Mitt Romney, who has been criticizing President Barack Obama for letting the U.S. Navy shrink, is making a similar case about the Air Force.
“Our Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947,” the Republican presidential nominee said in his final debate with Obama on Oct. 22.
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Obama countered that what matters is capabilities, and military analyst Lance Janda said he agrees that the Republican challenger’s tally overlooked the Pentagon’s long-standing emphasis on qualitative superiority over adversaries.
“In absolute numbers the Air Force is smaller” than it was at the end of World War II, Janda, a professor of U.S. military history at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, said in an interview. Romney’s “right, but if you look at the capability there’s no comparison between us and anyone else. We can hit any spot on the planet in a handful of hours.”
The F-80C Shooting Star, made by a predecessor of today’s Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US), entered service in the 1940s as World War II drew to a close, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The single-engine jet had a top speed of 580 miles per hour (933.4 kilometers) with a range of 1,090 miles (1,754 kilometers). Its armaments included eight unguided rockets or 2,000 pounds of bombs and six 50-caliber machine guns.
Lockheed’s F-22, today’s top fighter, is a stealthy, radar- evading plane that can fly at twice the speed of sound, or 1,521 miles an hour. It’s armed with as many as eight air-to-air missiles, or two 1,000-pound precision-guided munitions, according to the Air Force.
The U.S. military has opted for “fewer but more advanced weapons going back to the Cold War,” Janda said. One of the greatest fears of the period “was a land war with the Soviets, and NATO was predicated on the idea that we’d have fewer but better tanks” than the former Soviet Union, he said.
Romney has said he would increase military spending while Obama has been cutting it, a theme the Republican has emphasized in Virginia. The closely contested state is the one most dependent on defense spending, according to a Bloomberg Government study.
“The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916,” Romney said in an Oct. 8 foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute. In 1916, a battleship’s main guns had a range of 20,000 yards, compared with jet fighters flying off of today’s Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that can reach targets thousands of miles inland.
Romney called for building 15 Navy warships a year, compared with the 10 the service plans to buy in fiscal 2013.
Not only are today’s warplanes far more capable than those of 65 years ago, the nature of warfare has changed since World War II and the Cold War.
The U.S. no longer faces an enemy such as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the Soviet Union with formidable air defenses and aircraft equal or in some cases superior to America’s.
No longer are huge waves of U.S. bombers sent over cities such as Tokyo and Schweinfurt, Germany. Instead, ballistic and cruise missiles can be fired from far away, precision-guided munitions have replaced carpet bombing, and long-range air-to- air missiles have largely taken the place of dogfighting.
The Air Force was established as a separate military service in 1947, after being part of the Army. In June of that year, the U.S. Air Force had about 25,088 airplanes, including 2,983 “very heavy bombers” and 6,427 fighters, according to “The First 60 Years, The Air Force, 1947 to 2007,” published by the Air Force Association
The force’s size has fallen to 5,484 airplanes in the fiscal year ending 2011, according to the Air Force Magazine’s 2012 U.S. Air Force Almanac, published by the association.
If today’s F-22 were placed alongside the propeller-driven P-51 fighter-bomber of that era, “you’d think the P-51 was a toy because it looks so delicate and flimsy,” said Rebecca Grant, president of Iris Independent Research, a defense consulting company based in Washington.
The British had better jet fighters, and the U.S. military had just started introducing jet-engine powered fighter planes in 1947, said Grant, who’s also a contributor to the association’s Air Force Magazine.
The F-80C was the first jet fighter in the U.S. Air Force, according to the website of the National Museum of the Air Force. The F-80C shot down a Russian-built MiG-15 on Nov. 8, 1950, in the world’s first all-jet fighter air battle, according to the museum.
Romney’s supporters and proponents for the Air Force say the former Massachusetts governor’s underlying message is that the Air Force needs more funding because of the greater demands it faces. Romney is right in pointing out that today’s airplanes are aging, Grant said.
“Some F-15C models are going to be among the oldest in the fleet,” having been built in the 1970s, she said. “All the B-52 bombers are from the 1960s, and the point he’s trying to make is they need to be replaced.”
“Are they better than planes in the 1940s? Yes,” Grant said. “We don’t need a one-to-one replacement.”
The demands on the Air Force to carry out ambitious “shaping, deterrence and presence” operations have increased, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, who’s assisting the Romney campaign. “Those missions require numbers.”
Such arguments overlook the capabilities of modern aircraft and their ammunition, said Janda, the military historian.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, “we were able to orbit relatively fewer numbers of aircraft over those countries, but were able to strike more targets” because of advanced precision weapons, such as Joint Direct Attack Munition or JDAMs, Janda said.
“Twenty years ago we were making so many sorties, but now one plane can drop six bombs and hit six targets, so you have dramatically increased the fighting capabilities of the planes,” he said.
Older planes such as the B-52 bomber have been continuously upgraded to improve their capabilities, Janda said.
A smaller fleet does pose the “legitimate concern” that aircraft can’t be quickly replaced if they are lost in battle, Janda said.
Under ideal economic conditions, military services would be able to get all the equipment they want, he said. “If you can afford it, yeah, but in any society there’s only so much money to go around,” he said.
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