Washington Watch

Feb. 1, 2007

Demands of the Urban Air War

The Air Force needs to improve its urban warfare capabilities and would greatly benefit from both new concepts of operations for cities and dedicated R&D aimed at producing new weapons tailored to combat in built-up areas.

So said the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board in a report made publicly available in the fall.

“Air Force Operations in Urban Environments” was a 2005 SAB summer study. It was circulated to a variety of defense agencies before being publicly released.

Setting the scene, the SAB noted that, in urban terrain, “many of the advantages of airpower are diminished.” Buildings both short and tall get in the way of weapon flight paths. They also interfere with communications and targeting systems.

Moreover, urban targets “are typically small and fleeting,” leaving little time for action. Many of the weapons USAF now has simply make too much of a blast to use with civilians close by.

In short, while “warfare in open terrain is essentially two dimensional, … warfare in urban terrain is emphatically three dimensional” and requires different thinking.

After considering how the Air Force now prosecutes urban warfare—an increasingly common application in Iraq—the SAB made several observations.

First, the Air Force, being a “three dimensional” service, “brings a critically important vertical dimension to urban ops.” The AC-130 gunship and the Predator drone, armed with Hellfire missiles, are considered “star performers” in the urban setting and are much in demand by theater commanders.

However, the service is hampered by the terrain not only on the ground, but in the ability to stack up many aircraft over a tight ground area. The SAB wants the Air Force to work on better airspace management tools in such confined spaces.

The Air Force doesn’t have a concept of operations for urban operations, the SAB said, advising that it is “extremely important” that one be developed and made part of the “overall structure of the Air Force.” Once in place, it should be incorporated into the training curriculum, “and we will then be able to send both Air Force and joint command personnel to the field fully trained in urban ops.”

Additionally, air support in urban operations should not be considered a doctrinal “lesser included case” of conventional close air support, as it is now. In an urban setting, CAS should be available “in single-digit minutes (ideally, one to two minutes),” the SAB said.

The SAB said the urban environment is the “most stressing case” for several capabilities, and improving USAF’s ability to prosecute such targets will also “enhance other missions.”

Such capabilities would be, first, in developing automated intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities, such that when targets are spotted, if they are moving, they would be tagged and followed automatically, with locations constantly updated in a geo-locator database.

There should be continued work on developing 3-D mapping capability using lasers, as well as “staring ISR” systems. All Air Force sensors should be upgraded with “autonomous geo-registration capability.”

The SAB said nonlethal weapons, such as directed energy, are ideal for the urban environment and urged the Air Force to pursue them, since they are highly specific and have a tailorable amount of power. Development of such weapons should be put “on an equal footing” in priority “with more conventional weapons.”

Even so, “there is still a clear need for kinetic weapons with yields considerably lower than currently available.” The SAB said the Air Force should develop munitions that could be used safely within 164 yards of either friendly forces or noncombatants. The new Small Diameter Bomb is expected to address some, but not all, of this requirement.

It would also be useful if the pilot in an attacking airplane could select in the cockpit the amount of blast the weapon produces, the SAB said. Small munitions able to maneuver in the tight “canyons” of a big city are another weapon that will be needed to enhance urban operations. These weapons should be able to descend “at low speed,” both to make targeting more precise and to limit the kinetic effects of a fall from high altitude.

The Air Force should have a dedicated and rationalized science and technology plan for developing all such capabilities, and they should be pursued in coordination with the other services, the SAB asserted. The service doesn’t have such a master plan or roadmap now.

Finally, the SAB recommended that the Air Force invest heavily in developing modeling and simulation tools to help it figure out how to operate better in urban situations, particularly for dress rehearsal of combat missions.

House Panel: US Gets Less With Less

The Pentagon—and the Air Force—has long held that modern weapon systems are so powerful and capable that they can replace older platforms at a less than one-for-one ratio. Case in point: OSD insists that 183 F-22s can do the job of 722 F-15s.

A detailed study by the outgoing Republican-led House Armed Services Committee directly challenges that assumption.

While acknowledging that new systems—such as fifth generation fighters—are significantly more capable than older fighters, the true costs of a numerically smaller force haven’t been taken into account, the House panel said. Fewer systems leads to reduced flexibility. It also undermines the US defense industrial base.

The findings were among many in the so-called Committee Defense Review, written in response to DOD’s own Quadrennial Defense Review.

“A shrinking number of platforms reduces strategic depth and flexibility,” the HASC maintained. Reducing the number of platforms per mission area increases their individual operating tempo, thereby accelerating the rate at which they wear out, the CDR found.

The less-than-one-for-one replacement scheme “makes it more difficult to influence the strategic environment through military presence,” the report noted.

Moreover, the study went on, a dwindling number of systems “weakens the defense industrial base and limits the ability to support a long conflict. The committee believes that these costs exceed the benefits” of the less-is-more force structure.

The committee expressed particular concern about the ability to build tactical aircraft.

“Today, DOD has only two fixed-wing combat aircraft programs under way,” it noted: the F-22 and the F-35.

“Cuts to either program could significantly undermine the US industrial base at a time when foreign modernization trends in both ground-based air defense and aircraft are calling US predominance into question.”

A weaker industrial base, the HASC said, “may not be capable of quickly adapting or responding to sudden changes in threats.” It concluded that “some programmatic decisions may have to be made on the basis of preserving US production capabilities, not solely in response to current threats.”

The HASC made similar comments about the shipbuilding industrial base, which it said has gone from “the largest in the world to near extinction in less than a generation.”

The CDR also took a shot at the practice of “gapping,” in which an older system, growing more costly to maintain, is retired before its replacement is in hand. The committee wrote specifically about Air Force bombers and tactical transports, but the practice applies to Navy ships and other systems as well. The HASC argued that gapping is a dangerous gamble.

“The US government should not retire … current operational systems before proving and deploying new capabilities,” the CDR said. “The committee appreciates the fiscal constraints that drive DOD to retire older systems, but notes with alarm that ‘gapping’ capabilities in such a way unnecessarily increases risks to US national security.”

In an environment in which commanders and experts alike “consistently emphasized that the armed forces need more ISR assets at every level of command,” the HASC was puzzled that the services don’t make existing systems more robust and invest adequately in next generation systems. The Air Force, for example, after long touting the E-10 Multisensor Command and Control Aircraft as an urgent requirement to replace or augment both E-3 AWACS and E-8 Joint STARS—as well as a lynchpin of defense against cruise missiles—demoted the E-10 to a mere technology demonstrator and vacated most of its funding.

“ISR units do not achieve planned levels of operational availability,” the HASC said. “In fact, their availability rates are generally lower than those of combat units. As a result, the committee believes that ISR capabilities and capacity need to increase over and above their current ratio.”

Besides the fact that the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are causing a chronic ISR shortfall, the CDR also said that the Air Force’s space-based ISR capabilities “do not meet anticipated requirements through 2018.”

The Hit List: 654 Airplanes

In December, the Air Force blitzed Capitol Hill with a new briefing and brochure aimed at explaining the urgency of retiring many of its older airplanes. The service has gotten Congressional relief in being allowed to retire some “old iron,” but still has a long way to go.

For the first time, the Air Force revealed that it wants to retire 654 airplanes through Fiscal 2013. That figure includes 12 different types, ranging from 157 F-16s and 95 F-15s to four E-4B flying command posts. The service wants to completely retire the F-117 attack aircraft, T-37 trainer, and U-2 spyplane.

The briefing revealed the stark fact that “increased age of the current aircraft inventory has [a] serious effect on readiness. In fact, only two in three aircraft are ready for flight today.” Even if all the aircraft the Air Force expects to buy in the next six years are actually bought, the average age of the fleet will rise from 24 years to 26.

The costs to maintain the aging fleet are soaring, USAF said, “particularly the maintenance of deteriorating aircraft structures, wiring upgrades, and increased flight restrictions, due to safety concerns and mechanical problems.”

The service is spending 20 percent of its procurement budget on modifications, “the highest percentage in the history of the Air Force.”

Still, USAF is struggling with Congressional restrictions on what can be retired. It wants to get rid 78 KC-135 tankers in Fiscal 2007, but Congress will only permit 49 to be removed from service. Congress completely blocked retirements of the U-2, partly because a successor capability is not yet in hand (See “House Panel: US Gets Less With Less,” p. 12). Some retirements have been blocked as a way to prop up constituent workforces.

The Air Force noted, though, that of the 354 aircraft it asked to get rid of in Fiscal 2007, Congress agreed to 302, but 108 of those face further strings as to when they can be totally withdrawn from service. Congress prohibited 52 airplanes from being taken out of duty.

“Congress must allow the Air Force to manage its future” by permitting divestiture of the older airplanes and agreeing to buy new replacements, the service argued.

Flattening Cost of Ownership

Fans of the public radio show “Car Talk” know that one should not expect the steeply rising costs of maintaining a car that is older than six years to keep shooting up forever. The annual maintenance costs will eventually flatten out and the costs of keeping an older car get more predictable.

According to a RAND report released in December, the same pattern seems to apply to old commercial airliners and may—may—suggest that the cost of managing the Air Force’s inventory of aged big airplanes could flatten out, as well.

In “The Maintenance Costs of Aging Aircraft: Insights From Commercial Aviation,” USAF Capt. Matthew C. Dixon reviewed the actual maintenance experience of commercial airline operators. According to his data, Dixon found that maintenance costs of big airplanes tend to rise steeply for the first 12 years of operations, but then the increase begins to taper off, rising only very gradually afterward. Between six and 12 years of age, maintenance costs per flying hour tended to increase 3.5 percent per year of aircraft age.

The Air Force operates aircraft of a similar size and, in some cases, similar vintage as the airlines and freight carriers. However, they generally don’t keep aircraft in service much beyond 20 years, while the Air Force is now managing a fleet averaging four years older than that (see above.)

“RAND’s airline data are sparse for aircraft past 25 years of age,” Dixon wrote, allowing that “a more pessimistic maintenance-cost growth pattern may hold for very old aircraft.”

Engine maintenance costs shot up for the first five years before leveling off, while costs per flight hour took a steadier climb until plateauing after 12 years.

“The analogy between commercial aviation and military aviation is closest for the Air Force’s executive transport aircraft, which are, for the most part, COTS,” or commercial, off the shelf, Dixon said. Air Force “tankers and cargo aircraft are similar” to those operated by airlines and freight services, he said.

However, there are important differences.

“Commercial airliners fly many more hours per year than any military aircraft, even during combat periods. One might wonder how maintenance needs would evolve for a commercial aircraft that flew only 500 hours per year (as opposed to the thousands of hours per year that commercial aircraft commonly fly), but no profitable airline would operate an aircraft on such a limited basis,” Dixon said.

However, “the flatness of maintenance costs late in the life of commercial aircraft says little about what might happen to, for instance, maintenance costs for military aircraft such as the B-52 or KC-135, given that those aircraft passed 25 years of service many years ago.” At the same time, these old aircraft—reckoned in years—may have flown relatively few hours by commercial standards.

Dixon concluded that the “pessimism about the future trajectory of total maintenance costs for military aircraft systems is not necessarily warranted. The assumption that total maintenance costs always grow rapidly as aircraft age may not be correct.” When the Air Force models maintenance costs for a new system, “it may be appropriate … to consider the possibility of a midlife … period of relative stasis in maintenance costs, at least through the roughly 25-year point in the life of the system.”