WASHINGTON (Circa) -- Non-stop operations and budget crunches have taken a toll on the Air Force, and now its leaders are asking the Congress for some monetary help.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein have asked for $156.3 billion for the next fiscal year, and they believe they need every cent of it. The Air Force is facing a severe pilot shortage and an aging fleet at a time when it is being called upon to engage in operations in global hot spots from South Korea to Syria.
"With global trends and intensifying pressure from major challengers, our relative advantage in air and space is eroding in a number of critical areas," said Wilson and Goldfein in their joint written statement to the Senate Committee on Appropriations on Thursday. "The projected mismatch between demand available resources has widened."
The Air Force has been effectively conducting combat operations non-stop since 1991. But back then, the service had 134 fighter squadrons, while it has only 56 today. A decrease in demand has not followed the decrease in squadrons. The Air Force has been called upon to fight in combat operations across the globe, including two major wars. To make matters worse, it also had to contend with budget sequestration in 2013, which placed severe limits on how it could spend money.
Shortages in everything from munitions to pilot hours have followed. An aging fleet and a lack of spare parts has not helped. To add on to the problem, Air Force leadership is having to contend with a country-wide pilot shortage in both the military and private sectors and a lack of maintainers to keep them flying.
These issues are leading to serious problems. The Air Force has suffered 12 mishaps in 2018, leading to the deaths of 35 pilots, according to the Military Times. While it is difficult to determine the exact cause of these events, cuts have not helped.
"When you have to cut quickly, you go to your operations and maintenance accounts," Eric Fanning, the former acting Secretary of the Air Force, told Military Times. "That's the place you have to go when you have to make quick cuts. That's the money that's available to you."
To fix these problems, the Air Force asked Congress for an operating budget that is $4.6 billion more than what was appropriated in fiscal year 2018.
"The Air Force's budget request recognizes the challenges posed by long term competition from Russia and China," said committee Chairman Richard Shelby, noting that the request was in line with budget agreements.
While U.S. air power still rules the skies, Russian and Chinese adversaries are not nearly as spread thin, and they know it.
"Any American weakness emboldens competitors to subvert the rules-based international order and challenge the alliance and partnership that underpins it," said Wilson and Goldfein.
Russian pilots have frequently probed U.S. air space and have engaged in some close calls with American pilots. China has not been as overtly provocative, but it is developing new air capabilities, some of which may have been designed with stolen U.S. technology.
Even with a budget increase, Air Force officials are under no illusion that money will be a quick fix to some of its lingering problems.
"We're very far behind in our infrastructure and I think that's a long term problem," said Wilson during her testimony. "We are not going to be able to fix it in a single year."