The United States Department of Defense’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request included a raft of changes to the aircraft fleets, future procurements and, as a consequence, future plans, of the US air force. In addressing the reduced funding, the air force has been willing to trade some quantity to secure quality. On top of the proposed reductions in size, the air force is coping also with delays to new aircraft and the ageing of large parts of its existing fleet. Beyond these challenges comes the risk – confronting the entire DoD – that Congress will mandate further large spending cuts as part of a ‘sequestration’ process.
In terms of numbers, the force reductions are not insignificant. In its 2012 posture statement the air force noted that it was now ‘the smallest force [in personnel terms] since our inception in 1947 … Meanwhile, the average age of Air Force aircraft has risen dramatically.’ Nevertheless, the USAF remains, both in terms of size and capability, the yardstick against which other air forces are measured. It will continue to hold a very large inventory of combat and support types, and is pursuing wholesale fleet-recapitalisation plans through the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the Long-Range Strike Bomber, and the KC-46A tanker. The US military fields more than three times as many fourth-generation combat aircraft as Russia and four times as many as China. It also remains the only nation to operate low-observable fighter and bomber fleets.