A People's Liberation Army Air Force J-20 stealth fighter performs aerobatics in Zhuhai, China, on Sept. 29. Yu Hongchun/China Ministry of Defense
Photo Caption & Credits

Editorial: The Bill Comes Due

Nov. 5, 2021

Congress and the President failed to pass a budget for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, and the Pentagon is operating once again on continuing resolutions. Instead of doing the work that must be done, they’re wrestling over wish-list social spending and how to tax wealthy individuals and corporations to pay for it all. 

Congress and the President failed to pass a budget for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, and the Pentagon is operating once again on continuing resolutions. Instead of doing the work that must be done, they’re wrestling over wish-list social spending and how to tax wealthy individuals and corporations to pay for it all. 

Meanwhile, they fail to secure the nation and our allies from growing threats on the other side of the world. 

China tested a missile this summer that circled the globe and glided to Earth at hypersonic speed. There is no defense against such a weapon. 

“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment. But I think it’s very close to that,” said Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sputnik was a wake-up call to an America tired of war and eager to invest in other things. That’s not so different from today. China’s rapid military evolution spans the spectrum of warfare and poses challenges not just to its smaller neighbors, but to American power, prestige, and influence. 

Left unchecked, China will only grow more belligerent. Xi Jinping and his party claim they are interested only in their own defense, but their aggressive military buildup and expanding capabilities belie that assertion. Their behavior is indicative of a nation striving to intimidate and impose its views on others, not one interested in deterrence to avoid conflict. 

Modernization has never been more essential, nor the funds more elusive.

Unconstrained by nuclear arms treaties, China is constructing at least 250 missile silos spread among three sites in Northwest China and Mongolia—hard-to-reach locations deep in the Asian landmass.  Its air defenses and long-range, hypersonic missiles were built to counter U.S. strengths like aircraft carriers and bomber aircraft. 

China already has more planes than anyone else in the region. A new variant of its most advanced fighter, the J-20, the product of stolen U.S. intellectual property, includes a backseat, perhaps indicating plans to fly it in tandem with companion drones.  

American forces expect air supremacy. They may not have it in the very near future. 

Over a four-day period in early October, China flew 149 aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Though this was more stunt than intimidation, China demonstrated strength, resolve, and its growing willingness to test the bounds of good neighborly behavior. China made clear it will do as it pleases, international norms be damned. 

China has never ceased believing Taiwan is part of China proper. “The complete reunification of our country will be and can be realized,” said Senior Col. Tan Kefei, spokesperson for its Ministry of National Defense. A nation cannot be more plain about its intent. 

The United States is committed to protecting Taiwan, but it’s becoming doubtful we have the wherewithal to deter China from making a move. That depends on whether China thinks the U.S. can stop it from a successful land grab across the Taiwan Strait. 

The risk of military conflict is rising, be it sparked on purpose with an attempted fait-accompli invasion by China or accidentally as a result of one side misinterpreting a “strategic competition” maneuver for military aggression. Either way, the U.S. Air and Space Forces are ill-prepared for such a conflict. 

China watched as the U.S. waged war over the past 30 years, growing and modernizing while USAF was depleting its resources and deprived of the funds needed to replenish. Planned purchases of F-22 fighters were cut in half; B-1 bombers and F-15s were flown beyond their usable life spans. New-build F-35s are coming, but far too slowly. Satellite systems deployed when space was benign, are indefensible from cyber and physical attack.  

Modernization has never been more essential, and yet the funds have never been more elusive. 

The Air Force finds itself like a family that put off buying new cars and maintaining the homestead for years while the kids grew, only to have all those bills come due at once. 

USAF needs new ICBMs, new bombers, new fighters, new trainers, and new tankers. The ICBMs alone will cost $6 billion a year for a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Half a century old and reliant on obsolete technology, they cannot be sustained any longer. 

The bomber story is similar. The Air Force’s newest bombers average 26 years of age, and there are only 20 of them; the entire bomber fleet averages 60 years old. To acquire 220 B-21 Raiders, at $550 million each, is another $110 billion.  

And then there are the fighters. To right size and modernize, the Air Force needs at least 80 new fighters per year, mostly F-35s. Buy fewer and the fleet continues to age and wither. But the Air Force can’t afford that many today. It needs another $1.6 billion a year over and above the billions it’s already committing to reach that level. 

Add those up and there’s no money left for tankers, trainers, missile detection satellites, and advanced air defenses, let alone hypersonic and space-based weapons. 

Were this a family, the only answer would be to get a second job to generate more income. For the Air Force and Space Force, the only answer is to find new revenue. 

One option is the pass-through. While Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall sees this as a budget trick, the fact remains that holding on to an anachronistic and ineffective attempt to hide funding for other agencies distorts the public’s understanding of what it’s getting for its money. A second option is to cut Army force structure and related spending to pay the bill for Air Force, Space Force, and Navy modernization. In the wake of 9/11, the Army spent nearly a trillion dollars more than the Department of the Air Force to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now it’s time to invest on a similar scale in the Air and Space Forces. 

This is a bill lawmakers cannot ignore. Air and space power are indispensable to the American way of war. Ponying up $20 billion a year for the next decade to right the imbalance between requirements and budget might not solve the problem altogether. But it comes close. 

Congress is tied up in knots trying to pass legislation for trillions in new entitlement spending. Let’s invest a tiny fraction of that to deter war with China and guarantee the safety of all our citizens. American air and space power must be ready and capable of defeating any threat that arises from the so-called People’s Republic of China.