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Size Matters: A Slim U.S. Air Force Can’t Go Toe-To-Toe With China

The size and composition of the Air Force today is a result of chronic budget shortfalls and decades of thinking that shedding older systems to buy newer ones will yield platforms that are ever more “lethal, transformational, and modern.” This “divest to invest” strategy has been the gospel of the Air Force since the end of the Cold War and into the start of the so-called “peace dividend” that followed it.

The decline in the USAF’s fighter aircraft inventory over the past few decades puts the strategy in stark terms. As the Mitchell Institute’s report points out, the Air Force had 4,321 fighters at the end of the Cold War. Today it has just 1,420—a near fifty percent decrease.

The Air Force’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2023 continues this trend, cutting 150 aircraft while buying just 82 new airplanes. Slashing the size of the Air Force’s aircraft inventory while waiting on the next generation of technology to be fielded leaves the service in a tough spot.

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