Friday, October 26, 2007

Building for the Future

Some Air Force officials are concerned that the Service is getting too small, aircraft too old. The Navy's shipbuilding woes should be an object lesson here. After World War 2, with over 6000 warships built and in reserve, the Navy felt comfortable enough over the years for a leisurely construction program. Oh, she did build many new ships, such as giant new supercarriers, plus missile ships to protect these, while conducting a hugely impressive and expensive nuclear submarine program. Our sea service also rebuilt over a dozen large Essex class carriers from the war, and hundreds of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. By 1968 she still could field almost 1000 ships, but then the slide began which hasn't stopped to this day. Faced with block obsolescence of hundreds of war-era ships in the 1970s, she belatedly attempted a mad scramble to halt this decline by building a "600 ship" Navy. Partially successful, at the end of the Cold War, the slide became even more pronounced, and we now famously are dealing with a 300 ship fleet, which with only 5 or 7 new hulls constructed annually, will likely become a 200 ship navy by the next decade.

Sustained building is the answer here. The other services, the Army and Air Force, came out somewhat better during this period. Often on the frontlines of any land conflict, from Korea, to Vietnam, and todays Gulf Wars, large amounts of planes, tanks, and other equipment kept flowing, since such weapons are far cheaper and easier to build than say, a warship (though a new Raptor fighter costs about as much as a small frigate, a B-2 bomber the price of a missile destroyer). While the Navy hadn't fought a major war at sea since WW 2, the other 2 services were blessed with the Congressional funding needed to keep their force structures rather large, especially from the 1950s to the 1970s.

While the Army continues to do better in funding, the Air Force has wasted its lead building wonder weapons such as stealth bombers and fighters which tie up vast funds and resources, while more useful equipment such as airlift, helicopters, and ground support aircraft are neglected. The Raptors and B-2s are essential to fighting someone with equal weaponry, but as yet no nation has fielded such whiz-bang planes outside the experimental stage. The Air Force has even made it clear that the F-22 will not be sent to Iraq to fight the war we have now.

Belatedly, the Service is admitting it made a mistake. USAF Secretary Michael Wynne recently stated: "In the 1990s, the Air Force deliberately chose to assume risk in modernization and, instead, sustained aging weapon systems throughout continual combat operations."

As I posted earlier, the Air Force is confronted with a block obsolescence of the magnitude faced by the Navy in the 1970's with its war-built hulls. The backbone of our aerial armada, include planes which were designed in the 50's and bought in the 1960s. Even our frontline fighters in the War on Terror, the F-16s, F-15s, and A-10s were designed in the Vietnam War and fielded during the Reagan Era. Patched up year after year, and worn out with each new conflict, they threaten to endanger the lives of our troops, and the security of our nation. Something should be done to halt this inevitable decline of our essential and unprecedented air fleet, even using the desperate measure of abolishing the stagnating bureaucracy of the Air Force and returning it to the land and sea forces where it was born.