Air Superiority

Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley on the strengths and troubles of the Air Force.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley runs quickly through the duties his service performs on any given day: managing 100 orbiting satellites; lifting off an air transport mission every 90 seconds; running a 100-aircraft fleet in Operation Noble Eagle to protect American air space; conducting operations from bases in Europe and Korea; and flying 400 or more combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Airmen, he adds, are driving trucks, detaining and interrogating prisoners and running a hospital in Iraq.

Moseley is a forceful advocate of air power, arguing during a recent 90-minute interview at the National Press Club that what our enemies fear most is the destructive capability we can deliver from the air.

But he has reason to be concerned about the future of his service. The tools of his trade-fighter jets, bombers, transport and refueling aircraft-are among the oldest in the U.S. inventory. This is true even though the Air Force has commanded 36 percent of defense investment over the past 15 years, as compared with 33 percent for the Navy and 16 percent for the Army.

The age of the average Air Force aircraft, now 25 years, will grow to 30 years even if the service gets all the money it projects in its five-year forward spending plan. Congress, for oft-parochial reasons, has barred retirement of many aircraft, and Moseley, resentful of having to "pour huge amounts of money" into maintaining "obsolescent" aircraft, has asked legislators to allow retirement of 953 planes.

Replacement programs, the F-22 fighter program in particular, have seen hard times. At its conception 20 years ago, the program envisioned a fleet of 700 planes. Now, with costs per plane having doubled from earlier estimates, and budgets tight, Congress seems on board for only 183 of the aircraft. In July, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne told Congress that 381 of the F-22 Raptors ultimately would be needed. At the National Press Club, Moseley said he needed 10 squadrons, or 240 planes.

These and other replacement programs boast new technologies but don't seem to leap ahead from the old Cold War weapons configurations. Though Moseley declared himself a fan of unmanned aircraft, the Air Force has not embraced this important new technology as readily as other services and intelligence agencies.

To afford its replacement programs, the Air Force is shedding personnel, with 60,000 uniformed billets-more than 10 percent of the force-slated for elimination. The cuts reflect expected efficiencies, and the voracious appetite for weapons, but also huge escalation in the costs of defense manpower. Health care costs for active-duty personnel, retirees and their families are climbing faster than a Delta II rocket; average annual compensation per service member is $112,000; and some airmen are eligible for $125,000 bonuses.

In this century, air power has shown its limitations. "Shock and awe" did not win the war in Iraq. A deluge of Israeli bombs was not sufficient to clear Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. Yet, as Moseley told me, air and space dominance is a prerequisite to military success on the ground. And that is one reason the United States has budgeted $106 billion to recruit, train, pay and equip its 700,000-person Air Force.

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