In the Pentagon's emerging budget wars, the military service perceived to be playing one of the smallest roles in the war on terrorism now says it's in danger of breaking and needs billions of dollars more than the other services to stay whole.
The Air Force, after years of maintaining older airplanes without buying new ones, says it must be allowed to modernize or America risks losing air dominance around the world.
Five years of war in Iraq has worn down the ground forces and focused attention on the need to rebuild the Army and Marine Corps for those kinds of counterinsurgency operations. But the Air Force's campaign to publicize its own budgetary woes – and the military's drive to stay competitive against conventional enemies, such as China, which requires air power – are forcing Pentagon planners to make tough choices.
Although the Air Force's recent decision to award a contract to an American and French partnership for its next-generation air tanker has diverted attention, the bigger challenge for the service remains: convincing an American public and a wary Congress that it needs as much as $20 billion in additional funding each year over five years.
This year, for example, the Air Force is asking for $18 billion in "unfunded requirements." That's money the service seeks for new airplanes like the stealthy F-22 Raptor, which lists for about $143 million each. These are replacing the stock of F-15 Eagles, one of which broke apart over Missouri last fall.
At the same time, peer competitors such as China – though Air Force officers never speak that word publicly – are designing top-of-the-line airplanes with new capabilities.
"We used to enjoy a pretty decided advantage over anybody else on the planet, but not so much anymore," Colonel Forster says.
(Earlier this month, the Pentagon released its annual assessment on China's military, with officials noting the country's "lack of transparency" as it buys high-tech weaponry and fighters and invests in submarines. Critics believe, however, that such reports amount to mere saber rattling and that some in the military are trying to create a false perception of China's military ambitions.)
The Air Force agreed to draw down its number of airmen in the hope that the savings would be returned to it in the form of funding for upgrades and new airplanes. But senior Air Force officials say they instead watched as the money was diverted to the Army and the Marine Corps as those two services grew larger. While they don't begrudge the increases of the other two, they say they're left trying to bandage their service as aircraft platforms age and the number of personnel decrease – at the same time that their missions worldwide have increased and fuel costs skyrocket.
It doesn't make sense, senior officials say, to fix old planes like the F-15 and not buy new ones like the F-22.
"If we focus solely on sustaining the Army and the Marine Corps, and constrain the Navy and Air Force to primarily extending the life of existing systems, we will find ourselves in a fight we can't win, and the Army and Marine Corps will lack the throw-weight to win without the Navy and Air Force at their side," says one senior officer who asked not to be named due to the political nature of the debate.
In fact, the Air Force was nearing a breaking point in 2001, but back then, those issues could have been addressed without major modernization, says Tom Ehrhard, a former Air Force officer who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a policy group in Washington. It's different now, he says.
"They are now to the point where they truly are breaking," Mr. Ehrhard says.
But that's a tougher sell these days, as Congress attempts to ask broad questions about defense spending. Last week, the House Armed Services Committee released its "Roles and Missions" study, a preview of a broader initiative that the Pentagon has already begun. Some believe this will threaten the Air Force's traditional role. Now that it's making larger budgetary requests, the Air Force is, as Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri said last month, at "ground zero" for such a debate.
Meanwhile, the Air Force performs what all agree is a vital role, albeit as a "silent partner," carrying more than 600 tons of cargo each day and ferrying service members across combat zones and to and from the war theater. It also performs tens of thousands of other airlift, refueling, and close-air support and precision-strike missions. Air Force officials like to point out that its aircraft have also been flying continuously over Iraq since 1991. Officers worry that much of this gets forgotten in the current debate. [Editor's note: The original version referred to an incorrect sequence of events.]
"We have learned from history that the first thing we have to do is secure the air," says Lt. Col. Robert Garland, an F-15 squadron commander at Langley. "Once you've secured that, then the ground or sea commander can do anything they want."
[Editor's note: The original version misspelled Col. Richard Forster's name.]