This Almanac edition is Air Force Magazine’s 64th since the first Almanac appeared in August 1958, 11 years after the U.S. Air Force became independent armed service. Gen. Thomas D. White, the Air Force’s fourth chief—and the first chief born in the 20th century—led the Air Force then. Sputnik—the world’s first synthetic satellite—had reached orbit just 10 months earlier.
It would be four more years before the proud parents of Charles Q. Brown Jr. and John “Jay” Raymond welcomed their newborns into the world. Little could they imagine their bouncing baby boys would someday be chiefs of staff of the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Space Force.
There were 870,156 Active-duty Airmen in 1958, nearly triple today’s active force. Today, even if you add in every Guardian, Guardsman, Reservist, and civilian, that Total Force is just 82 percent as large as the Active force was 64 years ago.
The danger now is that Americans don’t know Airmen anymore—let alone Guardians. In 1945, 16 of every 1,000 Americans were members of the Army Air Forces. Most Americans had a first- or second-degree personal connection with an Airman. As 1.6 million veterans returned home, that connection endured for many years.
Today, however, the average American is no more likely to meet an Airmen or Guardian than to come across a red-headed vegan. Each accounts for exactly 1 tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population.
Our public is largely unaware of the tiny sliver of humanity responsible for deterring nuclear war, defending U.S. and allied interests around the globe, wielding the most lethal, precise, and rapid power projection capability in the U.S. military, protecting the homeland from air- and spaceborne threats, and ensuring uninterrupted precise navigation and timing the world over.
Yet in taking Airmen and Guardians for granted, we risk everything.
When the U.S. Air Force thoroughly dominated the skies in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, it defined the future of warfare for every sophisticated nation on Earth. The combination of technical prowess embodied by stealth and the devastating accuracy of precision bombing should have turned the page on warfare forever. Instead, it lulled Americans into a false sense of security. We had the world’s greatest Air Force. What could go wrong?
Three decades later America is at risk of squandering that hard-earned title. Our aircraft are now too old and too few; our Airmen fly too infrequently. China, meanwhile, took to heart those lessons from Desert Storm and invested heavily to catch up. Some argue they already have. Without air superiority, America’s ability to deter aggression and fight and win, if necessary, will continue to erode. The stakes could not be higher.
Some highlights of this looming crisis taken from the pages of this Almanac edition:
- America continues to invest less in the Air Force than in either the Army or Navy.
- The youngest B-52 bomber is over 60. The Air Force has not acquired a single new bomber in more than 15 years.
- The average USAF aircraft is approaching 30. New Airmen joining the force expecting the latest in innovative technology are instead climbing into their fathers’ and perhaps even their grandfathers’ planes.
- Our KC-135s and RC-135s are also as old as the Air Force Chief of Staff. It’s wonderful we built planes that last, but sad that the Air Force flies its planes twice as long as the Navy sails its ships.
- Pilot training hours were lower in 2021 than in 2020; for fighters, they were lower than in 2018. Flying 6.8 hours a month on average is less than half of what is required.
- Old planes cost more to maintain. For every $1 the Air Force invests in operations and maintenance, it spends just 39 cents on new weapons programs. That’s down from 69 cents in 2015. You can’t maintain a technological edge with that ratio.
- Some $40.2 billion will simply pass through the Air Force budget to other agencies this year, rather than buy new Air Force aircraft and weapons. It’s money reasonable people assume is being invested in our Air Force but, due to budgetary sleight of hand, is spent elsewhere.
Only half of Americans are old enough to have been around the last time U.S. pilots consistently faced air-to-air combat threats. During the Vietnam War, the chances of getting shot out of the sky were unreasonably high. It took a national effort to ensure that we would not go to war that way again—an effort that combined technology, doctrine, training, and tactics, as well as a national investment strategy. With too little time practicing against challenging competition, our Airmen face risks unlike any they have seen before.
An arbitrary and inadequate Department of the Air Force budget, disconnected from the national defense strategy, makes too many compromises. This year, the Air Force offered to retire its oldest F-22 Raptors—the most capable fighters in the world—early rather than upgrade them, not because they are not needed, but because there are too many other pressing demands to fund these upgrades. Likewise, the Air Force asked for just 33 new F-35s in the 2022 budget; it should be acquiring 72 every year. Congress will likely come to the rescue on some of these needs, but having made too many compromises for too long, the Air Force is in a hole so deep that it could take decades to recover.
“World’s Greatest Air Force” is not a lifetime title like “Supreme Court Justice.” It is achieved only through a combination of bold and consistent investment, perpetual and creative innovation, continuous and calculated risk-taking, and dynamic and persistent training.
It also takes honest reckoning.
Our nation cannot build a national defense strategy that demands 60 combat-rated fighter squadrons and then try to sneak by with 57. Nor can our Air Force continue to teach pilots to fly in T-38 trainers introduced in the 1960s. We cannot let pilots fly only a couple of times a month and hope they are ready to take on peer threats.
The most critical role of the Air Force is to deter enemies from even considering challenging American might. Fighting and winning is only necessary if deterrence fails. But both rely equally on the readiness of the U.S. Air Force to not just match but exceed any foe. Our Airmen sign up to meet that challenge. Our nation owes them the investment to ensure they are equipped and trained to be ready and able—and not just willing—to take on any enemy, any time.