The service defends its role and protects its budget.
The Air Force is pushing ahead with plans for its future fleet of advanced fighters, tankers, bombers and other aircraft, carefully guarding its budget from raids to pay for the heavily deployed Army and Marine Corps.
In several public comments and budget meetings with the congressional defense committees this year, senior Air Force officials have argued repeatedly and consistently that their fleet is necessary and vital to fighting not only the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also future contingencies worldwide.
Indeed, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley warned members of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this year against sacrificing Air Force dollars to cover the growing costs of the war and the needs of the ground forces.
"Those who argue for shortchanging the Air Force to finance a national ground forces 'reset' would, quite literally, risk the lives of soldiers and Marines-not to mention sailors, Coast Guardsmen and airmen," Moseley said in written testimony. "Its recapitalization is an urgent national security need, not a discretionary luxury."
Moseley and other Air Force leaders have cited the number of missions that the service has flown in Iraq and Af-ghanistan-an average of 400 sorties a day in U.S. Central Command's area of operations. They also fly 100 percent of the domestic missions for Operation Noble Eagle, which means daily flights for more than 100 fighters, a dozen tankers and other aircraft.
And they argue that, due to heavy operational use, fleet readiness has declined 17 percent since 2001, a statistic that belies shorter life expectancies for many of the force's aircraft. The wear and tear, according to Air Force boosters, signals the growing need to upgrade and update the fleet.
The readiness issues facing the Air Force and the other services could ultimately fend off the expected downturn in defense spending, which would bode well for the Air Force's modernization efforts, says Richard L. Aboulafia, vice president and aircraft analyst at the Teal Group Corp., a consulting firm in Fairfax, Va.
"Defense spending simply needs to stay high because we're now dealing with a hollow force and that's true for every service," Aboulafia said. "So it could be true that budget pressure doesn't come into play for the foreseeable future."
Still, safeguarding the procurement budgets over the next several years is crucial to buying and fielding a slew of new and modernized weapons systems, including the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, Joint Strike Fighter, aerial refueling tanker and, eventually, a new long-range bomber.
The military services have been largely successful on Capitol Hill, despite growing concerns among lawmakers about meeting Army and Marine Corps needs. The Air Force, however, has lost some battles, including an effort to retire B-52 bombers.
Members of Congress have staunchly refused to down 18 of the 38 B-52 bombers Air Force officials had hoped to retire to help pay for several other projects-a move that could ultimately affect the service's plans to field a next-generation bomber in 2018.
"Would it help the Air Force, in terms of having resources for the next-generation bomber, to have these airplanes retired? The answer is yes," Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., recently told reporters.