America’s No-Fly Zones Are Already In Place

The budget sequester has idled U.S. military aircraft and crews across the country, with dangerous implications.

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 24 JUN 13) … David A. Deptula

There has been much talk lately in Washington about establishing a no-fly zone in Syria. You don’t hear about the no-fly zones that are already up and running—over the United States. Where in the U.S.? Over places like Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the Air Force’s premier combat training range; and over Naval Air Stations Oceana in Virginia and China Lake in California, affecting Navy and Marine Corps aviation. Then there are the no-fly zones over Seymour Johnson AFB Goldsboro, N.C., the home of an F-15E fighter wing; Hill AFB in Ogden, Utah, home to F-16 fighters; and Ellsworth AFB, S.D., the home of B-1 bombers that provide America global reach and power.

Those and others are no-fly zones because Congress has legislated, through budget sequestration, the shutdown of major air capabilities of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Military spending is scheduled to be cut by $492 billion over 10 years, with $52 billion in mandatory, across-the-board reductions coming next year.

But the $42 billion axed from the military in 2013 is already damaging America’s combat readiness—and therefore its security. Our military readiness is plummeting, especially the nation’s air power, which underpins the entire military’s ability to operate when and where necessary. In the Air Force alone, more than 30 squadrons are now grounded, along with aircrews, and maintenance and training personnel. The U.S. military’s foremost air-combat training exercise—Red Flag—has been canceled for the rest of the year. The graduate schools for Air Force, Navy and Marine combat aviators have been canceled. Equipment testing and upgrades to F-22s, F-15s, F-16s and other aircraft have been delayed.

Without testing, improvements can’t be made, and without upgrades air forces atrophy and their capability declines. Training, testing and education are vital to keeping forces honed to a combat edge. The excellence and high standard of those activities have enabled the U.S. to remain the world’s sole superpower.

Flying and maintaining proficiency in high-performance military aircraft is not like riding a bike. It requires constant preparation and training to maintain the superior combat capabilities that have long been the pride of the U.S. As foreign military equipment and technology around the world approached America’s own weapons capabilities, superior air-combat training gave the U.S. an advantage. With large numbers of U.S. airmen around the world not flying, that is no longer the case.

The real danger is that the damage caused by the no-fly zones imposed by sequestration will not be recognized until too late—until air forces and personnel are required to support America’s vital security interests in times and places unforeseen and impossible to predict.

The U.S. Air Force has always focused on being 100% ready at all times. That’s the goal. Why? Because being in a posture to deploy and employ quickly creates capabilities to engage around the world to encourage peace and stability. If necessary, that posture provides the foundation for success in war-fighting. Sequestration’s no-fly zones result in a disproportionate loss of national capability because they hinder the Air Force’s role as America’s “first response force.” This quickness buys the Navy and Army time to spin up and steam to the fight.

The hollow force caused by sequestration means that the U.S. has a growing strategy-resource mismatch: a widening gap between what our leaders say and what the nation can accomplish. Sequestration was designed to be so irresponsible that Congress would prevent its implementation. Now that it has been implemented, the danger is that Washington begins to think the military cuts are tolerable.

With the consequences of the cuts not immediately apparent, Congress might regard them as a more palatable way to cut military spending than the politically unpopular Base Realignment and Closure Act. Earlier this month, the House of Representative approved legislation to prohibit another round of BRAC, even though it could be used to cut the military’s excess infrastructure and achieve significant savings. The ban appears likely to become law. Combat readiness doesn’t have a constituency—except for the entire nation, when fighting needs to be accomplished.

Ultimately, the staggering challenge of the national debt will have to be addressed in a more responsible way than by a sequester. When that time comes, a discussion of first principles is essential. Who is to determine what is the appropriate “fair share” of each of the elements of government? How do we determine priorities?

Plenty of opinions will be offered, but America’s leaders would do well to seek guidance from the document describing the reason for the government’s existence—the Preamble to the Constitution. The Founders wrote that the nation was constituted to “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Providing for the common defense is U.S. government job one. On the ample evidence of the past year—the deficit debates, the potential solutions offered to resolve the fiscal crisis, the damage done to America’s security by sequestration—too many people in leadership positions have forgotten that obligation.

Mr. Deptula, a retired Air Force three-star general, was a commander of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq in 1998-99. He is a senior military scholar at the Air Force Academy.

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