Colorado Springs Gazette
November 4, 2007 By Tom Roeder, The Gazette
Top Air Force commanders, including all the service’s fourstar generals, sequestered themselves in Colorado Springs last week to ponder how they’ll keep fighting wars with planes that are, on average, older than their airmen.
The annual gathering at the Air Force Academy has been going on amid secrecy and high security for decades. Much of the talk this year focused on flying and fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the discussion also lingered on a budget crisis that has cost scores of airmen their jobs at local bases and that top leaders say is beginning to cut into the force’s ability to counter enemy threats.
Gen. Duncan McNabb, the service’s vice chief of staff, said the Air Force’s top priority remains winning wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the next war, though, that worries McNabb.
“As we look to the future, can we do this tomorrow?” Mc-Nabb asked in an interview with The Gazette during the conference.
In the past year, the Air Force has cut 20,000 jobs worldwide under plans to buy aircraft and satellites with money saved through force reductions.
Recently, leaders said even those cuts weren’t enough to cover acquisition costs for new aircraft.
McNabb, who was appointed to his job last month, said the service is caught between congressional reluctance to drastically increase spending on new planes and ever-increasing maintenance costs for aircraft built during the Cold War.
The average Air Force plane is 25 years old.
“We really have a recapitalization issue,” he said.
The service says it’s also a readiness issue, with its ability to respond to humanitarian emergencies or enemy threats falling by 17 percent since 2001.
“What happens now if we have to go to the most dangerous parts of the world tonight?” McNabb asked.
Air Force budget complaints are nothing new. Although the service has seen a $20 billion budget increase since 2005, leaders say much of the extra money was siphoned by rising personnel, fuel and maintenance costs.
Meanwhile, aging planes have been fit into new war plans and outfitted with new computers, bombs and missiles for the modern battlefield.
McNabb said the day is coming when modernization efforts will hit the wall for planes such as the 50-year-old B-52 bomber.
“At some point, you have to say I can’t do anything more with this weapons system,” Mc-Nabb said.
The Air Force is getting ready to ask Congress for up to $40 billion in coming years to replace its 1950s-era aerial fuel tanker fleet.
The service also is pushing for new fighter planes, communication satellites and more space-based infrared satellites used by airmen in Colorado Springs for detecting missile launches.
McNabb said the generals worked on ways to save money and also talked about improving communications with Congress so lawmakers better understand the service’s equipment troubles.
The Air Force leaders also talked about the service’s venture into a new realm, one that could mean big business for Colorado Springs.
McNabb said the service is focusing on Cyber Command, which will defend U.S. computer networks and prepare to attack enemy networks.
The new command is housed at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., but leaders in Colorado Springs are pushing for it to be moved here so it can be closer to Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base.
McNabb said he has been lobbied by local leaders, but he and the rest of the generals didn’t talk specifically about where Cyber Command will land.
He said getting the command up and running is a top priority, because the U.S. needs to have the same dominance in computer networks that it now enjoys in the sky and in space.
The meeting of the brass wasn’t all about budgets, war and politics. Most of the generals stuck around long enough for the Air Force-Army football game before heading back to their commands.