Air Force woes -- Part 1

By WINSLOW WHEELER, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   July 25, 2008 at 4:00 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, July 25 (UPI) -- Since early 2001 the U.S. Air Force has received more than $200 billion above and beyond what was then planned for it in the medium-term future. This $200 billion "plus-up" does not include any of the approximate $80 billion that the Air Force has received to support its operations in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Has this extra money been put to good use? Is today's U.S. Air Force any larger? Is its equipment inventory more modern? Is it more ready to fight?

In early 2001 the Pentagon anticipated an approximate budget of $850 billion for the U.S. Air Force for the period from 2001 to 2009. Not counting $80 billion-plus subsequently received for the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force's "base" -- non-war -- budget was increased by more than $200 billion to $1.06 trillion.

Did this additional $200 billion reverse three central, negative trends that have beset the U.S. Air Force for decades? Did the extra $200 billion stem the tide of a shrinking and aging tactical aircraft inventory, and a force becoming less ready to fight?

These negative trends have been thoroughly documented. A comprehensive documentation of them is available in the various analyses of Franklin C. "Chuck" Spinney; the most recent of those, based on data up to the late 1990s, is available in a 75-page briefing, "Defense Death Spiral," available at http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/defense_death_spiral/contents.htm.

Consistent data on USAF budgets for the entire post-World War II period are readily available to the public, but data on the size of the U.S. Air Force in terms of aircraft are not.

In lieu of a year-by-year count of actual tactical aircraft for this period, the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., has published an analysis of "wing equivalents" of the USAF's force structure since the late 1930s. Although this analysis does not track the shrinkage and growth of the U.S. Air Force combat aircraft inventory with the best measure -- actual aircraft -- and may over-count the forces available in more recent times compared with the past, it is used here as the only USAF data available to the public from 1947 to the present day.

The tactical -- "wing equivalent" -- inventory of the U.S. Air Force is as small today as at any point in the post-World War II period. From a 1957 high of 61 "wing equivalents," it persistently hovers in the 21st century at 16 to 18. Clearly, the trend has been for the force to shrink -- significantly -- over time, despite some ups and downs -- mostly downs -- since 1946.

The budget, however, shows a very different story. There have also been budget ups and downs, but the overall trend is for the budget to remain constant in inflation-adjusted dollars, and today the amount of spending for the U.S. Air Force is above the overall trend line. Thus, at a level of spending today higher than the historic norm, we have a U.S. Air Force tactical inventory that is as small as it has ever been since World War II.

Despite the "base," non-war, U.S. Air Force budget receiving over $200 billion more than was planned in 2001, nothing has happened to reverse the historically shrinking condition of the Air Force's tactical aircraft inventory. Moreover, existing U.S. Air Force plans for the foreseeable future anticipate the inventory to remain at its current reduced state -- assuming the U.S. Air Force's plan is executed with no further cost overruns or production reductions -- which is very unlikely.

No recovery from force shrinkage is planned or likely to occur under the U.S. Air Force's current leadership and way of thinking.

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(In Part 2: President Bush fails to reverse the downward trend.)

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(Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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