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Size Matters: A Slim U.S. Air Force Can’t Go Toe-to-Toe With China

Air Force Lasers
An F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron performs a high-speed pass over RAF Lakenheath, England, April 10, 2019. The 492nd conducts routine training daily to ensure RAF Lakenheath brings unique air combat capabilities to the fight when called upon by U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

The U.S. Air Force Seems To Have a Size and Capabilities Problem: Channeling his inner Mike Mullen, a former Navy chief, the head of the US Air Force said this week that those worried about America’s shrinking, antique air force must “account for all the capacity within our allies and partners.”

But that same logic didn’t work for the US Navy in 2005, and it won’t help the Air Force today.

Years ago, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Mullen outlined the new organizational concept of a “1,000-Ship Navy.” The concept of international naval and maritime collaboration and cooperation is not problematic, per se.

What is the problem is that the 1,000-ship navy gave smart cover to decisionmakers to let the US Navy stall out in fleet size. Today’s Navy is almost exactly the same size as it was in 2005—even as various leaders have repeatedly called for a bigger fleet ever since. Even as threats have changed dramatically in that same time period.

While western coalition warfare has worked well confronting various enemies since the turn of the century, a war with Beijing would be very different. The assumption that friends, allies and partners will all join us is dangerously simplistic.

For the fourth time in his presidency, President Biden stated that the US would militarily come to Taiwan’s aid if invaded by China. Such an explicit statement of intent implies that our military can defend the island and defeat China.

But a recently released report from the Mitchell Institute on the strength of the Air Force says the service does not possess “the force capacity, lethality, and survivability needed to fight a major war with China.”

The report’s central finding is consistent with trends seen across the service. Consistent prioritization of research and development over procurement, reduced training, under-manned units, and fewer flying hours have left the Air Force in a position where deterrence is eroding.

The size and composition of the Air Force today is a result of chronic budget shortfalls and decades of thinking that shedding older systems to buy newer ones will yield platforms that are ever more “lethal, transformational, and modern.” This “divest to invest” strategy has been the gospel of the Air Force since the end of the Cold War and into the start of the so-called “peace dividend” that followed it.

The decline in the USAF’s fighter aircraft inventory over the past few decades puts the strategy in stark terms. As the Mitchell Institute’s report points out, the Air Force had 4,321 fighters at the end of the Cold War. Today it has just 1,420—a near fifty percent decrease.

The Air Force’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2023 continues this trend, cutting 150 aircraft while buying just 82 new airplanes. Slashing the size of the Air Force’s aircraft inventory while waiting on the next generation of technology to be fielded leaves the service in a tough spot. There is no guarantee that such technology will be operable on the timeline leaders want—and even less of a guarantee that expected savings will be passed on. As a result, “divest to invest” makes the service smaller, older, and less capable to deter and potentially defeat China.

Ironically, fewer aircraft means pilots fly less, which leads to reduced readiness. In Fiscal Year 2021, active duty pilots averaged 10.1 flying hours per month, putting them at 121.2 hours per year. That is about 80 fewer hours than the number of hours the Air Force believes necessary for peak readiness.

Yet declining readiness of combat fighter forces explicitly “raises the risk that an adversary will see an advantage, resulting in a failure of conventional deterrence,” Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mark Kelley said at the AFA conference this week.

F-35 Air Force

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II, assigned to the 495th Fighter Squadron from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, lands for the first time at Souda Air Base, Greece, July 7, 2022. The fifth-generation aircraft will be participating in exercise Poseidon’s Rage, in an effort to bolster U.S.-Hellenic readiness and interoperability. (U.S. Air Force Photo By Tech. Sgt. Rachel Maxwell)

Declaring the “era of conventional overmatch” over, Gen. Kelley was explicit in stating the size of the combat air forces “is well below where various unclassified studies have said they need to be.” He also noted that the fighter squadron shortages, in particular, are felt mostly in Pacific Air Forces—the pacing threat theater.

Relying on capability alone to win the day will only allow the Air Force to get smaller, older and less ready. And it will invite the very aggression America is seeking to avoid in Asia.

Mass and attrition must return as foundational force-planning principles for the US military. Capacity is as important as quality and high readiness.

Size matters. Just ask Ukraine.

Expert Biography: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow her on Twitter: @MEaglen. While working at AEI, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member on the National Defense Strategy Commission, a congressionally mandated bipartisan review group whose final report in November 2018, “Providing for the Common Defense,” included assessments and recommendations for the administration. Earlier, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member on the 2014 congressionally mandated National Defense Panel, established to assess US defense interests and strategic objectives, and in 2010 on the congressionally mandated bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, which evaluated the Pentagon’s defense strategy. She is also one of the 12-member US Army War College Board of Visitors, which offers advice about program objectives and effectiveness.

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She is also a regular guest lecturer at universities, a member of the board of advisers of the Alexander Hamilton Society, and a member of the steering committee of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. John

    September 24, 2022 at 7:38 am

    Short range forward fighter bases will be destroyed by Chinese missiles.
    Need longrange strike platforms and weapons and large numbers of all kind of drones.
    Rebuild retired B-1, increase planned B-21 production, more P-8s, need JAssm-XR in large numbers.
    Aircraft carriers and surface ships not survivable. Subs much better including unmanned and conventional subs to increase our sub numbers.
    Lastly our nuclear forces are too small to be a deterrence against Putin who is breaking out from New Start. Last inspection of Russian Strategic nuclear forces was 30 months ago.

  2. Doyle

    September 24, 2022 at 8:51 am

    “…the Air Force had 4,321 fighters at the end of the Cold War. Today it has just 1,420—a near fifty percent decrease.” When talking numbers you should do a bit better than this. Regardless, the biggest air force in the world is the USAF and the second biggest air force in the world in the USN. Maybe a closer look at the aircraft types and going toe to toe with China is not the issue. This issue is going toe to toe with China and Russia at the same time.

  3. Eric-ji

    September 24, 2022 at 9:20 am

    The US cannot maintain combat-level arms & manpower when we are not in an all-out war. To suggest otherwise is to be a shill for the defense industry. The proper course is to develop and field limited numbers of new technologies and arms. Then ramp up when the need materializes.

  4. Commentar

    September 24, 2022 at 9:35 am

    What kinda article is diss being seen written heah.

    USA combat aircraft (all types combined, from Navy to Army, USMC and air force) outnumber its nearest foes by a ratio by at least 5.5 to 1 and US air power is ‘slim’?

    The important thing is this: a military strike by US air power will immediately result in retaliatory destruction of US military bases in the region, including US consulate in HK which weaseled a crazy & despotic 999-year lease from local authorities back in the 1990s. Everyone knows that consulate is CIA & NED headquarters or beachhead right at the front doorstep.

    Before embarking on an air war against china, DoD and deep state must factor into their war plans or battle considerations the fact that china has the largest SRBM/IRBM/ground attack cruise missile/hyper-glider strike force in the world today.

    Ya don’t wanna poke a large hornets’ nest unless ya seriously afficted with late stage dementia.

  5. Gary Jacobs

    September 24, 2022 at 10:25 am

    A lot of fair points of concern raised in this article. And by John in the 1st comment. There are reasons for cautious optimism:

    -The Rapid Dragon program uses a pallet system to roll onto cargo planes, and turns them into long range strike aircraft with LRASM and JASSM at about 500 miles. JASSM-XR is coming soon as well, with a range of 1200 miles. 12 LRASM/JASSMs can be carried at once by a single C130, and a single C17 can carry 36. We have hundreds of cargo planes. As John mentioned in the prior comment, we need large quantities of missiles. This family of missiles has stealth features, which essentially turns our fleet of cargo planes into long range stealth bombers.

    -Another roll on system turns the Osprey into a mid air refueler. That adds extra range to the F35s, especially the B model operating off America Class light carriers or austere islands in the Pacific creating a much more distributed force that is harder for China to target.

    -The New F35 engine is almost ready, which adds thrust and efficiency for extra range with more power. Apparently the B model will now get this upgrade as well. As I understand it, this new engine coming soon is actually one reason why there was a smaller F35 order than expected this year.

    -The Super Hornet Block III also adds range with conformal fuel tanks and a lot of other features, including larger weapons payload capacity.

    -The Navy has apparently created a passive missile defense system similar to Israel’s Scorpius which uses AESA radar to engage and defeat multiple targets at once. Missiles and Drones.

    -Lockheed just delivered a 300kw laser as part of the “High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative” (HELSI). 300kw is just getting into the power capability to defeat cruise missiles. The truck looks not much bigger than a 26ft Uhaul. Should fit nicely when integrated on a navy ship

    -Mobile land based launcher systems have been created for the Tomahawk, SM6, and Naval Strike Missile. With the latter being small enough to fit on the back of the JLTV and strike with 100mile range using a stealth anti-ship missile. Perfect for distributed island campaign in the pacific.

    Bottom line: China is a problem, but we need to focus on what we do well, get out house in order, and scale up production of key equipment sooner rather than later.

    A silver lining to the war in Ukraine is that Taiwan has learned a lot from the Ukrainians on how a smaller country can defeat a large lumbering one like Russia. Taiwan already makes its own drones, and 1000mile range cruise missiles that can reach Beijing. I would estimate Ukraine bought Taiwan and the US at least 5 years before the chinese feel like they have the capability to invade. More likely would be a naval blockade to try and squeeze Taiwan… which Taiwan could make very costly in a Moskva kind of way, except much worse.

  6. GhostTomahawk

    September 24, 2022 at 10:49 am

    Speaking of dementia…. would anyone feel comfortable with Joe Biden calling the shots in a war right now? Especially after he bungled a planned tactical withdrawal in Afghanistan…. me either.

    And if you’re thinking, “he’s not in charge or his advisors are calling the shots…”

    Are you comfortable with them either?

    Honestly our military leadership is a joke right now. It’s no better than the Russian military leadership. It’s in need of a purge. A sad state of affairs indeed.

  7. Brian Foley

    September 24, 2022 at 12:03 pm

    There is no comparison between the USAF and the PLAAF…with the exception that both have airplanes and even that is a stretch. The two Air Forces are as different as night and day. When the PLAAF has 75 years of nearly continuous combat operations under it’s belt…and comparable aircraft, then you can begin to sweat. Until then …don’t worry so much and stop believing the other guys propaganda.

  8. General Tire

    September 24, 2022 at 4:42 pm

    “ The proper course is to develop and field limited numbers of new technologies and arms. Then ramp up when the need materializes.”
    Sorry Bub, that’s a risk we simply cannot take. Waiting until we are at war with China or China & Russia TO RAMP UP PRODUCTION would lead to the immediate loss of the war we are forced to fight. Our forces will quickly attrit.
    Peace through strength baby, Peace through STRENGTH.

  9. Gary Jacobs

    September 24, 2022 at 6:21 pm

    GhostTomahawk – As much as Biden, Trump and the Military ALL earned and F- for the way Afghanistan was handled [btw, some in the military, and some retired military, warned Biden of exactly the outcome that happened should he proceed with his plan.]… Biden and his team earn a solid B for handling Ukraine. That is defeating Russia without major escalation of a hot war with NATO and Russia. If Putin really cant take an L in Ukraine and escalates from here, even I would have a hard time pinning that on Biden. Putin is insane, and no western leader ever wants to be another Neville Chamberlain.

    Ukraine has proven what a well motivated force can do with modern US weapons: defeat the Russian army.

    As well, Biden has done a pretty good job of getting and keeping allies on side. Not that many needed much motivation in the face of Russia’s blatant return to its centuries of imperialism.

    And the list I provided in my last post actually goes back to Ash Carter, Obama’s last Defense Secretary. He is a physicist and a Rhodes scholar. I didnt like much of anything Obama did, or the people who he surrounded himself with, except for Ash Carter. The guy did his job well, and began the process of getting US military tech and acquisitions back on track. He looked for ways the military could make use of what we already had in more ways.

    That’s why the SM6 went from being only for air defense, to now having anti-ship mode, at Mach 2.5. And it’s about to get an extended range version. Tomahawk cruise missile also got an anti-ship mode.
    Rinse and repeat that effort to add capability over and over.

    That legacy lives on in some important military circles.

    There’s a lot more work to be done to get our house in order. As I mentioned before, there is cause for cautious optimism.

  10. siempre

    September 24, 2022 at 10:19 pm

    The Navy and the Air Force are corrupt. Obtaining new weapon systems allows kickbacks . Buying mature weapons does not. So, these services continually develop, then junk systems after making just enough to get to full contract financing. There is no military sense in stopping the F22 construction. There was never sense to building an 8 billion dollar project like the Zumwalt which built 3 when the need was originally 35. Or, the multiple billions for the LCS.,,both ships being the absurd warships without weapons. Now, the Navy just junks the LCS hulls to go build different but fewer new hulls. Just as the Air Force demands to junk the only viable air support aircraft the A10 to replace with nothing as no one is using a 65 million dollar unarmored F35 for air support. The Navy and Marine command just junked all Marine heavy weapons turning the Marines into a suicide force planned to use new, under development ships, to leave small units around the Pacific with no real plan for resupply or reinforcement of the mostly abandoned units. But, admirals will get rich from R&D and building a few of these new Marine unit deployment hulls.

  11. TMark

    September 24, 2022 at 11:14 pm

    Visions of an air war above China’s land and waters are about as unrealistic as PLA dreams of an air war over Los Angeles. Under no circumstances would we accept the “Tyranny Of Distance” in which we operate from only two bases (Guam and Okinawa) and a couple of carriers – most requiring midair refueling to achieve time on station – while China’s air fleet can operate from dozens of airfields and consume only drops of fuel to reach the Taiwan Strait. Nor would a Taiwan scenario involve U.S. assets directly attacking China’s mainland. No matter how many USAF and USN aircraft are brought to bear, limited capacity exists to sustain a 24/7 armada at 40,000 feet. China can do it from a stone’s throw away, we can’t.

    The defense of Taiwan is not a direct defense with any Sino-American dogfights over the strait – ain’t happening. We don’t need to be perfect, but a cross-strait PLA invasion must be perfect to succeed. Instead of an air-tight defense, the U.S.-Taiwan-allied objectives are to delay, deny and confuse Chinese forces – the porcupine strategy. For example, even if all first-day PLA forces reach Taiwan’s shores, they soon collapse if China’s logistical ports are destroyed on Day Two (delay strategy). U.S. subs can sink PLAN ships without Beijing knowing whether those torpedoes came from American or Taiwan’s boats (confusion strategy).

    The best defense of Taiwan is geopolitical deterrence. Over half of China’s oil comes via tankers from the Mideast, which can be shutdown without firing a shot. Beijing knows attacking Taiwan would trigger a broader Asian arms race including potentially nuclear development. Economic sanctions would rival those imposed on Russia. Occupation has become universally recognized as a bloody fool’s errand. Mission failure would jeopardize the CCP’s hold on power, or at least the sitting ruler’s tenure and legacy – not worth it. And someone in Beijing must decide that half a million Chinese citizens must die; that’s troops and civilians on both sides, most of them sons of one-child families. The domestic repercussions are unnerving, and it’s simply preferable to mark time making nationalistic boasts while waiving that red and yellow flag year after year.

  12. Jacksonian Libertarian

    September 24, 2022 at 11:33 pm

    The shrinking size of the manned Navy surface fleet, Army & Marine Heavy dumb weapon systems, and Air Force manned Combat Aircraft is a good thing. These weapon systems are obsolete in the age of smart weapons.

    Nothing can resist properly delivered Energy.

    Moving to all remotely controlled smart weapon systems, means fewer, but higher quality manned systems during the transition.

    The Military is dragging its feet in moving away from manned systems, asking for unmanned systems to protect the manned systems. But that’s stupid, if the unmanned systems can do the fighting then the manned systems are a useless waste of resources, that should have been spent on increasing the quantity of unmanned cheap attritable systems. The Military should have 50,000 unmanned ground smart weapon launchers, 20,000 unmanned aircraft smart weapon launchers, and 1,000 unmanned subs-amphibious smart weapon launchers.

  13. Mario Borg

    September 25, 2022 at 2:57 am

    The article ends with the statement “Size matters. Just ask Ukraine.” If anything, surely this supports the concept that a smaller force using better tech can overwhelm a larger force.

  14. Steven Carleton

    September 25, 2022 at 1:00 pm

    All US services are going for high-tech, multi-purpose platforms as a way to reduce costs since personnel in a volunteer military are BY FAR the highest cost item. This will also drive autonomous and drone tech introductions. USAF converting all its combat aircraft to stealth is a big, expensive risk, since stealth still isn’t cheap and entails many performance compromises. So the USN has taken a much more cautious approach.

  15. Steven

    September 25, 2022 at 1:35 pm

    Again, no one mentions Cyber war or classified ability by the West. Tsch, tsch, tsch….

  16. Chris Cha

    September 25, 2022 at 7:17 pm

    A commenter on here indicated the F35 engine is almost ready. It won’t be delivered until 2027.

  17. Geof

    September 26, 2022 at 3:08 am

    “All US services are going for high-tech, multi-purpose platforms as a way to reduce costs since personnel in a volunteer military are BY FAR the highest cost item.”

    Yet we keep cutting trigger pullers while already bloated bureaucracy, staffs, and support grow ever larger. For the cost of a flag officer, on active duty and retired, we could keep alot of enlisted on the books…yet flag officers breed like rabbits. Why exactly are personnel the highest cost item? Pay isn’t huge, most of the costs entailed are sunk, ditto for training since we have to keep the training pipelines running regardless. Most don’t make it to retirement. Which brings up yet another issue…we keep losing our best/brightest after investing big bucks into training them. Pilots and USN nukes spring to mind. Kind of a head scratcher…spend a billion bucks on a piece of autonomous hardware, to do the job of a handful of relatively cheap enlisted. Look at the USN, busily retiring billion dollar plus cruisers, to a large degree because they cut crew sizes to the point they were unable to maintain them properly. And they call that “savings”. We’re rapidly “saving” ourselves out a military capable of warfighting. Sometimes, I think that’s the goal…get rid of all those nasty, messy and expensive aircraft, ships, tanks, and keep the bureaucracy.

  18. Lsi

    September 26, 2022 at 5:16 am

    We need to cut our active military back to 50,000 troops and our air force to around 25,000 active. Put our money in the Army and Air force reserves instead. Nobody is going to invade the USA and our military as it currently exists is designed to fight in some foreign theater. A gigantic standing military just invites adventurism and guarantees we will get involved in some unnecessary fat away war. Our founding fathers did not want a standing army and we don’t need one today. A robust and well trained reserve and national guard will ensure we are safe in our own borders. Let’s take care of the USA and let the rest of the world take care of itself. We can’t repair our roads and bridges but we can spend trillions of dollars fighting a stupid war in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. As for the Ukraine, it’s regrettable that Russia invaded but it’s NOT our problem. The Europeans can handle it. It’s on their doorstep, not ours!

  19. John

    September 27, 2022 at 10:39 am

    Aircraft is one thing — but who trusts an air force brass that has removed its best Strike Eagle squadron commander for failure to vax!
    The stupidity and arrogance (stupidogance) is beyond comprehension.

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