American armed forces consistently perform so well that their effectiveness is taken for granted. Complaints about military spending cuts during the Obama years are such a cliche that they have been yawned at by our political leaders and completely ignored by the media.
But those years have taken us from cliche to crisis. Three factors have combined to create an emergency in airpower. First is the wear and tear imposed by nearly 16 years of combat. Second are with the massive, reckless cuts in defense spending imposed by President Obama which, under the Budget Control Act of 2011, are scheduled to continue for at least four years. Third is the near-criminal neglect of our forces by Mr. Obama’s generals and admirals. As a result, so many of our combat aircraft are incapable of flying combat missions that the president is deprived of options that may be critical to any war, large or small.
Air power — the ability to clear the skies of enemy aircraft and destroy the enemy’s ground forces — has been a critical element of warfare for nearly a century. Offensively and defensively, air power is the sine qua non of military action.
Constant pilot training and American technological advantages have meant that every generation of American fighter pilots since World War II has inherited air supremacy — domination of the skies — as a birthright. That is no longer the case.
In February, the Navy confirmed that 74 percent of the Marines’ F/A-18s — 208 of 280 aircraft — are incapable of flying combat missions.
Navy aircraft aren’t in much better shape. Sixty-two percent of the Navy’s F/A-18s are unfit for combat. About six of the Navy’s 37 attack squadrons have insufficient aircraft ready for combat.
On April 2, the Air Force Times reported that the Air Force has about 30 percent of its aircraft that are unready for combat. According to that report, the Air Force has only about 5,430 aircraft, which means more than 1,600 are not combat-ready.
Lt. Gen. David Deptula, retired from the U.S. Air Force, is a real warrior. I asked him what the readiness condition means. He said, “It means the USAF would be hard pressed to bring the air forces to bear necessary to win in any major regional war. The more relevant statistic is that today the USAF has almost 60 percent fewer combat-coded fighter squadrons than we did when we fought Desert Storm — 134 in 1991, 55 today.”
Gen. Deptula pointed me to the Air Force’s May 2016 “Air Superiority Flight Plan.” He said it boils down to the fact that “The Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against the array of potential adversary capabilities.”
This all adds up to a big deficit in combat readiness shared by the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines.
Last week the Washington Examiner reported that 100 Navy instructor pilots were refusing to fly because Navy leaders have failed to repair the unsafe oxygen systems in trainer aircraft. A subsequent report said that the T-45 trainer aircraft had been grounded indefinitely until the pilot oxygen system can be fixed. When was the last time that military pilots had to effectively go on strike to get a problem fixed?
The lack of funding that caused the airpower crunch evidences itself daily. For lack of funds, aircraft aren’t being repaired quickly enough. For the same reason pilots — already too few in number — can’t get enough flying hours to remain proficient.
The effects of our air forces’ lack of combat readiness aren’t readily measurable because, thank heaven, we’re not in a big fight. If we were, we couldn’t sustain a long regional war and we’d be hard-pressed to defend ourselves in any multi-front conflict.
On April 5, in a House Committee on Armed Services hearing, all four service chiefs of staff testified in uncharacteristically harsh terms that put Congress on notice — yet again — that an immediate increase in defense spending, sooner than President Trump’s request for an additional $54 billion in 2018, is necessary to repair the readiness gap.
In that hearing, Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said of the continued spending cuts: “You are forcing us to run a mile-race, and then giving the competition a one-lap head start. That is what you are buying into as Congress, if you accept this as the ‘new normal.’ “
The president should view this as an “all hands on deck” emergency. Mr. Trump should call in the military leaders — the Obama-era generals who have let our forces decay to their current perilous state — and read them the riot act. Those who supported the decay in readiness by action or inaction should be fired.
The president should send to Congress a request for an immediate supplemental appropriation to return our forces to readiness. It will take at least two years — the time it takes for manufacturers to supply repair parts and build new aircraft — to fix the problem. It will take even longer to make up for the shortage of pilots in both the Air Force and the Navy.
There is no excuse for the military or Congress to let our Air Force and Navy airpower to continue to fail the readiness test. Our forces need the ability to fight anywhere, anytime. Right now, they can’t.
• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”