Was the Cold War ever really over? Russia’s actions over the past several weeks have caused many Americans to ask this question. As things continue to heat up in Ukraine, it would appear that a sleeping giant has awoken. Simply put, Russian president Vladamir Putin is tenaciously defending his country’s right to provide military support to “Russian speakers” in order to help draw the autonomous republic of Crimea back into the arms of Mother Russia.
This geopolitical powder keg comes on the heels of perceived Chinese aggression towards Japan as they set up a self-proclaimed ADIZ over the East China Sea. Should we be worried about these recent actions by fellow super powers? If anything, we should take a long, hard look at our force composition and be prepared to make some difficult decisions.
What Is The Ideal Composition Of The U.S. Military?
The U.S. Armed Services have been at the center of budgetary battles being fought on Capitol Hill. Most recently we learned the Air Force would be halting operations of two of its legacy airframes – the U-2 and the A-10. There is an ongoing effort to downsize both the officer and enlisted corps to historically low levels. Several development programs for future capabilities have been shelved. How will the service look when the ax stops swinging? What is the ideal military composition our country’s leaders are seeking?
For a little over a decade, our military has been waging war in remote areas of the world in uncontested airspace. The enemy requires constant surveillance (i.e. long dwell times on station) and is essentially unable to defend itself against airborne platforms. When you look at the conflicts in which our military is actively involved, an emphasis on unmanned aircraft and cyber warfare makes sense. Putting an MQ-9 on station for five hours is extremely cheap when compared to a single F-16 doing the same job – the Viper burns more gas, requiring a tanker, and takes a greater toll on the pilot in the jet. This picture of our current situation has significantly shaped the U.S. military’s composition from a budgetary standpoint.
So now the question becomes this: do we shape an air force biased towards our current operations, or do we continue to build and maintain our manned fighter corps in the name of deterrence? Ideally, we would have both. In the perfect world, we would maintain a sufficient level of both manned and unmanned aircraft to use as the situation dictates. Our “drones” would patrol the skies over conflicts lacking a surface-to-air threat. Our fighters would stand at the ready to fight as needed in contested airspace. Unfortunately, the ideal situation is a costly one.
“The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.”
Stop, or I’ll Use My MQ-9!
There is a perception that as we continue to whittle away at the number of fighter aircraft maintained by our Air Force, the number of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) grows daily. This is not the case. According to House Report 113-113, the number of MQ-9s rolling off the production line has decreased from a historic rate of 48 per year to only 12 per year. While the number of RPA pilots continues to ramp up, the number of aircraft being added to the inventory is slowing.
As procurement for the workhorse of the RPA community slows, so too, it seems, has our expectations for the F-35. The program is over budget, behind schedule, and losing international appeal. The upkeep of our 4th-Generation fighters (F-16, F-15) is getting less attention, and without any more Raptors rolling off the line, fighter procurement has become a war of attrition. A look at the Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Estimates paints a bleak picture of our overall force structure, but given the country’s current economic situation is not altogether unexpected.
So how does this apply to the current crisis in the Ukraine? Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” One has to wonder if our political clout has suffered due to our reduction in overall military strength. Perhaps our “stick” isn’t what it used to be (sts). Sure, we are the top dog when it comes to GDP (see how the U.S. compared in 2012), but we saw the effectiveness of economic sanctions in deterring Iran from continuing their nuclear pursuits. Russia’s economy is several times stronger than Iran’s, and they are not as politically isolated as Iran. How will Russia take anyone seriously who does not have the military might to back up such threats? Force composition can be a key influence on the international political stage.
This piece has evolved way more into a political article than I originally intended it to be. As I researched facts and figures to ensure my assertions were justified, it was difficult not to keep returning to the “downsizing” of American Air Power. I see the point America’s senior leaders want to make – we need a highly effective, highly efficient Air Force that allows us to maintain Air Dominance without having to break the bank. But can we truly enjoy the comforts of a million dollar home by only spending a couple hundred thousand?
If an air conflict arises from the crisis in Ukraine, we will be fighting highly capable airborne platforms. Russia has been working diligently to improve its top fighter, the Su-27 Flanker, not only to market to other countries, but for a situation just like the one in which we now find ourselves. The Su-30 (upgraded Flanker) is a force to be reckoned with, and must be met with our most technically advanced fighters and most proficient pilots. A strong defense budget is required to give us both. Without it, I’m afraid any intervention on our part in the Ukraine will have the same effect it did in Syria and Iran.
**Editor’s Note: All sources and assertions provided herein reflect the author’s own opinions an not those of the U.S. military. The representations in this article are based solely on open source research readily available on-line. Nothing in this article is meant to reflect the current state of U.S. military readiness or U.S. military capabilities as those are not only beyond the scope of this article, but also not meant for public consumption.