The Department of the Air Force’s top leaders are on target with their newly announced reorganization. “We are out of time, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall explained Feb. 12. “[F]or at least two decades, China has been building a military that is designed, purpose-built, to deter and defeat the United States if we intervene in the Western Pacific. ... I don’t have to explain to you why time is my biggest concern. ... [T]he potential for conflict at any time is real.”

Secretary Kendall was exactly right, and that is why the organizational reforms are so important. However, their ultimate success comes with a big proviso. The Department of Defense and Congress must also address chronic underfunding and force structure shortfalls that are degrading the Air Force and Space Force’s ability to keep pace with China and deter great power aggression. No organizational plan, no matter how competent its design, can make up for these shortfalls without additional resources.

For too long, the Department of the Air Force has been chronically underfunded to meet its global missions. Between 2002 and 2021, the Army and the Navy received $1.3 trillion and $914 billion more, respectively, than the Department of the Air Force. This is consequential money — even by Washington, D.C., standards.

Consider that $1 trillion is double what it will take to procure and operate the Air Force’s two nuclear triad legs in their entirety — the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile system and the B-21 bomber. Much of this discrepancy is hidden by the reality that at least $40 billion of the Department of the Air Force’s fiscal 2023 budget is pass-through funding — money included in its top line but not controlled by its leadership. With great power competition now a reality, air power and space power are in tremendous demand, and it is time to adjust the defense budget to this reality.

The nation surged funding to the Army for the ground-centric wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now it is time for concerted investment to meet the growing global demand for air power and space power.

Anyone questioning the imperative for budget rebalancing needs to only consider that Air Force and Space Force capabilities are fundamentally too small and often too old given real-world mission demands.

While some may grow sentimental looking at aircraft like the B-52 bomber, B-1 bomber, KC-135 aerial refueling tanker, E-3 airborne warning and control system, T-38 jet trainer, F-15 fighter, F-16 fighter, A-10 combat aircraft, and even the UH-1 helicopter, the reality is that asking airmen to strap into decades-old planes — often exceeding half a century — crosses ethical lines. Not only are these aircraft nearing structural and mechanical exhaustion, but they are also increasingly unable to execute their missions in today’s stressing threat environments.

Newer aircraft like C-17 airlifters reached their initial operating capability before many of the crews now flying them were born. And other front-line combat aircraft, like the F-22 fighter, were not procured in sufficient volume. Gaps created by these shortfalls will not soon be resolved by aircraft now in production. The F-35 fighter and B-21 are not programmed for a high enough acquisition-ramp rate to reset their respective inventories fast enough to keep pace with China, much less pose a credible deterrent this decade.

On orbit, the Space Force is surging to reset almost all aspects of its architecture — an imperative given clear intent from adversaries to contest the space domain. That is why the Space Development Agency’s efforts are so crucial. Past that, many U.S. space systems are simply old. Consider the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program — the backbone of all DoD space-based weather capabilities. The system is far past its design life, and should a key asset fail, there is no backup plan. Replacements in the form of the Electro-Optical/Infrared Weather System and the Weather System Follow-on—Microwave program have been delayed far too long, largely due to budget shortfalls.

Resetting the force for great power competition also requires enough trained professionals. Whether looking at operational units or at the headquarters level, there are too many shortfalls in far too many career fields. Consider the Air Force’s perennial 2.000-pilot gap for fighter aircraft, a dearth of experienced maintainers and the service’s undersized electronic warfare community. Not only do these gaps hinder mission execution, but they also have profound impacts on the ability to teach and mentor new personnel, determine future weapon system requirements and execute program oversight.

The Space Force faces similar issues. The service was stood up based on end strength figures tied to legacy operating constructs, not the imperative to deter and defeat attacks in, from and through space. They also did not account for massive mission growth in the space domain, nor the need to provide space expertise throughout the U.S. combatant command enterprise. Ends must be aligned with the means.

Secretary Kendall and his Department of the Air Force leadership team have done their part reshaping the Air Force and Space Force. Now it is time to ensure their plan is adequately resourced. Whether the Air Force and Space Force ultimately succeed, as the nation requires, will come down to factors that are largely outside the Department of the Air Force’s control. Money, the scale and scope of modernization, and manpower are variables that demand immediate attention by the DoD and congressional leaders. It is crucial to heed Secretary Kendall’s warning: “We are out of time.” Internal reforms can only do so much; the Department of Defense and Congress must do their part.

Douglas A. Birkey is the executive director for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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