The decision of the U.S. House of Representatives to hurtle head-long into a government shutdown highlights the current reluctance of the U.S. government to develop any kind of coherent plan for funding its commitments.
While the shutdown itself likely won’t have a long-term effect on military readiness, the already-existing sequester and the upcoming debt ceiling fight just might. At the same time, the U.S. military is undergoing a significant strategic and geographic shift. Combining these two projects seems like a bad idea, but then, as they say, every problem represents an opportunity.
Last week, at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference, questions about the impact of the sequester on the future of American airpower loomed large. The Pacific Pivot and the associated development of AirSea Battle (ASB), commits the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to an extensive set of doctrinal and procurement targets, targets that the sequester may endanger. It’s hardly unreasonable to be concerned about how cuts in funding (especially haphazard cuts like the sequester) could affect the ability of the service to meet these targets.
However, with respect to the platforms that will form the core of the USAF’s contribution to the Pacific Pivot, the Air Force’s commitment appears to remain strong. Despite the growing concerns about the F-35, the service has not wavered in its insistence that large numbers Lightning IIs are necessary to maintaining air supremacy. Similarly, Air Force leaders have consistently maintained that the K-46 tanker and the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) will form the foundation of USAF capabilities long into the 21st century. All of these platforms have obvious applicability to the USAF’s ability to project force along the Pacific Rim.
Services are often saddled with weapons and missions that they don’t want, but that they must accept because of Congressional pressure, executive pressure or the demands of inter-service comity. Sometimes, budget crunches can provide an opportunity for services to discard their unwanted bits.
Most notably, the Air Force has suggested ridding itself of the A-10 Warthog, an attack aircraft that is exceptionally popular with the Army but less so with the USAF. The Air Force considers the A-10 problematic because it is a single-mission aircraft designed to perform a job that the USAF doesn’t consider central or critical to its mission. The combination of the sequester and the Pacific Pivot may finally give the USAF the momentum it needs to dispose of the A-10 permanently, redirecting its efforts towards more modern, multi-mission aircraft.
Interestingly enough, some analysts have also suggested major cuts in the USAF’s current bomber fleet, including retirement of the B-1B force and possibly of the B-2 and B-52 forces, as well. These cuts would allow the Air Force to concentrate its efforts on the next generation of strike aircraft, but would certainly detract in the near term from the project of re-developing maritime roles for the USAF’s bomber force .
The commitment of the service to drones remains in some question. General Mike Hostage noted that “Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment,” which is precisely the environment the Air Force expects to find in a conflict with China. The Air Force has also made its lack of enthusiasm for the Global Hawk clear, which would appear altogether sensible were it not for the bevy of similar problems associated with the F-35.
In short, while the sequester will continue to have an effect on how the USAF pivots, it also provides an opportunity for the service to remake itself. The USAF continues to see its future in preparing for high intensity conflict in Asia, most likely in close collaboration with the U.S. Navy. This represents a welcome shift from the last decade, in which the requirements of the War on Terror meant conducting missions that the service considered peripheral with aircraft that it didn’t particularly like.