Co-written with Robert Ward
Stories about the decline of the Air Force are flooding the media. For example, in AOL Defense Mackenzie Eaglen and Doug Birkey claim that the Air Force is "slowly going out of business" because of budget cuts and won't be able to modernize its fleet, maintain military supremacy or adapt to future challenges. Similarly, Loren Thompson argues in Forbes that the Air Force is far behind the other services in its political influence, and that the new chief of staff will have to reverse the service's "downward spiral" in order to get the money it needs for modernization. But analysis of the budget data over the last decade shows that these doomsday claims are questionable. While it is true that the total defense budget is coming down -- as it must, given the tight fiscal times and the drawdown from two foreign wars -- the data show that the Air Force's share of the defense budget is on the rise and Air Force procurement and R&D are being prioritized. If the Air Force can effectively manage its procurement programs -- something it has failed to do in recent years -- it will be just fine.
The Air Force is Not Losing the Inter-Service Budget Competition
Twelve years ago, when the Bush administration took office, the Air Force budget was $117 billion (in constant FY 2013 dollars), and consumed 28.5 percent of the total $410 billion Pentagon budget. The service's budget grew quickly for the next three years, and in 2003, the Air Force overtook the Navy as the best-funded service, with a budget of $162 billion.
But this did not last long. As the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan gradually intensified, the United States needed more and more ground troops but few advanced fighter jets, so the Army began receiving the largest share of the budget, peaking at 37.2 percent of the total or $275 billion in 2008. Eaglen and Birkey claim that during this time period, the Air Force's budget was gutted, with its share of the defense budget dropping by one-third, but this is not the case. The Air Force's share only dropped by a fifth, to 23.4 percent -- and, more importantly, its budget actually increased in cash terms to $173 billion, nearly 50% above its 2000 level.
These trends have been reversed as the U.S. has drawn down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army share will drop to 29.8 percent of the total budget, or $185 billion, in 2013; the Air Force share will grow to 24.9 percent, although its actual budget will decrease somewhat. However, while all three services have had their budgets cut between 2008 and 2013, but the Air Force has suffered relatively little. Its budget has dropped by just $18 billion, while the Army's budget has decreased by $90 billion -- five times as much. This is a natural development at the end of two major land wars and following a decade of increasing military budgets.
Under the Obama administration's new defense strategy, the Air Force's position will improve further over the next few years. By 2017, its share of the defense budget will rise to 27.7 percent, just a point and a half below that of the Navy. This share of the overall defense budget is roughly equal to the Air Force's share of the budget just before 9/11, and the service's actual budget of $149 billion will be $32 billion larger than it was in 2000. Although Air Force spending was deemphasized over a decade of war against enemies with no air power of their own, the DoD budget's focus is already shifting back to the Air Force and Navy, and will continue to do so for the next several years.
Modernization Is Already a Budget Priority
Eaglen and Thompson argue that, even with this generous budget, the Air Force will not be able to modernize its equipment satisfactorily. Frankly, the need for a massive modernization program is questionable, given the U.S. Air Force's superiority to that of any other country -- we have, for example, three times as many fourth-generation fighter aircraft as any other country, and the only fifth-generation fighters. But, putting that debate aside, the budget data still does not support their conclusions. Total defense spending is dropping as the country pulls back from the massive military buildup of the Bush administration and tries to address its growing debt, often cited by military leaders as the biggest threat to national security. But Air Force spending on new investments and modernization -- the accounts for procurement and for research, development, testing and education -- is being prioritized within this strategic context.
First, some background. In 2000, the Air Force spent $43 billion or 36.4 percent of its budget on new investments. This spending peaked at $76 billion or 44.3 percent of the service's budget in 2008. Over the last five years, it decreased along with the overall defense budget, and in 2013, the Air Force plans to spend $63 billion, or 40.6 percent of its budget, on investment -- still more than it spent in 2000.
However, Air Force investment spending will rise by $3 billion over the next five years, and it will take up an increasingly large portion of both the Air Force budget and the total defense budget. In 2017, the Air Force will allocate 44.1 percent of its budget to procurement and R&D, an increase of 3.5 points from 2013. Overall, Air Force investment will take up 12.2% of the total defense budget, a 2.1 point increase over 2013 and well above its previous peak of 11.1% in 2005. This is a clear signal that defense planners recognize the importance of Air Force investment and are prioritizing it.
The Service's Future Will Not Be Defined by Its Budget
The Air Force certainly faces challenges in the coming decades, but these challenges have nothing to do with a lack of money. For example, the service must grapple with the ramifications of improving unmanned aerial technology and reckon with vulnerabilities to asymmetric cyber-attacks. On top of that, the Air Force is still reeling from the sex scandals at its entry-level training facilities at Lackland. But when it comes to resources, the Air Force's problem is rooted in poor management of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, its largest procurement program. The program is so far over budget and so far behind schedule that Senator John McCain dubbed it a "scandal" and a "tragedy," while Frank Kendall, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, said the program management represented "acquisition malpractice."
How the Air Force handles these challenges will matter far more to its future than the size of its budget. But even those who believe that modernization is more important to the Air Force than any of these other pressing issues should be encouraged by the actual budget data. The Air Force is not locked in a "downward spiral" but is dealing, like the rest of our military establishment, with a drawdown from war and a tight fiscal situation. And the service is responding to these challenges correctly, by shifting its resources toward procurement, research, and development -- just as its harshest critics want it to.