Washington Watch

Jan. 1, 2009

Reinventing a Requirement

The Air Force is reconsidering its numerical requirement for the F-22 Raptor—which has remained fixed at 381 aircraft for seven years—and will offer the Obama Administration a new number no later than the end of February, according to Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley.

In a late November interview in Los Angeles, Donley said the Air Force is “re-looking the requirement issue.” The service will have a new number ready “a month ahead of” a Congressional mandate that the President certify, by March 1, that further F-22 production is needed.

“We’ll be prepared at the appropriate time to have that conversation,” Donley said. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael G. Mullen suggested in December that the new number could be 60 higher than the old limit of 183, bringing the fleet to 243 aircraft.

However, he said the F-22 requirement “is not the only issue in front of us, and … we have many considerations to look at before settling on a recommendation for the incoming Administration.”

Affecting the service’s judgments about the new target buy for the F-22, Donley said, will be “what would we take [the money] from—some other Air Force capability”—as well as “opportunity cost” of deferring or deleting some other aspect of the Air Force program.

“So, just coming up with a number for the requirement is not an adequate answer … in my view, and does not … equal a recommendation,” he said.

Donley acknowledged that the Air Force proposed cutting its fighter inventory as part of its 2010 budget, but said that the cuts did not assume more F-22s would be there to pick up the slack. The service is simply accepting greater risk.

“We have already had to confront the issue of bringing down force structure in order to support the existing modernization programs as they sit today in the department,” Donley reported. “And now we have the F-22 question … on top of that.”

Word of the cuts emerged in October, when 2010 program objective memoranda, or POM documents, leaked showing that the Air Force proposed slashing more than 300 fighters from the inventory. The reductions included 137 F-15s, 177 F-16s, and nine A-10s, toward saving about $3.4 billion in operations costs, to be applied to other projects. If enacted, the moves would chop 18 percent off the fighter force structure.

The proposed cuts mean that the Air Force would only keep about 129 F-15Cs of the 178 it had planned to make into “Golden Eagles”—those youngest F-15s which have the fewest problems and which would get an upgraded radar and other enhancements. The service has said all along that the size of its Golden Eagle fleet would depend on getting 381 F-22s; fewer Raptors would mean a consequent increase in the number of Golden Eagles that would have to be retained. It’s not clear how the math has changed, and service leaders have not identified any dramatic reduction in threat or rotational requirements for fighters.

“What we do across the Air Force,” Donley said, “is look at all our mission areas, all the things we have to do. We have to make choices. We cannot do everything we want to do in all those mission areas, at the speed we would like to do it. We don’t have the money. … So we have to make choices.”

View From the Pentagon

Donley spoke a few days after John J. Young Jr., the Pentagon’s acquisition, technology, and logistics chief, approved spending only $50 million of $140 million that Congress provided to keep the F-22 in production.

The funds were meant to support long-lead money to buy 20 F-22s, but Young’s action funded only four—an amount he said was sufficient to give the new Administration enough time to make an informed choice about its F-22 plans.

Leaders of the two committees that oversee appropriations thereafter sent Young a letter urging him to comply with Congress’ stated intent to spend all the long-lead money for 20 F-22s. However, Young said the law providing long-lead money for F-22 production did not require spending all of it (see “Air Force World: OSD Releases Minimum Funding for More F-22s,” p. 14).

Donley also said that to go beyond funding just four more Raptors “can be interpreted as taking away the flexibility of the incoming Administration to make this decision, as well.”

In a discussion with defense reporters in November, Young went out of his way to offer comments damning the F-22, saying it has still not met key performance parameters, is proving far more costly to maintain than expected, is taking more maintenance man-hours than expected, and is turning in mission capable rates hovering at 62 percent.

The Air Force, however, has touted the airplane as exceeding expectations and demonstrating mature performance.

The service’s official response to Young’s charges was, “No comment.”

The decision to continue with the F-22—or not, as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said he believes the programmed 183 aircraft are enough—has to be viewed “holistically” within the context of the overall Air Force budget, Donley said.

“We can’t look at these decisions as just one system. Would you like to have more F-22s? Sure. Would you like to have more C-17s? Sure. … But this is all about balance. And when you do balance, you end up sub-optimizing in individual areas to get the optimum use of resources as a whole. … We have to make choices.”

Default Downsizing

The Air Force is going to have to be highly selective about which programs it commits to, because it wants to avoid planning for—and investing in—large production capabilities that then yield only a few operational systems, Donley said.

“We’re modernization- and recapitalization-challenged,” Donley said in the interview.

“We have produced small numbers of aircraft, in some cases, that end up being more niche capability than we had originally intended. … We have to be very careful [not to] … start down the path of developing capabilities that we think we’re going to buy a lot of, but we decide later, after several iterations inside the department or with Congress, that we’re only going to buy a few. That gets us way out of whack on our force structure, and that’s where we are on bombers.”

Donley noted that the B-2 program was originally facilitized, at great expense, to build more than 170 airplanes, but ended up producing only 21. Likewise, the F-22 program was conceived as yielding more than 700 airplanes, but the Bush Administration chose to halt the program at 183 aircraft.

He noted that “it does sometimes make sense to build a small niche capability” like the F-117 attack aircraft. In that example, he said, a small number were built as an “early generation” stealth system, “with some attributes that you would not necessarily want to carry forward—[and] a lot of experimental elements embedded in it.”

The labor-intensive stealth features of the F-117 quickly gave way to cheaper, more producible and maintainable systems on the B-2, F-22, and F-35.

“We probably need to continue to do [niche programs]. But do them deliberately, and not accidentally default from something we meant to buy a lot of,” Donley observed. He added that to promote an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator such as the Global Hawk to a full-up operational system does have some growing pains, but in the end, it’s a better way to go about it “than a B-2 situation,” where a large production and organic support capability was laid in and then not needed.

He sees a “tension” between niche platforms and large-run systems as they compete for procurement dollars. He also said the Air Force has had a challenging time meeting both short-term combat needs—where money is almost no object—and long-term requirements, and finding a balance between the two.

“We’re making some 30- and 40-year investments where we have to be more careful, more deliberative, and we have to do more trade-off work. And I do think it is a challenge to be living in both of those worlds, where, on one hand, requirements and resources are less constrained and, on the other hand, they need to [be] and will be constrained.”

Donley added that in unmanned aerial vehicles, he sees a continuing “variety” of systems being developed and fielded, rather than a standard machine that the Air Force configures for a particular mission.

“I don’t see a convergence to a single aerodynamic or mission-focused combination of … stuff. I see a lot of variety.”

The Nuclear Handle

Donley was brought in after Michael W. Wynne and then-Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley were forced to resign last summer over two episodes that came to light of mishandled nuclear weapons and related components. His charter, with six months left of the Bush Administration, was to concentrate on turning the Air Force’s nuclear culture around. Donley thinks that’s largely been accomplished.

“I think we have most of it figured out,” Donley said. “There are a few details that we still need to work. But I would say that the big issues for the Air Force leadership have been determined and are reflected in the [nuclear] roadmap,” which was released in November.

“I don’t want to minimize the amount of work ahead of us, implementing that,” he cautioned. Standing up the new Global Strike Command, just one of the plans in the roadmap, “is a couple of years’ effort.”

Still, “the big decisions have been made.”

Does he think it was the right decision, back in 1992, to eliminate Strategic Air Command, especially since the main fix to the nuclear issue was creating a new SAC-like organization

Donley replied that the various blue-ribbon and internal looks at the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise all concluded “that there was no one big change that led to this loss of focus on the nuclear work. It was a series of changes, and areas receiving new emphasis, the blending of nuclear work with other work that had higher priority, and these sorts of incremental changes that really left us with less than the focus that we now understand we need. So I wouldn’t hang it all on the SAC decision, by any stretch.”

It’s time for a new nuclear debate, Donley said, but unlike those of the 1970s and 1980s, which focused on delivery systems such as bombers or ICBMs, it should be about how to build and maintain a safe and credible inventory of nuclear warheads.

“I think we face some fundamental questions as a nation,” Donley asserted. “This is not about how big the nuclear arsenal is,” or whether it should be larger or smaller.

“We know we’re going to have nuclear weapons in land, sea, and air configuration, and … if we’re going to do that for another 30, 40, 50 years, we need to start thinking seriously about how it’s kept modern, safe, reliable, and secure over that period.”

The Tanker Menu

The new Administration will be presented with a “menu” of options on how to proceed with a new aerial tanker, “as opposed to a single-point recommendation,” Donley said.

“There are ways to do this, and our efforts are focused right now on making sure that we have options in front of the new team” with regard to requirements, source selection strategy, and acquisition strategy.

Young has said that he favors a basic approach, possibly one based strictly on price, but Donley said, “I don’t think it’s the only one.”

He said the Bush Administration is waiting to offer a preferred choice among the range of possibilities until it understands the new Administration’s priorities, “where they’re headed on budget issues, and so I think there’s room for discussion. And there needs to be further discussion.”

In the abortive tanker program, “we saw good examples” of how “sometimes our contractor partners and even our major command partners” and advocates inside the service “get focused on a particular system [or] specific program decision. We need to understand the whole Air Force, the holistic perspective of where we are.”