Air superiority involves protecting friendly forces from aerial attack, while concurrently empowering offensive power projection by suppressing enemy defenses. The former is key to not losing a war. The latter is what brings victory. Joint combat power is not viable without control of the sky. Investment in a capable, sufficiently sized fighter enterprise is the down payment required for successful joint force operations.
Given this stark reality, it is crucial that Congress block the Air Force’s budget-driven request to retire 32 of its F-22s, while also providing the resources necessary for tomorrow’s air superiority mission.
The Air Force’s fighter inventory stands at less than half of what it was in 1990. Does anyone think the world is any safer today? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Chinese aggression in the Pacific, combined with Iran’s and North Korea’s aggressive nuclear ambitions, suggest otherwise.
These aircraft average nearly three decades in age. They were flown hard in nonstop combat deployments that began with 1991′s Operation Desert Storm and have never stopped. That has exacted an extreme toll on their physical condition. Old, small and worn is a recipe for disaster when facing a burgeoning set of global security demands — but that is an accurate description of today’s Air Force.
Focusing on Air Force fighters is important; while the Navy and Marine Corps have fighters, they largely exist to support organic functions like carrier battle group defense and Marine Air-Ground Task Force support. Even if these objectives are met, these fighter inventories are too small to meet large-scale combatant command requirements.
The same holds true for allied air forces; U.S. Air Force fighters stand alone in the ability to directly meet combatant command demands as job No. 1 in large volume.
Air Force leaders have long known these realities, and that is why they made plans in the 1980s and 1990s to replace F-15s, F-16s and A-10s with a new generation of fighters in the form of the F-22 and F-35. However, post-Cold War cuts, compounded by a subsequent focus on combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, saw these plans go by the wayside.
The requirement for 781 F-22s was cut numerous times, with 187 aircraft ultimately procured before production was canceled in 2009, representing less than half the stated military requirement. F-35s were supposed to be acquired in high volume — with Defense Secretary Robert Gates committing to the Air Force procuring 80 F-35s per year from 2015 through the 2020s, with the final Air Force F-35As procured in 2034.
That did not happen — with every annual request far below that figure. That is why the current fighter force is in a freefall, with aircraft retiring without new backfills (note the F-15s withdrawn from Kadena Air Force Base last year without a direct replacement).
Bottom line: The nation has assumed tremendous risk in its fighter modernization portfolio; the legacy fighter backstop is out of life while demand is surging.
That is why Congress must stop further erosion in the Air Force’s fighter inventory and block the request to retire 32 F-22s. Service leaders are arguing that the F-22s in question are early production examples that do not meet combat deployment standards. This is partially true, but even these versions can defeat any fourth-generation enemy fighter.
Regardless, even in their present form they are sufficient to meet training requirements. That is a crucial contribution, for absent that capacity, the more modern versions would have to pick up the training load, effectively decreasing the size of F-22 combat force. Not only would this increase fatigue, but it would reduce F-22 availability to combatant commands where they are in high demand; that is more than a squadron’s worth of the world’s most advanced air superiority aircraft. That is taking excessive risk given combatant commands’ demands far outstrip supply.
These circumstances reveal the Air Force’s precarious fiscal position. Service leaders openly acknowledge the issue is money. They are forced to cut the F-22 program due to insufficient funding to invest in both F-22 sustainment and the Next Generation Air Dominance effort — the eventual F-22 replacement. While there is no question that NGAD is crucial, the most optimistic forecasts suggest it will not be fielded until 2030. That is an aggressive target, and reality suggests it will slip.
Hope should not be confused for a viable set of combat capabilities in adequate numbers. The real answer demands resourcing the Air Force to retain and adequately fund its full F-22 inventory, while also providing adequate resources for NGAD.
Build rates for types in production, like the F-35, should also be boosted to fund current capacity gaps. Given that the Air Force has received less money than the Army and Navy for the past 31 years in a row, it is no wonder why its resources are strained. It is older and smaller than it’s ever been in its history.
This Air Force fighter resourcing decision portends massive implications for joint force operations. That this problem exists in the context of the war in Ukraine — a conflict where the inability to secure air superiority highlights the criticality of this mission in the starkest possible terms — makes it even more concerning.
Congress needs to do the right thing: Fund the Air Force sufficiently so it can secure air superiority today and tomorrow. If leaders think this expense is too great to bear, they need to consider the alternative. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley recently testified, “the only thing more expensive than fighting a war is losing a war.”
Douglas A. Birkey is the executive director for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.