The U.S. Air Force is the most powerful, most capable air arm in the world. It has superb people, excellent equipment (plus some that is out of date and in need of replacement), and a good strategy that has been underscored by America’s leaders all the way up to the White House.
But like the nation it serves, the Air Force is being tested by the times.
Never before has today’s mix of challenges arisen. Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz must cope with the most uncertain budget climate in memory, with aging infrastructure and aircraft and with a force that is exhausted from constant deployments and too little dwell time.
Until the nation’s elected leaders act, Donley and Schwartz won’t be able to accomplish much on their own with big challenges that are above their pay grade. Military health care consumes $50 billion per year while military members pay premiums that are one-tenth of those of civilian federal employees. Costs are increasing relentlessly in other personnel areas, especially military retirement. The United States has far too many bases in too many places with too much infrastructure to support. And, of course, there are the budget pressures posed by ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
Ironically, one traditional problem isn’t on the Donley and Schwartz agenda, thanks to the economic crisis that’s responsible for the others. The Air Force doesn’t have a problem retaining skilled personnel in critical career fields. In fact, it’s the other way around. Too many people want to re-enlist. Operating on a model that calls for 65 percent retention, the Air Force is getting 78 percent. The high proportion of airmen who want to stay in uniform is making it difficult for the service to get down to its congressionally mandated end-strength of 332,800 people during fiscal year 2012 – even though this statutory ceiling represents an increase of about 14,000 from two years ago. The service has done a small amount of force shaping – its term for a reduction in force, or RIF – and in the short-term future more is inevitable.
Always, the nation’s deficits and debts loom over decisions about American air power. When President Barack Obama on Jan. 5, 2012, spoke from a podium in the Pentagon Building in Virginia – something no one in Washington can remember any president ever doing before – he announced changes in U.S. military strategy that are driven by fiscal issues, even though the administration insists the changes would be necessary even without budget pressures. Analyst Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information promptly declared the Air Force a “winner” (along with the Navy) and the Army a “loser” (along with the Marine Corps) in the strategy shift.
Donley and Schwartz said it isn’t that simple, and the Air Force will always be a teammate and partner with the other U.S. military service branches.
There is no doubt, however, about the meaning to the Air Force of the administration’s shift away from counterinsurgency and toward a greater presence in Asia and the Pacific. A year ago, with “boots on the ground” more prominent in U.S. policy, Schwartz was often perceived as pleading for a place at the table when he talked about being “a partner [with other service branches] in the joint fight.” Today, the Air Force has a more prominent role.
Once personnel and administrative costs are set aside, the place where Air Force leaders must make smart decisions is with equipment, meaning primarily aircraft. More than ever, to be smart, Air Force leaders know they must establish and stick to sharply defined priorities. That won’t be easy, because they must make tough choices about everything from a new bomber to a replacement for the T-38C Talon jet trainer.