Because for the first time, according to the Pentagon’s Transportation Command chief, every combatant commander had a priority one mission requiring the help of the Air Force.
First, a tragic earthquake and tsunami crippled Japan last March—requiring vast support from American military forces, including airmen.
A week later, the U.S. military began its air war over Libya by enforcing a no-fly zone, consuming a large amount of resources and effort by America’s Air Force.
Also last March, President Obama visited South America—a trip that required significant support from the Air Force.
Then, while all of this was underway, U.S. forces were surging in Afghanistan and the Air Force helped them get there, kept the skies safe, and provided additional support for ground forces in combat.
What did these missions require from America’s airmen?
In Japan, the voluntary departure of 20,000 people from the country because of radiation concerns took place in less than a week.
Libyan operations began on the busiest day in history for the Air Mobility Command which was still dealing with Japan. During the last week of March 2011, 127 C-17s, 33 C-5s, and 208 airborne tankers were in the skies at once around the planet. March also saw an Air Force drone, the Global Hawk, clock 2,134 hours in operation for 119 missions. The Global Hawk was the first drone over Libya’s skies and the first ever to monitor radiation contamination levels in Japan.
Meanwhile, commanders of the war in Afghanistan were still depending on the Air Force to conduct many missions over the country, and organize many flights to support the surge of additional forces into Afghanistan. The Air Force dropped two million pounds of cargo in the U.S. Central Command region in 2005. By comparison in 2011, that number rose to over 90 million pounds of supplies—including ammunition, fuel, water and other items.
Today, the Air Force’s impressive display of global flexibility is at risk as President Obama’s latest defense budget cuts have hit this branch of the military the hardest among all of the services.
To the uninitiated, the air war over Libya probably appeared to be as easy as it gets. The Air Force had been doing similar sorties for the previous twenty years whether over Iraq following the first Gulf War or elsewhere.
But according to reports, even with America “leading from behind” in Libya, non-American forces provided 60% of all strike sorties.
In addition, Libya was relatively inexpensive with the U.S. burden at roughly $1.1 billion for the operation (roughly the cost of one day of operations in Afghanistan). Lastly, Libya’s military fielded very few air defenses during the combat operation, and their handful of fighter aircrafts, along with most of its military technology was extremely out of date.
The air campaign was never as easy as it looked.
In order to destroy Libya’s extremely limited air defense systems, the U.S. had to employ three stealth B-2 bombers—one quarter of America’s operable inventory. Some 880 allied aircraft flew over 26,000 sorties against Libyan positions over the course of 22 weeks. With sustained operations lasting months, NATO allies found themselves in the embarrassing position of having to ask Germany for more missiles after they had depleted their own stores.
Libya was a quick and relatively easy fight, but as NATO countries found out, even relatively small-scale campaigns can pose distinct challenges, especially for militaries that fall behind in force structure and modernization.
If the U.S. bomber fleet was that stressed prosecuting operations in Libya, imagine how more difficult it would be to support our ally, South Korea, in case of a North Korean (DPRK) threat.
Despite the abject poverty of most of North Korea’s population, the DPRK military is far more advanced—and deadly—than Muammar Qaddafi’s dilapidated force. If the Korean Peninsula were to slip into crisis due to regime collapse, instability, or aggression from the North, an immediate priority would likely be to destroy the thousands of rockets and missiles aimed directly at Seoul—a city located only 30 miles from the DPRK border.
To avoid detection and retaliatory moves by North Korea against the South Korean civilian population, America would once more be forced to rely upon its B-2 stealth bombers to do most of the heavy lifting in removing the threat. It could take as many as twelve B-2s, coordinated with hundreds of cruise missile strikes, to destroy the North Korean positions above Seoul with a reasonable degree of confidence that the city would be protected.
Yet, the U.S. only has 20 B-2s today, and as the Air Force found during air operations in the Balkans during the 1990s, at least one-third of deployed B-2s are unfit for combat at any given time due to need for constant repairs.
In a North Korean scenario that requires a dozen B-2s to strike at over 1000 enemy targets, almost every single mission-ready B-2 in the Air Force’s inventory would be deployed. The United States could probably pull off such a strike given available supporting assets, but its global reach would be tested to the breaking point—especially if aggressors elsewhere took advantage of America’s enormous effort in Korea.
No matter how precise, these 20 B-2s cannot be two places at once and they cannot magically re-arm in the air to increase their sortie rate. By comparison, the United States had over 500 B-52 long-range bombers during the Vietnam era. While the B-2s and their precision guided munitions are far more accurate than the B-52s and their “dumb” bombs— quantity still matters.
Today’s Air Force faces serious challenges: a rapidly shrinking size of its inventory and the slow loss of its cutting-edge capabilities.
As the Obama administration looks increasingly to the Pacific, it is failing to ensure that it will have enough resources for its new strategy.
At a time when the U.S. military desperately needs next-generation technologies to meet the challenges posed by proliferating precision munitions and anti-access and denial capabilities, the administration has repeatedly chosen to delay, reduce, or even kill most of the military’s high-tech modernization programs.
Since the end of WWII, the United States has maintained its superpower status through a willingness to support a superior military able to prevail in all battles. While technology can serve as a force multiplier that allows smaller forces to punch above their weight, the American experience at war throughout the past century has shown that numbers also matter.
The smallest and oldest Air Force in U.S. history needs to get bigger and newer, quickly. Without an Air Force capable of responding to multiple crises around the world—and almost every major conflict in history has played out on more than one front—the Obama administration’s new strategy is a recipe for decline.
If the Air Force continues to age and shrink at this rate, the next commander-in-chief will not have the luxury of asking America’s airmen to sustain a humanitarian disaster relief mission while conducting a no-fly zone operation, send the president to South America, and support a troop surge in combat -- all at the same time.
Mackenzie Eaglen is an American Enterprise Institute resident fellow and has worked on defense issues in the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). She has worked on defense issues in the U.S. Congress and at the Pentagon.