay elsewhere. That’s a message that needs to be heard far and wide, not just among Air Force insiders. The White House wasn’t gutted until after a piano leg dropped through the floor, finally convincing engineers that the structure was no longer sound. We can’t afford to wait for things to get so dire for the Air & Space Forces.