Is America Prepared to Fight the Next War?

By Brigadier General Jimmy L. Cash, Ret.

By Brigadier General Jimmy L. Cash, Ret.


In 1980, the F-15A was the newest, most technically advanced, air-to-air fighter in the United States Air Force inventory, and I was honored to be one of the first F-15 Squadron Commanders.  Located at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, I commanded the 94th Tactical Fighter Squadron, which consisted of 26 aircraft and 30 of the most highly trained pilots in America.  At $33M per copy, the F-15 was the most expensive fighter of the day, and it was designed to give the US a clear advantage over any adversary for many years in the future.

When Jimmy Carter became President, procurement of the F-15 continued, but spare parts procurement came to a standstill.  As happens with Democratic Presidents, money was diverted from the military and used to increase social programs that, in retrospect, served little value to the nation.

Over a two-year period from 1979 to 1981, there was not a single day that my fully mission-capable (FMC) rate was higher than 33 percent.  In a nutshell, over two-thirds of my 26 F-15s were always broken, because of a lack of spare parts.  It amazed me at how hard our maintenance personnel worked to keep those few airplanes flying. They constantly cannibalized parts from other aircraft, which doubled maintenance time.  Later we found we were breaking over half of the parts cannibalized.  It was a vicious cycle that drove our forces to the ground.  We had no capability during that period, and the buck stopped at the President’s desk, Jimmy Carter.

Little did I know at the time that the entire U.S. military was in basically the same situation.  We could not train effectively, as the equipment was broken.  There is a clear bottom line to the story.  The Tactical Air Command accident rate for fighter aircraft went from approximately 1.75 accidents per 100,000 flying hours to just fewer than seven, because of the loss of flying proficiency of the pilots.  Our military was not capable of defending this great nation from a viable threat, and fortunately that threat did not appear during this time frame.  However, we were losing aircraft and young aircrew members at a rate normally seen only in actual combat.

That is history - so why is it important today?  I will speak of the U.S. Air Force, as that is the service I know best.  However, I must emphasize that the Army, Navy, and Marines are in a similar condition to the Air Force today, and some may be in even worse condition.

After 17 years of war in the Middle East and the downsizing that occurred during the Bill Clinton administration, our military is in even more serious condition than that experienced during the Jimmy Carter era.  A big concern arises when you look at the differences in the threat between the two time periods.  In 1980, the primary threat facing the United States was the Soviet Union, and its massive nuclear arsenal.  Our deterrent against that threat was our own massive nuclear arsenal, and the concept of Mutually-Assured-Destruction (MAD), which was obviously successful.  The lack of capability of conventional forces was considered detrimental by our military leaders, but not short-term life threatening to our country.  That is not the case today.

Nearly all military experts agree that the future threats facing this nation will consist primarily of those similar to what we have faced in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Yes, with China spending 16% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense and expanding their military on the ground, air, and sea, as well as nuclear capability, they must be considered a major, future threat and possibly the world’s second Superpower.  Russia is rebuilding its military might, and opposes the United States on every occasion, and India is spending an ever increasing amount of its GDP on defense. This will drive the U.S. to maintain a strong nuclear deterrent, as well as strong conventional forces.  However, the threat that will require a high degree of Special Forces and Conventional capability is the ever growing threat of Radical Islamic Terrorism.

Radical Islam has been attacking the West since the seventh century.  It has been repelled, beaten back, and held at bay for all those many years to re-emerge on occasion causing utter havoc for the non-Muslim.  It is a patient movement.  If success does not come to this generation, that is OK.  It will come during the next generation.  In the past, this has been limited partially, because of a lack of funding.  That no longer holds true.  Radical Islam is well funded today by our own petro dollars, which now makes the threat even more real and dangerous.  This threat will not go away, and we must be prepared to face it long term, or the United States will face changes in the near future so drastic that the landscape will be permanently changed, and we will not like the result.

So, let’s be specific.  What is the condition of our military today?  And again, let’s look at the US Air Force, remembering that all branches of our military are in very similar condition.

Today, roughly 14% of US Air Force aircraft are grounded due to major fatigue problems brought on by excessive use in Middle-East war.  Of a fleet of 5800 aircraft of all types, all are experiencing the same difficulty.  The Pentagon’s planned aircraft procurement of manned aircraft is roughly 45 to 70 airplanes per year.  That means to recapitalize at the planned rate will take up to 100 years.  My Pug dog understands that is not acceptable.

The average age of our fighter force is over 24 years old, with an average flight time of over 5400 hours per aircraft.  The F-15A-D aircraft I spoke of earlier is over 32 years old and today 163 of 441 aircraft are grounded because of fatigue cracking in the fuselage, and most will be retired to the bone-yard.  The majority of all blocks of F-16 aircraft require structural modification, and all A-10 aircraft need new wings and engines and also have landing gear problems.

Airlift is in even more dire straits.  The average age of our cargo fleet is over 22 years with an average flight time of over 32,000 flying hours per airplane.  Of 108 C-5 aircraft, 39 are restricted due to crown skin restrictions, reducing their ability to carry heavy gross weight.  All of our C-130H aircraft have wing center box problems.  Added to the difficulties with existing airlift aircraft is the fact that there has never been enough capability to support the other services in an all out war effort.

The average age of our bomber fleet is over 32 years old, with average flying time per airframe exceeding 11,400 hours.  The workhorse B-52 is over 50 years old.  There is not a pilot flying the bird as old as the airplane itself.  It must be retired and replaced.  The entire fleet of B-2 bombers is restricted due to windshield bolthole cracks, and the expense of this aircraft prohibits further purchases.

The Air Force Chief of Staff has set as his number one priority, the replacement of the KC-135 air refueling aircraft.  The average age of our tanker force is over 44 years old and the average flying time per aircraft exceeds 18,900 hours.  Today, 26 of the 86 KC-135E aircraft are grounded due to engine strut corrosion.

At best, from 2008 to 2013 the Air Force will lose 749 aircraft, and procure approximately 438 manned aircraft.  To put this in proper perspective, when the Air Force grounded its fleet of almost 600 F-15A-D aircraft, it grounded more aircraft than the entire Navy F/A fleet, which equates to a bit more than three aircraft carriers of aircraft.

The bottom line to all this simply means that as currently budgeted, the US Air Force is going to have a one-war capability for a least the next decade, while the US doctrine has always been to provide a military capability to fight wars on two fronts.  No modern war has been won without air-superiority, and no future war will be won without air, space and cyberspace superiority.  Ours is not a third-world Air Force, but it must be properly funded, or it will become one.

So, what is the answer?  What must be done?  During WWII the US spent a whopping 34.5% of its GDP on defense, as might be expected.  At the height of the Vietnam War the US spent 10% of its GDP on defense.  In the 1980s, while attempting to overcome the disastrous Carter years, Ronald Reagan set military spending at 6%.  Even at that rate it took years to recover.  In 1986, I was an F-16 Wing Commander at MacDill AFB, Florida.  The spare parts problem was fixed, my FMC rate was 85 to 90 % every day, the pilots were flying, our accident rate was again below two percent, and the US military was ready to defend this great nation.  It took proper funding.

Again, let’s be specific.  The new F-22 fighter aircraft will put our Air Force well ahead of all adversaries for years to come, but at a cost.  It was designed to replace the F-15 and F-16.  The original purchase plan for the F-22 numbered over 680 aircraft.  The Clinton administration cut that to approximately 380 aircraft, and the Bush administration further reduced the buy to 183 aircraft, where it stands today.  By reducing the number of aircraft purchased the price was driven from $125M per airframe to over $160 per airframe.  The F-35 is a fighter jointly developed for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and the initial purchase plan calls for over 1700 aircraft for the Air Force alone.  The F-35 is a cheaper, less capable fighter meant to replace the A-10, and augment replacement of the F-15 and F-16.   This, too, will be scrutinized by our Congress and possibly cut to an unacceptable level.

To provide for a strong deterrent to future threats, which will most likely prevent future wars, this nation’s military spending should be increased to near 6% GDP.  The F-22 buy should be set at a minimum of 380 aircraft.  The cheaper F-35 buy should be maintained at above 1700 aircraft to replace the aging F-15s and F-16s.  The C-5s must be replaced and 600+ newer C-17s bought to fill the gap.  The B-52 should be retired in the next few years, and a new cheaper bomber developed.  A new contract for air refueling tankers has just been let, and the total buy on this aircraft should be completed.

Congress, in concert with the President, has mandated the doctrine our military is designed to carry out.  It is the responsibility of the military to create strategy to carry out that doctrine and to develop a budget for equipment required to support that strategy.  Just as historically, our Congress has been reluctant to fund the military budget.  Today, this cartoon is taking a more profound turn.  The threat is far worse than it has ever been before, including during WWII, with Congress now more reluctant than ever to fund for it.

An active duty Air Force four-star General recently remarked, “Any level of operational capability is acceptable, depending on what risk you are willing to take.”  While assessing the risk to this nation during the next decade, I have come to the conclusion that I am not personally prepared to take a risk that will affect my children and grandchildren.

I suggest it is time for our Congress, President and all government officials to step up to the task.  As President Ronald Reagan said, “During my lifetime I have observed four wars, and none were started because the United States was too strong.”  It is time to build a deterrent force so strong that no outside force would dare threaten the United States of America.  That is the only way peace will be absolutely assured.


Jimmy L. Cash, Brig. Gen., USAF, Ret.


Permission granted to reprint by Jimmy L. Cash, Brig. Gen., USAF, Ret., March 11, 2008

Read General Cash's other submission, Let's Be Specific






"Freedom is Knowledge"