Our foreign policy establishment believes that America's allotment of conventional weapons is useless. The DOD's current leaders (Robert Gates, William Lynn, et al.) would love to significantly reduce our numbers in this respect, and they've already made extensive "progress."
The first President Bush cancelled over a hundred weapon programs and reduced many others, including the order for B-2 bombers. The Clinton administration also canceled or cut a number of programs (e.g., the Seawolf class), as did the second Bush administration (vide the XM2001 artillery program, the Comanche helicopter, the E-10MC2A AWACS, etc.). All three administrations also radically reduced the inventories of existing conventional weapons. During the late 1980s, the USAF had over 3,200 fighterplanes; now it has about 2,300. The USAF's bomber fleet has shrunk to just 162 aircraft, while the Navy, with just 286 vessels, has the smallest warship fleet since 1916. The Obama administration has implemented its own cuts of existing stockpiles of weapons, and during FY2010, it closed over twenty crucial weapon programs, including the F-22, the Zumwalt class, the CSAR-X helicopter program, and the AC-X gunship program. SecDef Robert Gates tried to justify these cuts with claims that a bunch of militants hiding in caves threaten the U.S. worse than China and Russia does. He also believes that these countries are not America's foes, or even potential adversaries, but rather constructive partners. Harry Reid came to Gates's defense, saying that conventional weapons like F-22s are useless against irregular opponents such as the Taliban and are therefore totally unneeded.
But are these weapons systems really useless against insurgents? And if so, is there any other task they can do today?
Most conventional weapons -- including the ones designed during the Cold War -- have been remarkably effective in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not just against the conventional Iraqi military.
B-1 bombers delivered 40% of the bombs used during the first six months of OEF, and they are still used in Afghanistan, where they loiter above the ground, observe the field, and bomb targets designated by commanders. B-2 bombers delivered bombs against Iraqi and Afghan targets, including Saddam's command post.
M1 Abrams tanks are being deployed to Afghanistan this year, because they (and long-range howitzers) deliver a massive punch that MRAP vehicles and light guns cannot.
Apache helicopters have served in Iraq and Afghanistan for a long time. Insurgents often surrender at the sight of an AH-64. Non-line-of-sight cannons have long been supporting infantrymen by firing from long distances on the Taliban. F-15s and F-16s have been patrolling the skies over the U.S. and delivering bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was an F-16, not a UAV, that killed Al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Hercules planes and C-17s have been busy delivering supplies every day, wherever needed. They're absolutely essential in Afghanistan, where there are few usable roads.
Surface warships and submarines have been delivering Tomahawk cruise missiles right on target (e.g., terrorist camps) whenever needed.
Combat Search and Rescue helicopters rescue American servicemembers. These are needed so often that some have been worn out, and the USAF urgently needs replacement aircraft. Even aircraft carriers, often maligned as useless against insurgents (Secretary Gates intends to reduce the carrier fleet to ten ships), have proven useful. On 9/11/2001, the Enterprise was exiting the Persian Gulf as the crew heard the horrible news. That same day, the ship's captain, James Winnefeld (now Admiral James Winnefeld, commander of the NORTHCOM), ordered the vessel to turn around. The next day, the Enterprise was close enough to Asia's shores to have Afghanistan within the range of its air wing. On October 7, 2001, when President Bush began bombing Afghanistan, the Enterprise's aircraft were the first to attack targets in that country.
In any event, the current threat environment is not limited to irregular opponents. The Afghan and Iraqi wars notwithstanding, conventional threats (such as China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela) remain the most lethal, most numerous, and most likely facing the U.S.
These countries are deploying (China to the largest degree) advanced conventional and nonconventional weapons of various kinds (fighterplanes, submarines, surface warships, naval mines, etc.) against which irregular weapons like Predator and Reaper UAVs would be useless. Some of them, including China and North Korea, have already amassed huge arsenals of conventional weapons, but China, whose defense budget has been growing at double-digit rates since 1989, is now modernizing its arsenal on a large scale. The most worrisome of these countries' weapon systems are anti-access/access-denial weapons (strike aircraft, bombers, SAMs, submarines, naval mines, anti-ship missiles, surface-to-surface ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-satellite weapons) whose purpose is to deny the U.S. military access to a combat theater by threatening American carriers, land bases, satellites, and nonstealthy aircraft. Also troubling are their fighterplane fleets and programs, whose point is to deny the U.S. air supremacy, the sine qua non of military victory. Russia flew it's 5th eneration stealthy fighterplane (the PAK FA) earlier this year, and China's first 5th generation fighterplanes are projected by U.S. intel to arrive in 2018-2019. Russia already has 469 Flankers, and China possesses 293; Russia has also sold Flankers to Venezuela and, allegedly, Iran. These aircraft are, by the USAF's own admission, superior to F-15s, not to mention F-16s. The AFA agrees. These threats are real, and weapons produced during the 1970s and the 1980s cannot neutralize them. It is therefore necessary to develop and deploy, in large numbers, the next generation of conventional weapons, including F-35s and a family of long-range strike weapons that could penetrate even a heavily defended environment. To protect surface warships against anti-ship missiles, the DOD should purchase and deploy missile defense systems (land- and ship-based) and continue building Virginia-class submarines to seek out and sink hostile warships. Nonstealthy standoff bombers (B-52s and B-1s) could be modernized and, if there will be enough spare parts, used in permissive threat environments for a few more decades. Such undefended or lightly defended environments will be few in number, however.
To sum up, the U.S. is no longer unrivalled in terms of conventional weapons. Conventional threats are real and growing -- not "conjured up" and shrinking, as Gates claims. It is necessary to invest in the equipment needed to defeat these threats.