Q and A
Loren B. Thompson is the executive director of the Lexington Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank in Arlington, Va., mostly engaged in defense policy work. He discussed the role of the F-16 fighter jet (Cannon Air Force Base is home to 80 F-16s), assessing the military value of an air base, and what trends he sees in the future of the military air power.
Q: We have an F-16 base here, Cannon Air Force Base, as you are probably aware. What is the current strategic role of the F-16 fighter jet, and how is that role changing or how could it possibly change?
A: The F-16 is part of a high-low mix of tactical aircraft that are designed to accomplish air superiority, close air support of ground forces, and a variety of other things like air interdiction. It’s basically the tip of the spear for U.S. air power. When I say a high-low mix, I mean it is the cheaper and more numerous part of a mix that includes the twin engine F-15, top of the line air superiority fighter.
Q: When BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) is considering a base for shut down, how important is the factor of air space?
A: The single most important criterion applied to determining whether to keep a base or close it is military utility, or military value. In other words, does the base provide something useful to one or more services and are there other facilities that could do it better or more cheaply. In the case of fighters, there is a chronic problem, both in the Navy and in the Air Force, of not being able to use air space near urban areas because of the noise bothers the people living around those facilities. So if there is a lot of open air space where there’s no commercial flights and there’s not a lot of residents on the ground to complain about the sound that potentially is a valuable base.
Q: In you estimation, what does the future of military air power look like? What trends do you see happening?
A: Well, 10 years ago the military services formulated a very ambitious plan to buy thousands of fighters in order to replace aging, cold-war aircraft. What has happened since then, is we’ve become engaged in a number of insurgency-type campaigns, in Somalia, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. It’s no longer as clear as it once seemed that we need to replace all those cold war fighters. The Air Force, which operates the F-16, is headed in the direction of cutting its fighter force by about a quarter, roughly from 2,400 aircraft to 1,800. Its plan is to keep the same number of top-of-the-line fighters it was already planning to acquire, about 400 F-22 (Stealth fighters). It means that all of the cuts are going to come in the low end where the F-16s are.
Q: What does that mean to a base like Cannon, that has 80 F-16s, and nothing else?
A: You know, I am not an expert on Cannon, but I would say two things. First of all, if you cut the number of F-16s in the force by several hundred, there’s a real possibility you are going to need fewer F-16 bases. In addition to that, if Cannon only has F-16s, then you have the problem that it is basically supporting a single mission as opposed to multiple missions, and it’s only doing that for a single service. That means that it is less versatile, and it might lose ground in terms of the military value ratings.
Q: Could it potentially be transferred over to another mission?
A: That’s right, two things could be helpful for Cannon. One is that it could take on new missions, the other is that it could keep doing the mission that it’s doing because it is easier to do it at Cannon than other places, and potentially bring in even more aircraft from a site where that mission is becoming hard to accomplish.