The United States broadcast contradictory messages last week, perplexing allies and potential adversaries alike. The U.S. Air Force announced that it was withdrawing F-15C/D air-superiority fighter aircraft from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, after 43 years on station. They will not be backfilled anytime soon with permanently assigned fighter aircraft. The day prior, the U.S. released its new National Defense Strategy, which highlights China as the “pacing challenge” to U.S. defense capability.
The cause of the apparent discrepancy between the new defense strategy and reductions of U.S. forces in the Pacific traces back to a series of poor decisions made by Presidents, Congress, and Department of Defense (DOD) leaders over the past three decades. Those decisions consistently underfunded the Air Force and cut its fighter force structure without buying enough replacements. For the past 30 years, the nation has invested less in its Air Force than in its Army or Navy. As a consequence, the Air Force is now the oldest, smallest, and least ready it has ever been in its 75 year history. Further confirmation of the impact of these decisions is the blaring alarm contained in the recent Heritage Foundation annual report that evaluates the readiness, capability, and capacity of the U.S. armed services. It reduced the rating of the Air Force from “weak” last year to “very weak” this year.
The Air Force has consistently said it is not sized to meet the mission demands placed on it by the various U.S. combatant commands. A 2018 study—the Air Force we need—showed a 24 percent deficit in Air Force capacity to meet the needs of the National Defense Strategy. Those conclusions remain valid, except demand is even higher today given world events, and the Air Force is now smaller than it was in 2018.
DOD will implement the stopgap measure of rotating fighter aircraft through Kadena Air Base, but that option has several downsides. It will stress those aircraft, their pilots, and their maintenance personnel exactly at a time when pilot retention is a serious problem. It also deprives other regional combatant commands of advanced fighter aircraft at a time when demand for them is very high. For example, F-22s from a location that would source fighters to rotate to Kadena are now deployed in Europe to deter Russia.
Withdrawing the permanent presence of two F-15C/D squadrons from the Pacific is the inevitable result of decisions that slashed investment in successor aircraft. The original inventory objective of 750 F-22 stealth fighters, planned in the early 1990s, was cut to a validated requirement of 381 in 2000. But the program was prematurely ended in 2009 at just 187 airframes—less than half the validated requirement—a short-sighted decision by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who stated that he did not see China as a threat.
Without enough F-22s to replace the aging F-15C/D force and accomplish other missions, the F-15C/Ds were extended well beyond their original design lifetime. The first flight of the F-15 was 50 years ago in 1972.
Now, 13 years after Secretary Gates made his disastrous decision, the F-15C/Ds are structurally exhausted. The Air Force is no longer training new active-duty F-15C/D pilots. Kadena-based F-15 pilots are the only active-duty F-15 pilots remaining, and they cannot stay there beyond a normal tour length without inhibiting their career progression. The Air Force has been put in a position that it has to sunset the active duty F-15C/D force.
Read the rest at Forbes.
Dave Deptula is the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a Senior Military Scholar at the Air Force Academy, and a member of Yorktown Institute’s advisory board.