Auslin: Will Congress Shoot Down the U.S. Air Force?

Posted July 18, 2012 at 3:26pm

Last week, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings to determine whether it will reject the Air Force’s plan to slash planes, bases and programs. Instead, the hearings will likely result in authorizations for funding being restored.

The catch? Congress can fund only for the coming fiscal year. After 2013, this will leave the Air Force without the funds to operate the programs it wanted to cancel in the first place.

It will also make it nearly impossible to have a coherent budgeting plan. The result, according to senior Air Force officials, will result in a hollow force of rusting planes or a force that no longer modernizes. All this will happen while the president’s new defense plans make the Air Force the key to America’s security policy around the globe.

The immediate reason for this blow-up is Congress’ unhappiness with the Air Force’s decision on what to cut. The Air Force’s fiscal 2013 budget pared $8.7 billion, in part by retiring more than 200 aircraft next year and cutting thousands of airmen and civilian employees. Yet it also proposes to reduce both manpower and planes of the Air National Guard, in order to balance a total force that can maintain high operational rates while fitting itself into President Barack Obama’s Defense Strategic Guidance that was issued in January.

It is the cuts in Air National Guard assets that has riled up Congress in particular. State delegations have pummeled Air Force officials, seeking to protect Guard bases in their districts. The Council of Governors has come up with its own proposal to protect Guard numbers.

Particularly contentious are planned cuts to remotely piloted surveillance drones, Guard units operating C-27J cargo planes (the entire fleet of which is to be eliminated), KC-135 tankers and A-10 and F-16 combat aircraft.

There is a strong possibility that the Hill will “reset” the Air Force’s budget for fiscal 2013, giving it back all its cuts. While that may seem like a good outcome for the Air Force, in reality the rest of the half-decade-long Future Years Defense Program will be underfunded, given the still-standing mandate to slash the Pentagon budget by $259 billion through 2017. Congressional staffers I talked with confirm the likelihood of permanently reduced funding.

This will result in one of two outcomes, according to senior Air Force officials. Either the Air Force drops needed programs, such as next-generation GPS or airplane modernization, to fit its reduced budget from 2013 on, or it relives the 1970s, hollowing out the force by parking planes, cannibalizing parts to keep a smaller percentage of its planes in the air, slashing flying hours for pilots and further cutting the civilian workforce.

All this would happen while the Pentagon continues to call on the Air Force to undertake the daily operations crucial to making sure the joint force can fight, from providing continuous intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data to developing cybersecurity protocols and maintaining two-thirds of the country’s nuclear deterrent.

Thus, even as he pushes the Air Force to its operational limits, Obama’s defense cuts have led to infighting among the force’s components and to the standoff with Congress. Even more importantly, the president’s own defense plans will make the Air Force the lead service on many military missions in the future.

Reflecting both the public mood and Congressional aversion, the White House has made clear that it will not undertake large-scale land deployments. Yet America’s military commitments are not shrinking, and new demands for American action will emerge unexpectedly, as Libya proved.

The weapon of choice to shape the international arena, in a cost-effective way that saves American lives, will likely be the Air Force. Intervening in Syria will require controlling the skies, and Syria’s Russian-supplied air defenses are among the world’s most advanced. Any campaign to stop Iran’s nuclear program will be conducted from the air, and only the Air Force has the heavy bombs necessary to reach underground laboratories and weapons plants.

Credibility throughout Asia is dependent on our ability to transit vast distances almost instantly, and any attack on North Korea would begin with a combined air campaign from the land and sea.

Yet if Congress gets its way, the balanced, total Air Force that would carry out these missions may never get off the ground. That will leave a future president without the most appropriate weapon at his disposal. It may mean the end of America’s ability to operate effectively in many places around the globe at little risk. There is a strong case to make for increasing the Air Force’s budget to meet future demands. At the very least, Congress needs to let the Air Force and Pentagon carry out their original plans for ensuring America retains the power to control any battlefield.

Michael Auslin is a scholar in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Correction: 2:49 p.m.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the House Armed Services Committee hearings would be this week. They were held last week.