May 15, 2018

For decades, a US Air Force seeking to survive an austere budget environment and a generation’s worth of wartime demand has bled down capacity and struggled to retain core capability. Aircraft designed for combat against highly capable, near-peer adversaries have been continuously engaged in low-intensity conflicts. Unable to adequately train to their primary missions, aircrews have lost key facets of their highly perishable skills. Their aircraft meanwhile have been used at higher rates than intended and designed, prematurely shortening service lives. Alternate solutions to help alleviate this situation were deemed unaffordable.

Equally alarming is the growing shortage of fighter pilots. As experienced pilots retire and younger pilots are lured by the airlines, the fighter force has become too small and too busy to groom enough replacements. The Air Force is now at a point where this equation must change if the service is to meet the national security requirements levied upon it—from countering low-intensity threats to maintaining an edge against rising near-peer adversaries. Failing to add sustainable capacity and capability will see crucial policy options fall off the table—with traditional backup solutions costing far more in dollars and risk.

Meanwhile, over the last three decades, potential adversaries have increased their military capabilities with the intent to exert influence over regions vital to US national interests. Enemies and potential adversaries understand the challenges facing the Department of Defense (DOD), and are opportunistically accelerating their actions with full knowledge that America lacks the capacity to respond. A solution to this challenge lies—in large part—with the acquisition of light combat aircraft, which would enable the US to address lower threat environments and free high-end assets to focus on complex, capable threats. However, such a solution will require upfront investment to protect existing priorities, as the Air Force budget is stretched too thin to accommodate both new aircraft and investment in essential highend modernization efforts.