We’ve all heard the statistics that many of the U.S. Air Force’s young pilots fly the same planes their fathers and grandfathers flew in Vietnam. They were once cutting edge but now are old, worn out, and technologically dated.

Now it’s time to for Congress to do something about the problem of declining air power capabilities.

The Air Force has invested billions to service and upgrade ever-aging fighter, cargo, and lift platforms, however, there are doubts about how long these aircraft can be maintained. Just over two years ago, an F-15/D fighter broke apart into pieces in the sky due to structural strain–serving to remind us of the dangerous consequences of under-investment in new airframes.

As old planes fall out of service due to wear and tear or are retired, U.S. fighter aircraft inventories will fall far below the numbers identified by the Air Force as being necessary to meet the nation’s demands. The pace of new aircraft purchases is too slow to bridge the fighter gap, as the Heritage Foundation highlights in a chart book on “The State of the Military.”

President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates cancelled the F-22 fifth-generation fighter program last year, instead investing in the Joint Strike Fighter. But now Pentagon leaders are cutting purchases of the F-35, further exacerbating the fighter shortfall.

New planes are expensive and require significant upfront investment. But it should not be lost upon Americans that this investment reaps benefits—from deterrence, mobility, and air supremacy—for decades to come.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Air Force budgets are being targeted as a billpayer for other federal spending, and that the entire defense budget is under pressure from exponential growth in entitlement spending and domestic programs. But allowing Air Force accounts to be plundered is shortsighted. The U.S. military can only patch up old planes for so long without risk to those in uniform and the nation’s security interests.

As the President announces his fiscal year 2011 defense budget request today, Congress must fight to remedy the fighter gap and ensure that the Air Force pilots of tomorrow have the same technological advantage enjoyed by their forebears.