The USAF has been pissing off a lot of people lately.
The first problem is the F-22. The Air Force insists that it needs a lot of them. Congress, footing the bill, isn’t so sure. The Air Force has at least half of a case on this. It’s true enough that the F-22 is useless in our current wars, but utility in Iraq and Afghanistan is not the sole criteria of weapon merit. Moreover, there’s something to the Air Force complaints that the F-15 fleet is getting old and uncompetitive. The F-15 is still one of the best platforms in the world, but the age and wear on a lot of the frames means higher maintenance costs and lower readiness rates. Finally, in a perfect world you really would want what’s probably the best air superiority fighter around, even if you can’t predict precisely when and where it’s going to be used.
But of course we live in the real world, and while utility now isn’t the only criterion, it is a pretty important one. It’s unclear why we need the F-22 now in the numbers that the Air Force wants. It’s also unclear why procurement right now should favor the Air Force instead of the Army. The F-35 seems to me to be a much preferable option; it has ground attack and air superiority capability, it’s being developed with a number of other countries, and it has variants that the United States Navy and several foreign navies want. It’s almost as if the Air Force wants the F-22 simply because other countries won’t have it; this makes a tiny bit of sense, but not a terribly large amount, because we’re not going to war against Norway anytime soon. I’m pretty convinced that the F-22 is attractive to the Air Force for prestige reasons; it wants the aircraft simply in order to have a plane that’s more air superiority capable than anything the Air Force has. This amounts to essentially a cultural argument, as the fighter faction in the USAF has always been strong, if not necessarily dominant.
What’s really interesting is that as fewer people take the Air Force seriously, it seems to up its demands. AP:
The Air Force isn’t alone in wanting more money, but its appetite is far greater than the other military branches. Shortly after President Bush submitted his defense plan for the 2009 budget year, which begins Oct. 1, each service outlined for Congress what it felt was left out. The Air Force’s “wish list” totaled $18.8 billion, almost twice as much as the other three services combined.
“There’s no justification for it. Period. End of story,” said Gordon Adams, a former Clinton administration budget official who specializes in defense issues. “Until someone constrains these budget requests, the hunger for more will charge ahead unchecked.”
The intriguing thing about this is the resentment it seems to be stirring. The Navy is also requesting weapon systems that have no direct utility in Afghanistan or Iraq, but apparently it either has a better PR department or a better sense of when and when not to push. It can’t help that the Air Force has decided to treat the Army and Navy as enemies in the procurement battle, or that the USAF has been, well, quite blunt in the demands that it’s making. After General Bruce Carlson publicly stated that the Air Force wanted 380 F-22s (double the current fleet projection), SecDef Gates slapped him down pretty hard.
All of General Dunlap’s claims regarding the critical role of the Air Force in counterinsurgency can’t change the fact that it’s not a service built for the kind of war we’re fighting now. Moreover, the jobs that the Air Force is being asked to do now (ground support, transport, etc.) are things that it has bitterly resisted doing at every opportunity. Whereas the Navy has done a lot of good work on laying a theoretical and doctrinal foundation for its continued prominence, the Air Force seems capable only of clawing at the other two services.