The future for national security includes a strategic question on how to best use scarce, if not diminishing, funding.
For the U.S. Air Force, the conundrum can boil down to allocating between the needs to invest in modernization and readiness simultaneously. Current funding, however, limits the ability to meet objectives to fully fund the Air Force needs in both areas. To have an Air Force capable in the next several decades to protect America’s national security interests, modernization and readiness investment are essential. However, budget pressures can lead toward choosing one in favor of the other.
Modernization is the primary means of addressing the future challenges that may confront the United States in both the near term and into the distant future. It capitalizes on the technological superiority of the American aerospace industry. It encompasses the acquisition of new weapon systems such as the F-35 fighter and the KC-46 tanker.
It also includes technological advances in space, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. These advances are needed in the coming decades where potential adversaries are racing to develop their own capabilities with high-tech systems. Unfortunately, this is an area where it’s difficult to know what level of sophistication will be needed to ensure the U.S. can withstand a future challenge. This can be the most costly requirement in long-range defense planning.
Another aspect of modernization is equally important and impacts capabilities immediately: improvements on existing systems. Older systems such as the B-52, B-1 and the E-3 AWACS, whose program offices at are Tinker Air Force Base, have been significantly improved since their inception decades ago. Improvements to these systems have made such dramatic changes to the effectiveness of these highly valued systems that, except for the outside appearance, they barely resemble the originally produced aircraft. While expensive to keep enhancing these very old systems, it enables immediate capabilities that can deter aggression toward the United States today and into the future.
Readiness is the other side of the coin. Readiness is what turns an aircraft into a weapon system that meets today’s needs of our national security strategy and policy. Readiness is the combination of trained personnel and able systems. For air crews, training and exercises are indispensable. For aircraft, it’s the maintenance, repair and overhaul of the existing aircraft that result in a weapon system that can effectively function and meet the demands placed on it by highly qualified and trained aircrew.
For many aircraft, Tinker’s Air Force Sustainment Center is the principal organization working daily to provide readiness through capable, improved and modern weapon systems.
Modernization and readiness are foundational components of the U.S. defense capability. These capabilities enable the U.S. to pursue its national security objectives. This capability is needed now and will be for the long term. Adequate funding for both modernization and readiness are inseparable as the means to promote the common defense.
They remain under duress for sufficient funding in future years, but both are essential.
Tarpley is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and a former inspector general for Air Combat Command at Tinker Air Force Base. He’s now a defense marketing consultant and president of the Air Force Association, Gerrity Chapter.