December 05, 2019

Paying for the Air Force We Need

By Mark Gunzinger and Carl Rehberg

In the years following the Cold War, and again following the 2007 troop surge to Iraq, the Air Force and its modernization accounts were dramatically cut. Now, after decades of hard use and too little investment, mission demands far outpace available capacity.

In September 2018, then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson made this precise point when she unveiled “The Air Force We Need,” the initial results of a congressionally mandated study of the aircraft inventory needed to support the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). That study concluded the Air Force needed to grow in order to align with DOD’s strategic shift toward long-term great power competition. Two additional studies mandated by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act supported its conclusions.

Three major budget trends combined to bring the Air Force to this point:

  • Compared to the Army and Navy, the Air Force absorbed the largest cuts to annual budgets in the 12 years between the end of the Cold War and the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
  • Obama administration defense reductions and the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) created another hole in the service’s budget that it filled by further cutting its force structure, modernization programs, and end strength. While subsequent congressional agreements provided some relief from the 2011 BCA’s budget caps, available funds were still far lower than what was required for maintaining a healthy force.
  • Finally, plus-ups to the Air Force’s budget over the last few years, while significant, have not approached levels needed to compensate for the quarter-century-long, post-Cold War defense modernization holiday.