As they conduct bombing and surveillance missions around the globe, today’s U.S. military pilots rely on aerial refueling aircraft built as early as 1957, when the Soviet Union dominated American security fears, the average home cost $12,000 and “I Love Lucy” was debuting new episodes.
The cost of keeping those aging jets in the air has grown sharply while the military awaits a next-generation refueling plane whose rollout has been repeatedly delayed by design and production issues.
The Air Force’s two-decade effort to field a 21st century tanker, one of several premier air systems whose development has been beset with problems, is emblematic of the challenges Pentagon leaders face in seeking to maintain the U.S. military’s shrinking edge over its chief competitor, China.
The United States, once the world’s undisputed military superpower, has been struggling for years to efficiently update its arsenal and field new technology in cutting-edge areas such as hypersonics and artificial intelligence, at a time when some senior officials warn that China could be within five years of surpassing the U.S. military.
Experts point to myriad problems with the U.S. system, including a slow, calcified budgeting process, unwieldy congressional requirements and the Pentagon’s inability to effectively piggyback on private-sector advances in digital know-how.
“It’s like the Pentagon is finding itself staring in the rearview mirror in the face of oncoming traffic,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
As the Biden administration formulates its defense priorities, it must confront an increasingly urgent question: How will the United States stay ahead of an authoritarian competitor that is able to marshal industry and espionage to leapfrog decades of military technology?
Since taking office, leaders in the Biden administration, like their predecessors under President Donald Trump, have identified China as the top threat to U.S. security. They also have voiced concerns about America’s eroding edge as Beijing showcases its exponential growth in satellites, ballistic missiles, bombers, fighter aircraft, submarines and naval vessels.