Vernuccio’s View: US Air Force in Crisis


Frank V. Vernuccio, Jr., J.D.


It’s the crisis that almost everyone prefers not to discuss: the rapid deterioration of the U.S. armed forces, at the same time that adversaries Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are rapidly building up and modernizing their militaries.  Those nations are not only expanding their capabilities; they are not shy about using their newly produced muscle.

Each of the military branches has their own harsh problems to relate. On March 8, the Air Force presented testimony  to the U.S. Senate Armed Service Committee’s subcommittee on Airland Forces.   Testifying for the USAF: Ms. Darlene J. Costello Performing the Duties of the Principal Deputy Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition & Logistics) Lt. Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes, USAF Deputy Chief of Staff (Strategic Plans and Requirements) Lt. Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, USAF Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations) and Lt. Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, Jr. USAF Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary Of the Air Force (Acquisition.)

These are the crucial points Air Force personnel provided, in their own words:

  1. For the first time in decades, our adversaries are closing in on our capability advantage. Our efforts to address these increasing challenges have been stymied by reduced and unpredictable appropriations.
  1. Even at these funding levels, we continue to face difficult choices between capacity, readiness and modernization. We need …support in the form of stable and predictable appropriations if we are going to build the Air Force that ensures the joint force can continue to deter, deny and decisively defeat any enemy that threatens the United States or our national interests. Any return to sequestration-level funding will force us to chase short term requirements at the expense of long term strategic planning, modernization and readiness.
  1. The Air Force’s fighter fleet is approaching 30 years old on average—the oldest in our history. Without recapitalization and selective capability upgrades, it will not be possible to mitigate the growing risk.
  1. The Air Force is currently 511 fighter pilots short of the total manning requirement and our projections indicate this deficit will continue to grow to approximately 834 by 2022. The shortfall is the result of force structure reductions of active duty fighter and fighter training squadrons. The remaining active component fighter squadrons do not produce enough experienced fighter pilots to meet all of the staff, test, and training requirement
  1. the Air Force is only able to slow the decline in fighter pilot inventory and will be incapable of meeting our overall requirement for fighter pilot expertise for the foreseeable future. Without these fighter pilots, the Air Force will be very challenged to continue to provide the air supremacy upon which all our other forces depend.
  1. While our potential adversaries continue to modernize, our legacy fourth generation aircraft are rapidly approaching the end of their effective service lives and are limited in their ability to operate in a highly contested environment. Our Air Force must rapidly re-capitalize our fourth generation aircraft. At the same time, we must sustain and modernize our fifth generation fleet in order to maintain our ability to execute our National Defense Strategy in the near to mid-term while looking even further into the future at further modernization efforts that ensure continued dominance in the air.
  1.  Due to current operations, the shortfall in Joint Direct Attack Munitions tail kits will continue to increase. The root causes of the problem include extremely high expenditure rates—higher than previous contingencies—and a starting inventory below the desired objective. Additionally, historically low procurements over the past decade…driven by restricted budgets, led to diminished industrial capacity.
  1. Air-to-Air missile inventories in their latest variants are also short of objectives. The AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the AIM-9X Block II are in limited supply, placing reliance on less capable variants to meet combat objectives.
  1. We view our national security as inextricably dependent on space-enabled capabilities. At the same time, space has become contested, congested and competitive; our space capabilities today are facing advanced, demonstrated, and evolving threats, which require fundamental 17 changes in the way we organize, train, and equip our forces. Congestion has increased the complexity of maintaining space situational awareness. There are over 60 active space-faring nations, nine of which have indigenous space launch capability. Almost any nation or state actor can access space services globally and globalization has made the latest technology available to our competitors and adversaries.

Prior to the testimony, the Heritage Foundation analyzed the Air Force’s condition, and noted that “The USAF is now the oldest and smallest in its history, and the problem is growing as the demand for air power continues to grow…The Air Force’s capacity in terms of number of aircraft has been in a constant downward slope…”

Robert Gehl, writing for   reported that  “The United States Air Force now has one-quarter of the number of fighter squadrons it had 25 years ago and only two-thirds of active-duty airmen…”


Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy & Government

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