WASHINGTON — Demand for Air Force spy planes, fighters and bombers from Eastern Europe to the Far East is spiking, and top generals say they're scrambling to meet commanders' needs as they struggle with shrinking budgets and keeping old planes flying.
Juggling those tasks comes as Air Force brass seek to move beyond the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and establish their service as the Pentagon's preeminent player. But some analysts believe the military would be better served if the Air Force focused on helping other services fight.
"Their primary role in the nation's defense is actually not about air-to-air combat in sexy fighter planes," Janine Davidson, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and former Air Force pilot and Pentagon official, said in an e-mail. Instead, the Air Force should focus on tasks that help troops fight on the ground: spy planes, drones, medical evacuations, space and cyberwarfare, airlift and refueling.
"So their whole purpose needs to be re-thought," Davidson said. "It is a cultural thing."
Top Air Force commanders, however, maintain that adversaries with improving weaponry pose a threat that can't be ignored, and that air power is the best way to deter them.
"We live in an extremely turbulent world," Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of Air Force Combat Command, said in a recent interview. "In order to be a player in a turbulent world, you have to be able to step on the world stage. You can't do that unless you have credibility and capability. We have tremendous credibility but our capability is being eroded away as the budgets continue to do what they do."
To Hostage, credibility and capability come from high-tech weapons like the F-35 fighter, a new bomber and more spy planes. The F-35 Lightning II is a radar-evading warplane being developed for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied nations. At $400 billion, the jet is the most costly weapon in Pentagon history. It has been beset by cost overruns and was grounded earlier this week after fire broke out on one June 23 in Florida.
For commanders in troubled regions, the top priority is for aircraft that collect intelligence and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions (ISR), Hostage said. "They're (also) asking for high-end fighter capability and for continuous bomber presence."
Hostage, and his successor at Combat Command, Gen. Herbert Carlisle, currently in command of the Air Force in the Pacific, see the following hot spots:
• In Eastern Europe where Russian President Vladimir Putin this spring seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and continues to sow unrest in the eastern part of that country. Air Force F-16s and Army paratroopers were sent for exercises in neighboring countries.
"I'm a student of history," Hostage said. "If you go back and read Hitler's playbook in 1939 it looks a lot like what Mr. Putin's up to in Eastern Europe. I don't see anything that's coming along that's going to cause him to diminish his actions.My expectation is that we're going to have to continue our requirement to support our friends in Europe and NATO."
• The Middle East and southwest Asia have conflicts and unstable countries from Syria to Pakistan. The Air Force is now flying manned and unmanned spy planes on 50 missions a day over Iraq, for example, up from 30 a week ago, and few, if any this spring.
• In the Pacific, China has jostled with Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines over offshore mineral rights and control of islands in the South China and East China Seas. The Air Force is also fortifying its bases and shifting warplanes among them in the region to withstand and retaliate to Chinese missiles, referred to as anti-access, aerial-denial weapons by the Pentagon, according to Carlisle.
Left unchecked, the Chinese could bully smaller countries into acquiescing, Hostage said.
"We're not going to stand by and let you bully people into things," Hostage said. "This is about being a present and credible participant in the challenge for influence in the Pacific."
The vast territory in the Pacific and foes equipped with advanced missiles to shoot down planes, unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, are pressuring the Air Force to field new planes, said Richard Aboulafia, an expert on military aircraft with the Teal Group, a consulting firm.
"The new strategic environment involves great distances, sophisticated defenses, and a huge need to be aware of what friends and potential adversaries are doing," Aboulafia said. "Therefore, ISR should be a very high priority. This is particularly true given the service's aging ISR fleets."
Baggage from the past
To help replace aging surveillance planes like the Cold War-era U-2 and pay for the F-35, the Pentagon wants to retire its fleet of 1970s-vintage A-10 "Warthog" planes. Scrapping the planes in favor of planes that perform multiple missions would save about $3.5 billion. So far, Congress has balked at the move. Some members, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., argue that there are no viable alternatives to Warthog, whose sole mission is firing at enemies attacking U.S. soldiers and Marines on the ground.
"I'll be told I have to keep the A-10s, but I won't be given any money to fly them," Hostage said.
The money to fly them, Hostage and Carlisle said, will come from accounts that pay for training pilots to fly combat missions, because those funds are the easier to tap into than those already obligated to pay for weapons such as the F-35. Last year's forced across-the-board budget cuts have further squeezed money for training.
The result: Pilots aren't properly prepared to fight, and their planes continue to age.
"I am truly, truly concerned about readiness," Carlisle said. "Back when I was a young pilot growing up in the '80s and '90s we used to make fun of the Soviet Union because they only flew 100 to 120 hours a year. That's what our pilots are flying now. It's pretty startling. We'd like to fly them twice that — 200 to 220 hours is about the right amount."
Wild blue yonder
The Pentagon's preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan — unchallenged skies for the most part — allowed the Air Force to get by with older warplanes. Future foes won't be as forgiving, says Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute and a consultant to defense contractors.
"Much of the Air Force fleet has grown decrepit with age," Thompson said. "The fighters, bombers, tankers, trainers and radar planes are all in need of replacement. Modernization of Cold War planes has been delayed by the fact that we fought enemies after 9/11 who lacked air forces and air defenses — so buying better planes was not a high priority."
The Air Force has pinned much of its future on the F-35. It is expected to dominate enemy fighters and support troops on the ground.
Hostage called the F-35 "spectacular" and will continue to improve as more are built and enhanced.
Davidson, the former Pentagon official and pilot, said the Air Force would be better served emphasizing how it helps other services fight rather than boasting about its troubled, expensive fighter plane.
"They might have been in a better place if people understood the vast array of things everyone relies on them for," Davidson said. "But they don't manage to tell that story well."