Air Force May Be About to Make Another Big Force Structure Mistake

Possible big cuts in force structure—which Air Force leaders have hinted may be coming in the next budget to pay for connectivity improvements—would be a mistake, repeating a pattern that has gotten the service into a capacity hole it can’t afford to be in, two analysts argue in a new paper by AFA’s Mitchell Institute.

“How the Air Force got to where it is”—too small to carry out the missions assigned to it—is a result of the service believing at key points in the last 25 years that it could reduce force structure and use the savings to pay for modernization, Mark Gunzinger, Mitchell director of future aerospace concepts and capability assessments, said at a paper roll-out at AFA headquarters in Arlington, Va. The paper is titled, “Moving Toward the Air Force We Need? Assessing Air Force Budget Trends.”

“We’ve all heard the rumors” that the Air Force is planning to reduce the B-1 bomber fleet again, using the savings to, in part, upgrade Air Force multi-domain command and control, Gunzinger noted.

That approach, though, “has not worked out” any time it’s been tried, he said, and each attempt has left the Air Force with less hardware and people than needed to do the job. The move would “repeat the pattern we’ve seen for the last 25 years,” he observed. Being a “loyal soldier,” the Air Force has reacted to budget cuts “by saying, ‘we’ll cut what we think will be less useful in the future, in order to hopefully free up some resources to fund what we think we need tomorrow.’” And while the Air Force should pursue those next generation capabilities, “retirements of current USAF force structure are not going to yield the kind of savings … needed to build the future force.” To depend on such an approach to build, “The Force We Need,” Gunzinger said, “just doesn’t add up.”

Moreover, the Air Force has usually applied this approach in parallel with steps to increase money for research, development, test, and evaluation. The idea has been that R&D spending will “keep the industrial base healthy” and allow the service to “buy it later,” Gunzinger said.

However, Carl Rehberg, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, co-author on the paper, said that hasn’t panned out, either.

The level of RDT&E spending is “historically high,” Rehberg said, and “while we’re not against that, … we are concerned that procurement is not following. If you look at the procurement lines, they’re basically flat.” In previous buildups and downturns, “when the downturns hit, they usually hit procurement, and the RDT&E basically never shows up” in the hands of combat forces. The huge sums spent on developing new wonder weapons without fielding them was “basically lost,” Gunzinger said, as what was developed was eclipsed by new technologies. The bulk of the Air Force fleet is “the product … of the buildup during the Reagan years” in the 1980s, with some upgrades along the way.

The two said the Air Force has suffered from “the myth” that the four service budgets—Army, Navy Department, and Air Force—are “one-third, one-third, one-third,” Gunzinger said. But because the Air Force budget topline also carries what is termed “pass through” money, which funds joint-service projects in space and special operations and is not controlled by the Air Force, the “blue” portion of the budget is actually much lower than the share enjoyed by the other services.

Pentagon leaders must discuss new roles and missions, and recognize the essential enabling functions of the Air Force, as well as trades made across the services, rather than each service given its putative third and making trades within its own activities, the two authors said. With pass-through and the disproportionate share for the other service, the Air Force has had to cut its own force structure to pay for modernization that benefits the whole of the US military enterprise, they said. The “broken” system has led to the Navy actually buying more aircraft in most of the last 10 years than the Air Force did, they pointed out. The number of aircraft the Navy buys “shouldn’t even be close” to the number USAF buys, Gunzinger asserted, given the services’ missions.

Other factors the two authors cited as having hobbled USAF’s attempts at modernization include: the desire for a “peace dividend” in the mid-1990s that saw USAF cut its strength by nearly half; strategy reviews in the 1990s that concluded the service could simply extend its existing hardware without actually buying “new” airplanes and missiles; a “hollow buildup” in the 2000s that saw large budget increases go to “beans and bullets” in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars rather than modernization; and the 2011 Budget Control Act, known as sequestration. The Air Force suffered mighty force structure hits with the cancellation of the B-2 and termination of the F-22 prematurely, with the money spent inside on brush wars instead of preparing for what the new National Defense Strategy terms “great power competition.”

Even today, operations and maintenance comprises some 40-45 percent of the Air Force’s total obligation authority, Gunzinger pointed out.

Why has the Navy been more effective in getting its aviation program funded?

“I see Navy leaders almost every day, stepping out and talking about their future requirements, and the need for additional resources to build the 355-ship Navy,” Gunzinger observed, noting they also are explaining “why they have a fighter force structure gap.” However, from the Air Force, “I don’t hear that quite as much.” He said the Air Force has also not been vocal about explaining and promoting its need for 386 operational squadrons. “We haven’t heard a lot about that from the Air Force. I think that contributes to the problem,” Gunzinger added. The Air Force also has inflicted some pain on itself by its “internal decisions to reduce procurement of fifth-generation capabilities,” namely the F-35.

Gunzinger hastened to add, though, that USAF’s Chief of Staff is acutely aware that he has many problems that have to be addressed simultaneously.

“You know you have a budget problem, … an aging force, … readiness is lower than it’s supposed to be, … you don’t have enough endstrength. What do you do? What are your choices if you don’t expect to get … a budget plus-up?” he asked. The choice USAF leaders seem to be making “We’ll do what we’ve done in the past, with cuts to legacy force structure in order to free up some resources to put toward hypersonic weapons, directed energy systems, advanced unmanned capabilities, and so forth.” But, “That strategy really hasn’t worked very well for the Air Force.”

He suggested that a better approach would be “to talk more openly about the shortfalls that exist, why they exist, and the need to build a future force,” which “will, frankly, take increased resources.”