The Cost of Defense

If I were to ask you to take a guess as to the current mission-ready level of the Air Force, what would you say?  Are we 100% fully mission capable?  Are we 80% ready to go fight?  Months after sequestration hit, the Air Force reported a 55% mission ready rate.  A little less than half our fleet was not ready to fly into combat!  After the initial shock, we settled down and saw that we were still surviving.  Some people may have even thought, “I guess this is the new way we will have to operate – it must not be that bad if we’re still alive.”  Just when you thought, “this isn’t so bad”, reality comes along and punches you square in the face.

That’s essentially what happened Wednesday when the Air Force Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen Mark Welsh, outlined the effects of the continuing resolution on Air Force combat readiness. Are you ready for the hit in the gut?  We’re now sitting in the high 30 percentile for combat mission readiness.  According to General Welsh, that readiness rate is only going to drop as sequestration effects continue to take a toll on equipment and airmen.

Back in September, General Welsh warned lawmakers that operating on a continuing resolution with the current levels of sequestration would lead to measures requiring the complete cut of up to 550 aircraft and 25,000 airmen.  If this statement doesn’t make you worried, it should.

Ever since I joined the Air Force 10 years ago I’ve heard the adage “do more with less.”  Lawmakers seem to believe a smaller fleet will be a more capable fleet.  General Welsh’s response demonstrates expertise that only an experienced military veteran has.  He said:

“To some extent, numbers have always driven strategy. A strategy uninformed by resources is not a strategy — it’s a dream. We’ve got to understand the reality of where we are going in order to build a strategy that makes sense for the nation.” (Link here to the article)

Hopefully our civilian lawmakers, many of whom have no military or strategic experience, will listen.  We are now in a state of doing less with less.  Thankfully there isn’t an overwhelming need for American air power at this exact moment.  Which brings up an interesting point: do we make the big cuts to current air power now – with the lack of major conflicts – so we can leverage future capabilities?

There are several problems with this way of thinking.  First, it leaves our combat forces unprepared for unforeseen conflicts and exposes our forward deployed troops to unnecessary risk.  A temporary draw down is going to require a build-up at some point in the future, which will more costly – and frankly painful – than if we were to maintain or just slightly reduce current readiness levels (that’s why you don’t cut the heat to your house entirely off when you go away for a weekend…the bill associated with the hours of furnace work to completely reheat the house would cost more than you saved!)  Finally, and most importantly, there is a high likelihood of this Frankenstein-style operating model staying in place – this is not something we want as a “new normal”.

If we continue this cycle of reduced current mission-ready rates to favor future capabilities, we’re not going to have anyone to employ those future capabilities when they get here!  One of the things that is keeping us afloat is something called Total Force Integration (TFI).  TFI leans heavily upon the citizen soldiers and airmen of the National Guard and Air Force Reserve to pick up the slack where Active Duty leaves off.  This is meant to be a “fill-in-the-gaps” measure, not a fulltime, one-for-one replacement.

I recently spoke with a friend* in the Air National Guard who told me that current deployments are being heavily bolstered by Guard and Reserve volunteers.  With the current ops tempo (some units deploying as frequently as every six months!), the TFI volunteers won’t be able to keep up.  Many of them also have jobs in the civilian world.  Once non-voluntary Guard and Reserve deployments begin to take place we will see a significant impact on private business as the men and women being tasked to deploy will leave vacancies in their jobs at home.

If we continue to operate at current and projected levels, the impacts will shortly be seen in GDP.  The Air Force Association published an editorial in their November issue of Air Force Magazine (see pg. 6) wherein they describe importance of defense contracting to our economy.  If the administration wants to nurse our economy back to health while cutting spending, they need to target other programs that do not positively affect our GDP.  (I won’t get into which programs I believe should be reduced or cut as that is beyond the scope of this article.)

Needless to say, our military is approaching crisis.  If the military goes into catastrophe, large sectors of the economy will follow.  If you see the impending crisis and wish to do something about it, I encourage you to write to your Congressional Representatives and share you feelings on the matter.  If you were to send your son or daughter into combat, wouldn’t you want them to have every advantage possible?  Something needs to be done now before we find ourselves on the backside of the power curve in an unrecoverable stall.

*Tally One respects the wishes of our sources who prefer to remain anonymous.
**All images in this article are public domain images obtained from US Government Military Websites.