If you attended the Space Coast International Air Show in Florida last weekend, you were treated to formation flybys with two American fighter icons – the P-51 Mustang and the F-22 Raptor. But if you reflected on the fact that there are a comparable number of flyable seven-plus decade-old Mustangs to active Raptors, your enjoyment might have dimmed.
The Raptor is a visible symbol of the declining assets and capability of the U.S. military in general and of the Pentagon’s desire to shrink them further to pay for promised – but not guaranteed – advanced future weapons systems.
The P-51 pictured here is the Cavanaugh Flight Museum’s The Brat III, one of about 150 Mustangs currently airworthy. On its right wing is an F-22, one of 185 in the Air Force fleet. The Raptor in the photo was flown at the airshow by Major Joshua “Cabo” Gunderson, commander of the Air Force’s F-22 Demonstration Team.
Major Gunderson is based with the F-22-equipped 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. Last week, he and another Raptor demo pilot hopped a commercial flight from Virginia down to Eglin AFB, Florida to pick up a pair of F-22s to fly at the show.
The Air Force tries to be “as prudent as possible” deploying jets for the Demo Team Maj. Gunderson says. Situated in Florda’s panhandle, Eglin is a lot closer than Langley, about 360 miles from the Space Coast show in Titusville – less than an hour’s flight away in the Raptor.
It’s also home to 33 F-22s the Air Force says it wants to retire in fiscal 2023, pruning the number of Raptors to 152 – not all of which would be flyable. The “fly-from-nearby” policy might be prudent but it’s also a reflection of the few jets available. I asked Major Gunderson if he ever thought about the number of flyable Mustangs versus his own airplane when closed up on one in the Heritage Flight formation?
“Yeah, the Mustang is a great airplane… but you could take an F-16 for example. There are more F-16s, there are more F-35s, there are more other airplanes out there flying but would I take one over an F-22? Absolutely not. It wasn’t a function of us asking for less F-22s because we obviously want more F-22s.”
But the Air Force doesn’t have more F-22s and its broader aircraft fleet (and people) is shrinking across the board. The same holds for Navy ships and aircraft, Army weapons systems and personnel. A quick look at the proposed FY23 defense budget topline is all one needs to see that readiness and capability are set to continue to wither away.
They may already have deteriorated too far to claim that America has a “strong military”.
The Procurement Holiday
Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute recently detailed glaring gaps in the Biden administration’s fiscal 2023 defense budget request in several defense publications.
She points out that Administration’s requested $119.4 billion in readiness funding compares unfavorably to its anemic fiscal 2022 request of $109 billion. The 9.84% nominal increase is a decrease in real terms. “To simply match 2019 (pre-pandemic) purchasing power under the 2.2% inflationary estimates that the Pentagon and White House are using to tout a ‘record’ budget, the military would need to invest $133.84 billion,” Eaglen maintains.
She concludes that this would still be a flat budget under today’s inflation (a figure well above the government’s estimates). The Army, Navy and Air Force are confronting a $26 billion gap between what the budget request provides them once adjusted for inflation and the levels of funding they would need to maintain buying power at 2019 levels.
Biden’s budget request rests aside a national force that has been underfunded since the sequestration days of 2013 and in fact, well before that. “I can sum it up in a sad, long sentence,” Eaglen says.
“The ‘peace dividend’ of the 1990s provided cover for a very real procurement holiday from which the U.S. military has never fully recovered.” The holiday was followed by a hollow build-up for the wars in Iraq/Afghanistan then by the Budget Control Act era which lasted for about a decade she says.
“Today we have declining combat power, declining conventional and nuclear deterrents. We have a shrinking force and declining readiness. Everything is older and more expensive. It’s not a great news story.”
Nor was the forced truncation of F-22 Raptor production, a process that halved the Air Force’s planned buy of 381 Raptors to 187 and resulted in a fleet that retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula calculated in 2020 can only muster 33 fully combat capable F-22s ready to fight tonight.
“The decline [in U.S. military power] was obvious when Congress was voting on the F-22 and [former Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates was personally and strenuously pushing to shut down the production line,” Eaglen remembers.
“It was bizarre. I was on the Hill briefing staffers about this capability and for Gates it was personal. He made calls to the Georgia congressional delegation to shut down the [Georgia-based] F-22 line. It was obviously flawed [policy], knowable at the time and even more so in hindsight, an atrocious decision for national security.”
That decision has been followed by a series of similar decisions leading up to the latest Biden budget. That request Eaglen says, “is littered with fiscal casualties. It’s just shocking, the amount of production lines that will close and terrible outcomes that I’ve either written about or seen.”
America’s military leadership including the Joint Chiefs and Pentagon senior staff have been unlikely partners in presiding over the decline in readiness. Eaglen illustrated the latest example in a piece for Breaking Defense, noting that in response to a congressional request for information on how it could help ameliorate the impact of inflation on the defense budget, Pentagon leadership offered a 12-page memorandum with five eye-opening budgetary pronouncements including;
No inflationary adjustments were made to the budget since November
The Pentagon does not track inflation’s effect in budget execution
Pentagon leaders are not updating their forecasts even though six months of new data has emerged
No financial help is needed from Congress at this time
None in the department are seeking a higher pay raise for military members because of inflation
The dissonance with reality is deafening and leads to the question of why senior military leaders aren’t ringing alarm bells about the state of America’s military, about the fact that we can fly as many vintage P-51s as F-22s?
General Meyer and the Hollow Army
Last Monday, Joe Biden said that the United States would intervene militarily if China attempts to take Taiwan by force during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo. As the president made that statement, his secretary of defense and the Pentagon establishment remain committed to ignoring the “Davidson Window”.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2021, the outgoing Indo-Pacific Combatant Commander, Admiral Phil Davidson, observed that China might seek to achieve its ambition of integrating Taiwan with the mainland “in the next six years” as U.S. military power stagnated and waned.
His commentary was seen as a wake-up call but it has failed to move the current Joint Chiefs or Secretary Austin whose office Eaglen says has promulgated the idea that military will not need to fight tonight – that a possible confrontation with China is years away, as far as 2027 or 2030 (a relative eye-blink in military procurement time scales).
“General Milley [Army, chairman of the Joint Chiefs] has disregarded the Davidson Window,” Eaglen says. “I agree with [Davidson] and the Hill agrees.”
As top military leadership has ignored the Admiral’s warning, other defense officials send conflicting messages. At a recent Reagan Institiute event centering on the FY23 budget, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Dr. Kathleen Hicks, acknowledged that DoD had inflation holes it needs plugged for this year and that the Office of the Secretary of Defense would be asking for more inflation adjustment emergency supplemental funding for 2023.
“That’s an admission of the problem,” Eaglen says. “What’s Congress to make of that?” She emphasizes that inconsistent messaging is the last thing any constituency wants on Capitol Hill.
For a moment in the past, there was no such lack of clarity. In 1979, then Army chief of staff, General Edward Charles “Shy” Meyer went to Capitol Hill and flatly told Congress that America had a “hollow Army”. The General’s forthright statement spurred real change in harmony with the defense policies of the Reagan administration.
“It was this shocking statement. It was very public,” Eaglen says. Two years before, Meyer’s predecessor had told Congress the Army was fine she adds.
“Congress expects the truth and they mostly get ‘happy talk’ from the current [joint chiefs]. I don’t think it’s all meant to be deceptive. I think they don’t even fully understand what’s happening under their own budgeting.”
Eaglen’s contention that senior leadership doesn’t fully understand the implications of its budget recommendations may have a grain of truth but so does DoD’s reading of the political leadership and its apparent inclination to accommodate political winds without offering realistic assessment of the cost of dithering policy.
General Meyer died in 2020. He might just as well have observed then what is obvious today. As the active military shrinks, there is no corresponding reduction in the size of the federal civilian defense workforce which numbers between 750,000 and 800,000 DoD civilians in any given year. Eaglen calls it a “beast” and acknowledges that without a change that allows for the expeditious hiring and firing of federal employees it’s a beast that won’t diminish.
Flying Formation With 1944
The Mustang perched off Cabo Gunderson’s wing last weekend was built in 1944, one of over 15,000 advanced P-51s America churned out in a scant three years. Today, the United States strives to produce 50 4th generation F-16s a year from a new Lockheed Martin
The Air Force is facing an “aerial refueling capacity shortfall” as it sends KC-135s and KC-10s to the boneyard, retirement without timely replacement of its E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, and a slowdown in its F-35 buys. Overall, the service intends to divest more 269 aircraft in FY23, more aircraft than it asked to mothball in FY22, which sat around 200 aircraft.
As the Air Force sheds aircraft (and the Navy and Army dump weapons systems and people) a war rages in Ukraine. One of its most surprising features has been the inefficacy of what was only months ago considered a highly capable Russian military. The potential lesson of a similar failure in military preparedness by U.S. forces has not penetrated officialdom Eaglen observes.
“That kind of soul-searching humility is not underway,” she says. Instead, the prevailing logic seems to be a perception that while China has military mass and volume and industrial capability to make things in days that America cannot produce in decades, America’s recent warfighting experience, superior command and control, and combined arms capability will overmatch a Chinese military that may be more like Russia’s.
An expectation that Europe would step up to support Taiwan and oppose China is part of the calculus despite government/DoD recognition that Europeans simply would not have acted to support Ukraine in the absence of (sadly tardy) American leadership. It’s a mindset that dismisses real risk and public statements from the Chinese Communist Party. But without a catalyst or a courageous senior officer, it will likely continue Eaglen posits.
“I don’t think there will be big change until you have something like a Chief of Staff who speaks truth-to-power like General Meyer or a tragic event like a Task Force Smith [an understrength Army infantry battalion overwhelmed by North Korean forces in 1950]. It’s going to take something big. I hope it’s not something big but it’s going to take a failure to bring change, to overcome the inertia.”
Congress will almost certainly plus-up Biden’s languid budget Eaglen expects partly in response to inflation and to the China-Taiwan threat.
“Will it be enough? No,” she says. Legislators might plug a few gaps in capability but Eaglen stresses that congress must have a partner in DoD. However it doesn’t look like they have one.
“This Pentagon leadership team is adamant that their program is what they need for the future. They want to permanently trade away combat power today to buy potential future technologies for 2030.”
The F-22 is a perfect emblem of such strategic thinking which wagers on international serenity, the promise of technological transformation and a small, stretched force that will fight with it.
“Trading away national capability in the hope of a better future has never proven wise. I think it’s a sucker’s bet,” Eaglen offers. “The vaunted future never arrives.”
What tomorrow may bring no one knows for sure but there’s a more than reasonable possibility that what Major Gunderson sees from the cockpit one day will be a daunting number of adversary fighters instead of one friendly Mustang.