Is U.S. Air Force superiority under threat?

Story highlights

  • Secretary Deborah James said "enough is enough" when it comes to downsizing Air Force
  • $10 billion will need to be cut from the Air Force's portion of the President's proposed budget
  • Rep. Tom Cole called the President's base budget "a fantasy"
  • Air Force officials argue the force is currently older and smaller than it has ever been

Atlanta (CNN)As U.S. Air Force fighter jets and bombers carry out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Air Force officials are waging a campaign of their own on Capitol Hill.

The target: Sequestration cuts expected to take effect in 2016 that, officials say, will threaten U.S. air superiority.
    Air Force Secretary Deborah James told lawmakers last month that "enough is enough" when it comes to downsizing the Air Force, defending President Obama's $534 billion Pentagon base budget request to the defense appropriations subcommittee.
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    "Given the state of the world ... the No. 1 thing we have to stop is this downsizing," James said.
    Despite the concerns of defense officials, lawmakers insisted that $10 billion will need to be cut from the Air Force's portion of the President's proposed budget, which, in total, exceeds spending caps by nearly $35 billion.
    Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, called the President's base budget "a fantasy" but expressed a desire to find a bipartisan compromise to provide some relief from spending caps instituted in 2013 after budget disagreements between President Obama and Congress.
    Until a compromise is reached, Cole said the committee will have to make "a lot of tough decisions" related to cutting billions from the Air Force's spending request.
    But will cuts actually threaten the United States' standing as the most modern and capable air fleet on the planet?
    Despite writing the blueprint on how to build the world's greatest air force, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force's chief of staff, says the United States will not be able to maintain the Air Force's strategic gains once next year's sequestration cuts take effect.
    He says other nations are now using the U.S. model to build their own air fleets, a trend that could degrade the strategic advantage U.S. air superiority provides to the military.
    However, some experts say that downsizing the Air Force and even cutting its budget won't necessarily threaten U.S. air dominance.
    Jerry Hendrix, the director of the defense strategies and assessments program at the Center for a New American Security and a former Navy captain, says the United States is still comfortably ahead of every other nation in terms of overall air capabilities.
    Despite the fact that the U.S. Air Force has a quarter of the number of fighter squadrons it did 25 years ago, it is still larger than the air forces of the next seven countries combined, said Hendrix. It is also the only nation with an operational fifth-generation fighter jet.
    Air Force officials argue that the force is currently older and smaller than it has ever been and that further budget cuts would hinder its ability to modernize and maintain effective command structure.
    "The option of not modernizing isn't really an option at all," Welsh said. "Air forces that fall behind the technology curve and joint forces without the full breadth of air, space and cyber power ... will lose."
    The irony lies in that the Air Force's emphasis on investing in a fleet solely made up of high-end aircraft may be one of the key factors drawing down the size of the force, says Hendrix.
    He agrees that more spending should be shifted toward air and maritime power due to their increasing roles in U.S. military strategy but says mistakes were made in terms of how the Air Force has balanced its commitment to maintaining the size of the fleet with its desire to modernize.
    "Air Force leadership has failed to balance the idea that quantity has a quality of its own," he said, adding that the Air Force should still pursue high-end aircraft but should supplement the fleet with older, cheaper aircraft models, like the F-16, for low-end operations instead of immediately phasing them out when a new generation is introduced.
    In order for the Air Force to maintain air superiority, Hendrix says, officials and lawmakers need to start having a real conversation about the best way to mitigate downsizing that also promotes modernization. Then they need to work out a budget and find a way to work within it.