While there has been much coverage–and debate–regarding sequestration’s impact on the U.S. military, there is another crisis that has received far less attention, yet the long-term consequences are equally serious. 

We refer to the looming shutdown of production lines for various American military aircraft.  With domestic production runs nearing their end (and dwindling foreign exports), a number of plants that have produced fighter jets and other planes will be shuttered in the years ahead, resulting in the loss of thousands of good-paying jobs and key elements of our defense-industrial base.  Richard Aboulafia describes the problem in Aviation Week:

Remember the Last Supper? This wave of 1990s defense company mergers was intended to solve the industry’s post-Cold War overcapacity problem. If overcapacity is measured in corporate names or headquarters staff, then mission accomplished. Unfortunately, overcapacity is best measured in factories and programs, and aside from Grumman’s F-14 and Northrop’s B-2, no active military aircraft lines were terminated in the 1990s. Whether through reinvention or exports, most lines stayed alive.

Yet the past few months have seen stark harbingers of looming pain. In September, right after Boeing delivered the 223rd and final U.S. Air Force C-17, the company announced the line would close in 2015. A month later, South Korea rejected the Boeing F-15 for its F-X 3 competition, dooming the proposed Silent Eagle variant and probably killing the line after the last of Saudi Arabia’s current order is delivered in 2018.

In December, the Boeing F/A-18E/F lost the Brazilian FX-2 competition, one of several key international defeats. A pre-solicitation announcement for 36 additional Super Hornets in fiscal 2015, placed by the Navy at the FedBizOpps.gov website in October, was withdrawn several days later, probably under pressure from the Defense Department. The last Super Hornet is scheduled to be delivered in 2016, and Boeing said it must decide this March whether it will preserve the line with company funding.

As a result, Mr. Aboulafia writes, there will be only two dedicated, secure fixed-wing military aircraft production lines by the end of this decade.  Both will belong to Lockheed-Martin, which has long-term contracts to build the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the U.S. military and various foreign buyers, along with the C-130J, the latest version of the venerable, tactical airlifter that first flew in the 1950s.

And there’s very little in the pipeline, once current programs peter out.  The Air Force’s new tanker, the KC-46, is a military version of the Boeing 767 and will be assembled alongside commercial jets.  Ditto for the Navy’s P-8 patrol aircraft, which is based on the 737 airframe.  A new trainer aircraft for the USAF is expected to be based on a commercial design, and production of the next-generation strike-bomber aircraft won’t begin until 2025 at the earliest.

In the interim, factories that have been building F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s and various other military jets will be shuttered; the machining equipment will be sold for scrap, and many of the skilled workers will head off for retirement.  So, if the United States ever decides to build military aircraft in sufficient numbers again, it will be a much more difficult–and expensive–process.

Of course, some of the cuts were inevitable.  But others reflect the feckless spending and procurement philosophies adopted by the Obama Administration and Congress in recent years.  Veering from one budget crises to the next, the smart guys in the White House, the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill have elected to hack the military budget at every opportunity, while forgoing needed cuts in entitlement programs.

The results of this “strategy” are predictable and dangerous.  With C-17 production winding down, Boeing plans to shut down the assembly dedicated to that strategic airlifter.  Never mind the strategic “pivot” to Asia, and the increased need for long-range airlift.  It’s the same type of thinking that halted F-22 production at less than 200 aircraft (and denied exports to Japan and Australia), just as adversaries like China and Russia are developing their own, fifth-generation stealth fighters.

Some would argue that the era of manned combat aircraft has passed, and future conflicts will be dominated by UAVs.  There’s an element of truth in that assessment, but it’s also worth remembering that manned, low-observable aircraft are more survivable in high-threat combat scenarios than drones.  General Ron Keys, the former commander of the USAF’s Air Combat Command noted a few years ago that “China’s ability to shoot down our UAVs is limited only by their ability to re-load their SAM launchers.”  Moreover, the “combat drones” that will supplant (or replace) manned aircraft are still years away from operational service and with an eroding industrial base, our ability to produce those UAVs will also be impacted.

Years ago, wags predicted that with rising procurement costs and declining production capabilities, the U.S. tactical fighter inventory (at the middle of the 21st century) would consist of a single aircraft, shared by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.  The jet will be state-of-the-art, but it will be so expensive that no service will be able to operate it more than a few days each year, and with the prohibitive cost of replacement, no pilot–or commander–will be brave enough to actually fly it.

Sadly, that “day” is much closer than we realize.  Evaporating capabilities to build military aircraft don’t exactly lower unit costs.