The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Pentagon to conduct three independent analyses to determine the number and mix of aircraft the U.S. Air Force would need by 2030 to meet National Defense Strategy requirements. All three analyses concluded the Air Force must grow its forces by at least 25 percent. The Air Force described “the Air Force we need” as 386 operational squadrons, up from 312, including seven more fighter squadrons than currently exist and five additional bomber squadrons. This, along with modernization, would create the minimum force needed to deter and defeat Chinese aggression, defend the U.S. homeland, deter nuclear threats, and fulfill the service’s other global operational requirements.
However, five years later, the Air Force still lacks a force structure with the requisite lethality, survivability, and capacity. The average age of the Air Force’s aircraft inventory is now an unprecedented 29 years. Its B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers have been in service for over 60 years, three aircraft types have been operational for more than 50 years, and 13 other types average 30 to 50 years old. Air Force aircraft like the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, E-3 airborne warning and control system (AWACS), B-1B bombers, and F-15C fighters are worn out after decades of high operational tempos. Many of these aircraft are not mission capable—and in some cases are no longer safe to fly.
Gen. Deptula is Dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Col. Gunzinger, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, is Mitchell’s Director of Future Aerospace Concepts and Capabilities Assessments . Download the entire report here.
It is also the smallest force the Air Force has ever had, and on its way to becoming smaller. Over the next five years the Air Force plans to divest another 1,463 aircraft while acquiring just 467. This amounts to a net loss of 996 airframes. Capacity is as important as capability—a force that is sized to fight a war with China in the vast expanses of the Indo-Pacific region, the Department of Defense pacing threat, will be very different than a force that is sized to operate in the relatively smaller and less threatening battlespaces of Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Iran and North Korea. Bluntly stated, the Air Force of 2022 is a high-risk force that is not sized to fight a major conflict with China and meet its other global operational requirements established by the National Defense Strategy. This is not just about the Air Force because no U.S. military joint force operation can be conducted without some element of the Air Force being involved.
How Did We Get Here?
At the end of the Cold War, the Air Force had a robust force that proved its value in the first Gulf War. So successful was the Air Force in that campaign, in fact, that leaders were confident it could absorb reductions with acceptable risk. Without the Soviet Union as a peer threat, U.S. defense policy shifted toward reduced defense spending and a focus on lesser regional aggressors, leading to the prioritization of capability over capacity. The B-2 bomber program, for example, was slashed from its planned 132 aircraft to just 21 in 1992.
The 1993 Bottom-Up Defense Review determined that roughly 40 percent of the Air Force’s “fighter wing equivalents” and 31 percent of its bombers were no longer needed. The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) continued the trend, throttling back on investment in fifth-generation fighter jets. Then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen directed the Air Force to reduce the planned buy of stealthy F-22 air superiority fighters, intended to replace its F-15C/D jets, arguing his decision was “consistent with [the F-22’s] much greater capability compared to the F-15.” A decade later, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates would cut the force in half again, ending F-22 procurement at 187 aircraft—less than 50 percent of its validated military requirement. This decision was partly based on an underestimation of the Chinese threat and was extremely near-sighted, leaving the Air Force with an F-22 force too small to generate the kind of sustained numbers of sorties needed for joint operations in a fight with China.
DOD-directed force cuts continued nearly unabated in the 2000s and 2010s, even as China accelerated its military buildup. Like the Bottom-Up Review, these budget-driven reductions were made in the belief that upgrading old instead of buying new would maintain the U.S. military’s overmatch over lesser adversaries like Iran and North Korea. The Air Force’s 2009 combat air forces reduction, or “CAF Redux,” divested about 250 F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s in response to then-Secretary of Defense Gates’ guidance to “eliminate excessive overmatch in force structure” and redistribute savings to “modernize and equip a smaller, more flexible, capable, and lethal force.” While some of the CAF Redux savings were used to buy MQ-1 and MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft and other capabilities to support counterterrorism operations, most were lost by the Air Force as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).
Today, the Air Force’s fighter jet inventory is less than half the size of the fighter force in 1989, while demands by the combatant commanders for Air Force fighters capable of winning air superiority and performing other missions are increasing. Moreover, canceled programs and curtailed procurement have stymied the Air Force’s long-sought modernization goals to develop a 5th-generation combat force with the right mix of stealthy aircraft capable of surviving in high-end fights.
The Air Force provides the free-world’s only long-range strike capability with its B-1B, B-52H, and B-2 bombers, which possess global reach, can attack dozens of targets on a single sortie, and offer combatant commanders critical options. Yet the Air Force’s inventory includes only 20 B-2s, 45 B-1Bs, and 76 B-52Hs—one-third of the force that deterred the Soviet Union. Importantly, Air Force bomber retirements over the years were primarily the result of budget pressures, not declining operational demand.
The Air Force completed its purchase of 100 B-1 bombers in the late 1980s, largely on schedule and within cost estimates. This force remained above 90 total aircraft until 2002, then declined by about a third within several years. Yet operational demand for B-1s did not decline. Their multi-mission capability, global range, and large weapons payload capacity made them the workhorse of USAF’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in the 2000s and 2010s. However, years of flying these aircraft in nonstop operations broke the health of the fleet; some B-1s were so damaged they were no longer safe. The Air Force decided to retire 17 B-1s in fiscal 2021 to concentrate funding on sustaining the health of its remaining bombers. Today, the B-1 force consists of just 40 mission aircraft.
After accounting for noncombat-rated aircraft and mission capable rates, the actual number of available bombers on any given day is just 59. Operationally, this means only about 15 bombers could be engaging in one theater at any one time, assuming 15 bombers recovering, 15 enroute, and 14 regenerating for another sortie. USAF’s 20 B-2s—one was lost in a 2008 accident on Guam—are now the nation’s only combat aircraft that have the long range, payload capacity, survivability, and other attributes needed to strike deep into highly contested environments. B-52Hs and B-1Bs are limited to “stand-off” strikes from beyond the reach of advanced, long-range air defense systems, and are less effective than “stand-in” strikes conducted by stealth bombers that can penetrate contested areas, and hit hardened and deeply buried military facilities and highly mobile targets, like ballistic missile transporter-erector-launchers. Overall, the bomber inventory falls far short of the Air Force’s stated future requirement of 225 total bomber aircraft which is still less than required by the national defense strategy.
The Air Force’s E-3 Airborne Warning and Control Systems force suffered a similar decline. USAF’s fiscal 2023 budget proposes retiring 15 of its 31 E-3 AWACs aircraft, which are now approaching 50 years old. Since joining the force in the 1970s, E-3s have provided airborne battle management and command and control, a real-time picture of the battlespace, and information on enemy actions to joint and coalition forces. After so much continuous use and delays in recapitalizing them, many of these aircraft are now unreliable. Lt. Gen. Joseph T. Guastella, the Air Force’s most recent Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, told Congress this spring: “The aircraft is exhausted … it’s been deployed continuously—much of the Air Force’s fleet is in that condition. It’s not maintainable out there in the field, and it has significant capability gaps.” Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom added, “We struggle to keep roughly half that fleet airborne” because of “significant maintainability challenges.”
After years of delay, the Air Force is now buying new commercial derivative E-7 aircraft—called “Wedgetail” because of its large, top-mounted Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar—to replace its E-3s. But the first Wedgetail will not join the inventory until fiscal 2027, leaving an unavoidable gap for battle management and command and control aircraft. As with the Air Force’s other compromised aircraft inventories, this is the direct result of insufficient modernization investment. The ultimate cost of that delay is a significant shortfall in both military capability and capacity.
Learning from the Past
The DOD decisions to repeatedly curtail or cancel aircraft procurement and modernization after the Cold War all contributed to a 2022 Air Force that is out of balance with the present threat environment. For over 30 years the defense budget has driven the national defense strategy, not the other way around. This has forced the Air Force to adopt a “divest to invest” budget-driven approach. In other words, since the Air Force is consistently underfunded the only way it can obtain money to invest in modern systems is to retire current operational systems. This situation has eliminated any force structure hedge the Air Force once had, as did the “capability over capacity” mantra with which DOD justified its force cuts. Three decades of budget cuts yield clear lessons learned that must be applied to inform future investment decisions to reverse its spiral toward an even smaller, older, and less capable force:
Major USAF force cuts since the Cold War were driven by a lack of resources and a desire to reduce defense spending, not strategic priorities.
Savings from the USAF’s force cuts were not enough to significantly increase its capacity to fight a high-end war. Forces divested by the Air Force to generate savings were never fully replaced by new systems.
Claims that force structure reductions would help the Air Force modernize and equip a smaller, more flexible, capable, and lethal force proved incorrect. The current force is not more flexible and lacks the lethality needed for a conflict with China.
Force modernization delays enabled China to catch up and even surpass some of the Air Force’s technological advantages.
In the face of continued budget pressures, and over three decades of underfunding, the Air Force is being forced to “divest to invest” once again. This is not a war-winning approach, but rather one that increases the probability of losing the next major regional conflict.
Today’s Air Force Plans
Despite growing requirements, however, the Air Force plans to cut 252 more aging aircraft in fiscal 2023, while acquiring just 87 new aircraft, including 33 F-35s and 24 F-15EXs. Over the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), the Air Force has proposed retiring a total of 1,463 aircraft and buying only 467. This would be a net loss of 996 aircraft, or a force reduction of about 25 percent. These proposed cuts continue the post-Cold War divestment trend, which successfully created a smaller Air Force, while failing to deliver a “more capable” force.
Yet, force size is critical to prevailing in a conflict against China in the vast Indo-Pacific region. It is crucial to creating massed effects, like killing thousands of enemy targets in hundreds of hours or surveilling large areas of a highly contested battlespace. This can only be provided by air forces that are sized to sustain such operations and that have the right mix of long ranges, mission persistence, payload capacity, and survivability. Only air power can provide this response on day one of a conflict with the mass and precision needed to blunt and then halt an invasion before it can succeed. Defeating a Chinese or Russian fait accompli campaign, deterring a second lesser aggressor, deterring nuclear attacks, and defending the homeland are all National Defense Strategy requirements.
The 2022 Air Force lacks the flexibility, lethality, and enough next-generation capabilities to accomplish the National Defense Strategy requirements. Not only are its forces increasingly antique and fragile, but they also lack the reserves to absorb the kind of aircraft and aircrew losses that should be expected in a major peer conflict.
Both China and Russia recognize these shortfalls, potentially leading them to conclude they have a window of opportunity to launch fait accompli attacks that the United States cannot defeat. The nadir in the Air Force’s force capabilities and capacity will occur within the next six years, around the same time officials believe China could become capable and ready to assault Taiwan to force its reunification. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress in May 2022 that the threat to Taiwan is “acute between now and 2030.” A budget-driven force design strategy that continues to trade USAF force structure to fund future modernization ignores this reality and the Air Force’s pressing need for increased next-generation capabilities and capacity to counter the threats identified in the National Defense Strategy.
Air Force Budget Reality
Inadequate budgets and the lack of other resources have had an outsized role in under-sizing and misshaping the U.S. Air Force for over three decades. Understanding the magnitude of the shortfall requires an explanation of “pass-through funding,” an outdated DOD budget reporting practice that masks the true Air Force budget from Congress and the general public.
Each year, DOD submits its budget request to Congress as part of the President’s Budget. Pass-through funding in 2023 adds over $40 billion per year to the Air Force’s budget that really goes to other DOD agencies—the Air Force has no control or access to any of that money. $40 billion would be enough to buy 400 F-35As per year. This practice paints a false picture of the resources the Air Force can use to organize, train, and equip its forces. It also masks how resources are allocated across the services. Since 1991, $988 billion has passed through the Air Force budget to fund other DOD agencies.
The President’s fiscal year 2023 Budget Request appears to allocate $234.1 billion for the Department of the Air Force, $180.5 billion for the Navy, and $177.5 billion for the Army. In fact, however, $40.1 billion—17.1 percent—of the Air Force budget goes to other DOD agencies. Accounting for the $24.5 billion share that will fund the U.S. Space Force, that leaves $169.5 billion for the Air Force if allocated by Congress, putting it behind the Army, the Navy, and other DOD agencies.
Obscuring the Air Force’s real budget misleads and complicates the work of decision-makers in Congress, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Defense, and the White House. Achieving transparency is an imperative to correctly allocate limited resources and optimally prepare for a fight with China.
Solving the pass-through should not be complicated, as that funding line could easily be moved from the Air Force account to DOD’s “defensewide” budget category, which includes DOD’s agencies and other non-service organizations.
Excluding funding that passes through the Air Force reveals that Air Force budgets have been smaller than both the Army and Navy’s budgets for over the last 30 years in a row, and less than other DOD agencies from 2010 to 2019. It also shows the Air Force sustained the most significant budget cuts among the armed services over that period. The Air Force’s 2001 procurement budget was about half its 1989 spending, compared to reductions in the Army and Navy that were only about one-third. The Air Force also absorbed the largest cuts in percentage terms to its military personnel and research, development, test, and engineering (RDT&E) accounts.
Hollowing the Air Force to Fund the Army
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC., drove a dramatic shift in U.S. military spending, a shift that altered the balance of spending across the services. The Army’s annual budget grew nearly 250 percent from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2008, while the Air Force’s budget increased by a far more modest amount.
A significant part of additional funding the Air Force received during this period went to supporting the high operational tempo of its forces conducting strikes, providing persistent overwatch of the battlespace, and performing other counterterrorism-related missions in the Middle East—all paid for to the exclusion of modernizing its forces for high-end warfare. The Air Force’s O&M spending growth also consumed much of the additional funding it received, while RDT&E and procurement remained anemic. What small procurement funding increase it had, the Air Force invested in remotely piloted aircraft; increased capacity to process, exploit, and to disseminate intelligence to allied forces engaging terrorists; and recapitalize part of its airlift force—all important capabilities, but investments better suited for operations in permissive environments, not peer conflicts that are now DOD’s highest priority.
In the face of these facts, it is fair to say that the 10 years following September 2001 was a period of hollow growth. Today, the time wasted and risks created by imprudent defense acquisition decisions in the past cannot be quickly resolved in a future crisis. As U.S. Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring said on the eve of World War II, “We are not prepared for conflict. Billions appropriated today cannot be converted into preparedness tomorrow.”
From 2008 onward, the Air Force acquisition budget remained flat, and O&M costs continued to grow, fueled by sustained high operational tempo and the increased costs of maintaining an aging force. That trend continues. DOD’s request of $169.5 billion for the Air Force in FY23 is well below the Navy ($180.5 billion) and the Army ($177.5 billion) requests and is even below other DOD agencies ($170.8 billion). The Marine Corps’ $50.3 billion fiscal 2023 budget request, included in the Navy total, is more than double the Space Force’s $24.5 billion request. These disparities are even more stunning considering so many of Air Force and Space Force missions—like air superiority, aerial refueling, air mobility, airborne and space-based communications and ISR—support and benefit all joint force operations. No U.S. joint force operation can be conducted without involving some element of the Department of the Air Force. This cannot be said about any other military department.
Decades of Being the Least-Funded Service
On the surface, the Air Force appears to be funded at a level of parity with the Army and Navy. However, shifting pass-through funding out of the Air Force’s budget reveals it has lagged, not led, the Navy and Army’s budgets for over 30 years in a row, and all but one year since 1990. Insufficient budget resourcing forced the Air Force to make tradeoffs between force size, readiness, and modernization investments that eroded its ability to fight and win. In fact, between 2002 and 2021, the Army and Navy received about $1.3 trillion dollars and $914 billion dollars more, respectively, than the Air Force. In the Army’s case, that averages to about $66 billion more per year than the USAF. The cumulative effect of over 30 years of underfunding is what has resulted in today’s Air Force being the oldest, smallest, and least ready in its history.
This is also a reason that USAF acquisition of new aircraft has lagged the Navy’s aircraft buys for 16 of the past 21 years. This is true despite the fact that Navy aircraft are primarily deployed and controlled from a small number of carriers to defend Navy priorities, whereas Air Force aircraft provide more options and flexibility to meet the demands of joint force combatant commanders. The lag in Air Force procurement denies planners and combatant commanders of the critical air power capabilities they require.
The Air Force’s consistent small budget share relative to the Army and Navy is the leading reason for its modernization deficit and its inability to acquire next-generation technologies in the numbers needed to fight and win a major peer conflict. As the former Commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command Gen. John D. Corley explained, “If it’s always about ‘program next,’ you’ll never have a program at all.”
While budget trends that favored the Army were understandable given its predominant role during counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, those conflicts are over. To reverse the shrinking size, capability, and readiness of the Air Force renewed investment is essential—not just for the sake of the service itself, but for all U.S. forces that depend on the enabling capabilities air and space forces provide. Allocating even half the amount invested in the Army over those 20 years could fund the B-21 bomber program, recapitalize the Air Force’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile forces, increase acquisition of fifth-generation fighters, and develop new air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions suitable for high-end warfare in contested environments.
Grow the Air Force’s Budget
Solving the Air Force budget challenge will require 3 to 5 percent annual real budget growth on top of inflation for a decade or more. Without that, the gap between the modernized forces the Air Force can bring to the fight and the National Defense Strategy’s requirements will only grow. This risks incentivizing China, Russia, and other adversaries to pursue increasingly aggressive behavior. Stated more bluntly, if we do not recapitalize and modernize the Air Force, we risk losing a future war.
Redistributing resources among the armed services—while painful—is not a new practice. Most recently it was done between 2001 and 2021 when funding for the Army was increased by shifting budget share from the other services to compensate for the increased demand for land forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is now time to apply that same logic to rebuild the Air Force to ensure that the entire DOD has the options it will require to deter, and if necessary, win in a fight against peer threats.
Accordingly, Congress and DOD should take the following actions:
Remove pass-through funding from the Air Force’s budget and shift the overall amount to a budget line in the existing “defense-wide” budget category to ensure transparency in how DOD allocates resources among the services.
Develop a force-sizing construct for the Air Force that ensures the service’s size is determined by the National Defense Strategy, not arbitrarily set budgets or available funding.
Resolve the imbalance in DOD budget allocation to reverse the declining age, size, and readiness of the Air Force in order to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy.
Increase the Air Force’s budget by 3 to 5 percent annually, above inflation, to fund modernization and provide the force capacity it needs to win.
Reduce risk in the near-term and mid-term by increasing the Air Force’s acquisition of next-generation capabilities including F-35As, B-21s, and advanced precision-guided munitions designed to strike in contested operational environments.
The current Air Force Chief of Staff coined the motto of, “accelerate change or lose.” The current Secretary of the Air Force has defined his top three priorities as “China, China, China.” Without a shift in DOD resources to the Department of the Air Force soon, what the DOD risks accelerating is not “change,” but its potential of losing to China. It’s time to change that slogan to, “Increase the Department of the Air Force budget share or lose.”