The Air Force Needs A Budget That Aims Higher
A return to sequester-level funding would inhibit our ability to fly, fight and win America’s wars.
By Heather Wilson and David Goldfein
Sept. 11, 2017 7:07 p.m. ET
We recently stood on the tarmac at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and watched as the brothers-in-arms of a young Green Beret carried a flag-draped transfer case containing his remains toward the aircraft that would bring him home. He was killed fighting Islamic State.
We visited Afghanistan and Iraq to meet with airmen and assess Air Force operations. We met B-52 crews in Qatar who had launched 573 sorties without once being canceled for maintenance, as well as Air Force surgical teams deployed in a bombed-out bunker to provide trauma care for Iraqi soldiers. We heard stories from heavy-construction crews keeping wells operating and runways open in 120-degree heat. We watched as combat air controllers choreographed layers of air support over Tal Afar, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria.
Americans should be proud of U.S. airmen and their brethren in all of the services. They are competent citizens of character. But lingering in our minds at every stop was a question: Will these men and women get the support they need to remain ready when called?
The American military has surged to the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, but surges aren’t sustainable. The Air Force as currently constituted is too small to do what the nation expects of it. In 1991, when the U.S. went to war to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, the Air Force had 134 fighter squadrons, which typically have 18 to 24 aircraft each. Today, the Air Force has only 55 fighter squadrons, and 1,500 fewer pilots than it needs. We have been doing too much, with too little, for too long.
On an average sortie protecting ground forces in Syria and Iraq, an American fighter aircraft refuels eight times. It takes about 60 tanker sorties a day to support U.S. operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. As a result, tanker pilots today have six months in a combat theater and six months at home. And when they are home, they are not really home. They have to cram in the training they were not able to accomplish while “in the desert.”
U.S.-based remotely piloted aircraft crews work 12-hour shifts—six days on with one day off. And the cycle doesn’t end. Despite their dedication and that of their families, going six, seven or eight years at this rate leaves people exhausted. They become increasingly likely to try a different career that will afford them a more normal life. As a result, we lose the skilled people we need to continue the fight.
The readiness of those who stay is also compromised by an operating tempo too high for a force of our size. Those B-52 crews that have done 573 straight missions against ISIS will return home soon. Ten days after arriving at home base, they will undergo inspection to make sure they are ready for their mission carrying nuclear weapons, for which they will not have practiced in at least four months.
In addition to the risk posed by the enemy, the lack of a defense budget puts U.S. forces at risk. The Air Force has requested $132.4 billion for fiscal 2018. We cannot continue on last year’s funding level of $123.8 billion indefinitely.
Much worse would be a return to sequester. A budget this year at sequester levels—while we take the fight to ISIS, deter aggression in the Pacific, and support emergency responders at home—would almost certainly result in significant cuts in flying hours. Squadrons deployed or preparing to deploy would get to fly, but we would likely be forced to ground entire squadrons at home. During sequestration in 2013, the Air Force grounded 13 squadrons of combat aircraft, rendering them ineffective. No training and no flying today would worsen the exodus of pilots and other skilled airmen. Airlines are eager to hire them.
The effects of a sequester-level budget on weapons purchases and munitions would also reduce readiness and lethality. We worry most about the effect on our airmen. Their skills are vital to our success, and, once gone, they cannot be quickly replaced.
On the ramp at Bagram, hundreds of airmen saluted a fallen soldier. They are the best our nation has and are committed to its defense. The nation must commit to them. With a reasonable budget, they can continue to take the fight to our adversaries.
Ms. Wilson is secretary of the Air Force. Gen. Goldfein is Air Force chief of staff.
Appeared in the September 12, 2017, print edition.