During a revival of Cold War tensions in the early 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan laid out his vision of Peace through Strength during a televised address to the nation, stating, “‘Deterrence’ means simply this: making sure any adversary who thinks about attacking the United States, or our allies, or our vital interests, concludes that the risks to him outweigh any potential gains…Once he understands that, he won’t attack.”
Reagan set aside anemic spending in the years following the Vietnam War and dramatically increased spending for procuring weapons systems and investing in research and development programs. This influx of cash bought new ships, armored vehicles, and aircraft — many of which serve as the backbones for today’s force. The Reagan buildup resulted in the F-16 and F-15 and paved the way for new stealth fighters, like the F-22 and the F-35. Some argue that the Soviet Union ultimately bankrupted itself by trying to compete with Reagan’s defense industrial push.
In 2012, Mitt Romney was mocked during a Presidential debate for saying the US needed a strong military capability to deter future Russian aggression. Given the current world environment with a Russian-instigated ground war in Europe and Chinese expansionist aspirations in the Pacific, one would say Romney was “spot-on” and the Reagan mantra for deterrence remains relevant in the 21st Century.
As President Biden prepares to release his budget request for fiscal year 2023, he faces a similar inflection point to President Reagan. And, based on media reports, the administration appears set to take a different path by choosing to cut spending for the F-35 — the “most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft ever built.” As the F-35 Joint Program Office notes, “More than a fighter jet, the F-35’s ability to collect, analyze and share data is a powerful force multiplier enhancing all airborne, surface and ground-based assets in the battlespace and enabling military personnel to execute their mission and come home safely.”
The F-35 has become the fighter jet of choice in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific. The German Ministry of Defense recently announced their intent to purchase the F-35 “to elevate their armed forces and replace its aging Tornado jets.” German officials also explained that the “Russian invasion of Ukraine put a spotlight on Germany’s need now for sophisticated and interoperable air power that is a credible deterrent.” The United Kingdom has deployed the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron F-35Bs to Estonia as part of the Enhanced Vigilance Activity — a NATO-led operation to protect NATO’s eastern flank of the Russia-Ukraine war.
On February 22, 2022, General Jeff Harrigan, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, stressed that “th generation aircraft are integrating into numerous NATO Allied Air Forces’ inventories and drive nations to normalize tactics, techniques and procedures for 4th and 5th generation aircraft integration.” He continued, “These aircraft are essential to the deterrence and defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area and nations have executed Air Policing in the North Atlantic, Baltic, and Mediterranean areas.”
The F-35 is also having an impact in the Indo-Pacific region. Marine Corps’ F-35C aircraft from the USS Abraham Lincoln recently deployed alongside Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in response to ICBM launches by North Korea. The Carrier Air Wing commander praised the fighter jet, stating, “The integration of the F-35C serves as a valuable force multiplier for the Carrier Strike Group…No other weapons system has the responsiveness, endurance, multi-dimensional might, inherent battlespace awareness or command and control capabilities of a full-sized, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its embarked air wing.” On March 9, 2022, the Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command took the praise a step further, stating, “[A recent multinational exercise showed] how critical to operations in contested space the F-35 can be.”
Opponents of the F-35 have argued that the costs for sustaining the jet are too high to justify increased buys. General Kenneth Wilsbach, the Commander of Pacific Air Forces, early this month said, “We’re very blessed in [Pacific Air Forces] because our sustainment of our F-35s is really, really good. We have very high maintenance readiness rates for our F-35s.” On September 20, 2021, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said, “[T]he F-35A is such a superior platform operationally that its value is very high, compared to its costs.”
Based on increased deployments of the F-35 and growing reliance on the weapons system, the fact that the Biden Administration reportedly intends to slash its request for all three variants of the jet by 35-percent in the upcoming budget request is baffling. Toward the end of the speech, President Reagan noted the rationale for investing in modernized military forces, stating, “Every item in our defense program — our ships, our tanks, our planes, our funds for training and spare parts — is intended for one all-important purpose: to keep the peace.”
The next line drove home the real impact of failing to invest adequate resources: “Unfortunately, a decade of neglecting our military forces had called into question our ability to do that.” Whether deterring Russia in eastern Europe or Chinese expansionism in Asia, a failure to invest in America’s most advanced fighter jet will have ramifications beyond our borders.
Gen. Philip Breedlove is a retired four-star general of the Air Force and was the 17th Supreme Allied Commander Europe, SACEUR.
Retired Gen. John D.W. Corley served as the vice chief of staff with the U.S. Air Force. He was a four-star commander of Air Combat Command and the air component commander for U.S. Joint Forces Command. He was also the principal deputy, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.
General William R. Looney III, USAF (Ret.) was the 28th Commander of the Air Education and Training Command, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. He is a retired combat and command pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours. He is currently a consultant for a number of defense companies, including Lockheed Martin.
Retired Gen. T. Michael Moseley served as the 18th U.S. Air Force chief of staff. He also commanded 9th Air Force and U.S. Central Command Air Forces while serving as the head of Combined Forces Air Component for operations Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.