Air power today stands at a crossroads. On the one hand, it is being used for an increasingly diverse set of missions; on the other, it is becoming harder for air forces and their democratically elected governments to find the money to pay for prohibitively expensive weapons systems. Thus, apart from being used in combat situations, air forces are being used in missions as varied as tracking illegal immigration, monitoring human trafficking, preventing poaching, surveying environmental damage, and providing surveillance capabilities to domestic security forces. At a different level, unmanned aircraft (drones) are changing the way that we think about air operations. Yet while the range of missions continues to expand, the costs of purchasing, operating, and maintaining aircraft is growing at alarming rates.
The high cost of aircraft and employing air power is nothing new for as far back as 1980 a set of reformers like John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, and Franklin Spinney warned about how the costs of airpower were spiraling out of control because of the demand for increasingly complex weapons systems. These reformers argued that the US armed forces were addicted to high technology and complex weapon systems. Such weapons were so costly that relatively few could be bought. Complexity made them hard to use and maintain, leading to readiness problems and reduced sortie rates. Even worse, the reformers said, these complicated weapons were not as effective in combat as simpler, cheaper ones.
The reformers were partly right since the increasingly complex systems drove up the budgets and led to fewer weapons being purchased but, at the same time, some of these complex systems were used with devastating effect in both the Gulf Wars, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Now, however, across the western alliance, as well as in Russia, air forces face the challenge of maintaining force levels of highly expensive weaponry. The issue is further vitiated by the demand across democracies to prefer butter over guns—especially in the era of Covid-19.
Guns vs butter: The additional impact of Coronavirus
The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen wrote that democracies did not have famines because their governments were accountable to the people and, therefore, could not ignore their wishes. During the Bihar famine of 1966 and 1967, the Indian government of Indira Gandhi approached world leaders, especially Lyndon Johnson, to give India food aid. Without the intervention of the Indian government and substantial international assistance, the impact of the famine would have been far worse. In contrast, from 1958-1962, the totalitarian regime of Chairman Mao allowed the peasants in the Chinese countryside to starve and by the estimate of Jasper Becker, whose book Hungry Ghosts remains the classic account of the Chinese famine, over 40 million Chinese perished.
Democratic governments continue to prefer putting butter over guns as best seen in Europe and Canada where defense budgets and force levels have been slashed to allow for expenditure on social programmes. NATO countries are supposed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense but according to a 2019 NATO press communique only the United States, Bulgaria, Greece, UK, Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland met this requirement—and barring the US, UK, Greece, and Poland the rest are bit players in the alliance’s forces. Far more capable militaries like France, Germany, Italy, and Spain were below the required 2 percent with Madrid spending a measly 0.92 percent of GDP. For Europe and the democratic world, Covid-19 will only put greater pressure on these governments to focus on domestic social welfare rather than military spending on expensive weapons. Witness the way the different western nations reacted to Covid-19.
By the time Coronavirus erupted around the world most countries had set their 2020 budgets so it is only as the 2021-2022 budgets come through that we will feel the real impact of the pandemic on public spending.
Democracies like Germany, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Finland, and most notably Taiwan took the pandemic seriously and got international praise for the handling of the crisis. In contrast, three democracies—the United States, Brazil, and Britain—were casual in their response to the pandemic by minimalizing the potential impact of the virus. In an amusing turn of events, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald John Trump all contracted the virus belying the claim that the dangers of the virus were being exaggerated.
In 2021-2022 there will be considerable pressure from publics to spend on healthcare in the form of vaccines, protective equipment, ventilators, and medical staff. Given this demand, one has to wonder how much can actually be spent on defence? India, for instance, has for the past decade spent 1.6 percent of GDP on defence and the country will have to make hard choices to try and handle the domestic challenge of Covid along with the border confrontation with China. Yet while the developmental imperative is pressing, nations are also looking to use air power in a never-growing range of operations.
Air power today has multiple dimensions, is required in a new range of contingencies, and has become increasingly expensive and complex to use. It is also no longer the sole function of air forces or restricted to the use of combat aircraft. In the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency has built its own air force and used it to eliminate terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Law enforcement agencies around the world now use unmanned aircraft for monitoring and surveillance. In Southern Europe, air forces— particularly the Italian Air Force—are being used to monitor the flow of illegal immigrants and economic refugees across the Mediterranean. Yet while nations seek aircraft—both manned and unmanned—one has to wonder if they have the resources to procure such systems?
The escalating cost of airpower
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