Automatic budget sequestration cut deeply into the U.S. Air Force’s training in 2012. Air Combat Command got just $3,1 billion—three-quarters of what it needed to fully train the thousands of pilots flying the command’s 1,600 F-15, F-16 and F-22 fighters, A-10 attack jets and B-1 bombers.
So the command did something radical—and with far-reaching consequences as American air power retools for fighting high-tech foes following more than decade bombing insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Air Combat Command stripped certain airplanes of many of their missions, thus cutting back on the number of flight hours a particular pilot needed to be officially war-ready. Air-to-air dogfighting and low-altitude maneuvering suddenly became much rarer skills.
Perhaps most interestingly, the command essentially barred F-16s—at a thousand strong, America’s most numerous fighter—from engaging any enemy jet newer than a 1970s-vintage MiG-23.
Here’s the funny thing about the F-16. Designed from Day 1 to be the most maneuverable fighter around, the Air Force has never really treated it as a fighter. It’s always been more of a light attack aircraft. To be sure, it has always had, and continues to have an impressive air to air capability. But a look at the US air campaigns of the past 30 years shows the Fighting Falcon has been primarily used as a striker, and left the air to air mission largely to the F-15 fleet.
So while we would, in an ideal world, continue to train F-16 crews for both the air to air mission and the air to ground mission, given the limited resources, it makes sense to actually focus on the mission they’re most likely to actually be tasked with.