Washington Watch

Feb. 1, 2008

Untying the Mobility Knot

In response to the Air Force’s pleas that it be allowed to retire some dangerously old mobility airplanes, Congress voted last fall to let some aircraft go … but with strings attached, as usual.

Lawmakers also ordered the Pentagon to get busy and sort out its overall mobility plan—long a tangle of technical issues, each linked to all others. It gave DOD just one year to answer basic questions about strategic and tactical airlift.

The 2008 defense authorization bill, approved in December by lawmakers, would allow USAF to retire up to 48 of the 85 oldest, Eisenhower-vintage KC-135E Stratotankers. Of these, 45 aren’t considered safe to fly, but Congress has always insisted they be retained to justify base manning and spending coveted by constituents.

USAF has long argued the aircraft aren’t useful and keeping them around, even in standby status, consumes maintenance funds that could be better used to buy replacement aircraft.

Congress said USAF can get ready to retire the rest of the KC-135Es, but the old iron can go only if the service meets three conditions:

  • It must have selected a winner for the new KC-X tanker.
  • If that selection draws a protest—as is widely expected—it must be resolved.
  • If the Government Accountability Office orders USAF to carry out certain steps, it must implement them.

Congress also gave USAF permission to retire some C-130Es with cracked wing boxes, but only if the Air Force offers defense committees a “fleet mix” rationale and then gives Congress time to comment.

An amendment allows USAF to retire 24 C-130E/Hs as long as it keeps them in a condition for emergency recall.

Contrarily, however, Congress specifically barred USAF from retiring any of its old C-5 Galaxy transports, for which a costly upgrade is being developed.

The C-5 Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program, or RERP, has been the catch-22 of mobility for several years. If the upgrade works, USAF won’t need more new C-17s. If it waits and then the RERP doesn’t work, the C-17 line will be closed, leaving no strategic lift option.

In recognition of the situation, Congress told USAF to speed up the RERP so it can make realistic and logical choices. The RERP is at least 54 percent over budget, according to estimates last fall.

Congress ordered an “objectivity/sufficiency” review of the RERP by the Institute for Defense Analyses, due March 1. A RAND review is also being done at the Air Force’s request.

House-Senate conferees directed DOD to pull together various mobility studies now under way in USAF, US Transportation Command, and other entities for a report in January 2009. The study is to analyze “lifecycle costs of the various alternatives” for buying C-17s, upgrading C-5s, buying KC-Xs, upgrading KC-10s, replacing C-130s, and fielding C-27J Joint Cargo Aircraft.

The study is to finally answer questions left unresolved by the last two major mobility studies done by DOD: what to do to accommodate a larger and heavier Army and Marine Corps, how to manage intratheater lift, and what overall level of lift is needed for the US military strategy.

No More Backdoor C-17s

Just as Congress was approving the purchase of eight unasked-for (but still needed) new C-17s, a group of 19 Senators warned that they won’t bail out the Air Force that way again.

The Senators issued the warning in a Dec. 13 letter to Robert M. Gates, the Secretary of Defense, and Jim Nussle, the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The bipartisan group noted that DOD hasn’t asked for C-17s in two years, but that the Air Force, in both years, subsequently asked Congress to help out by adding C-17s on its own.

The group said it is “unrealistic to presume that [Congress] will be able to continuously support needed production through Congressional adds,” insisting that “the C-17 must be rightly funded in the President’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget.”

The Senators said that closing the C-17 line would leave no alternative on the drawing boards, and that restarting production later would be “prohibitively expensive.” They said USAF clearly doesn’t have enough heavy-lift capacity, pointing out that the service has had to hire Russian-built freighters to cover needs.

Moreover, the number of C-17s built to date supports only a “minimum requirement,” the Senators wrote, urging Gates to abandon the “minimalist approach” which could leave the US short of strategic airlift at a critical time.

“There is no justification to believe that airlift requirements will decrease and many reasons to believe that currently available capacity is insufficient,” the group said.

The move came one week after Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, head of US Transportation Command, said he “cannot support” terminating C-17 production at this time, given the problems facing the C-5 upgrade program. He declared his belief that the minimum fleet now is 205 C-17s. Schwartz made these comments at a briefing on Capitol Hill.

Counting previous Congressional adds and the eight in the new defense bill, the eventual C-17 fleet is now up to 198 aircraft.

The opposite position was taken by Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), who last fall demanded the Pentagon’s inspector general look into the relationship between the Air Force and Boeing. McCain—along with other lawmakers—had previously written to Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne, wanting to know why Boeing had, on its own nickel, decided to cover the costs of keeping the C-17 line going in the absence of any clear USAF requirement or foreign sales of more of the aircraft.

McCain speculated USAF had somehow “induced” Boeing to extend the line with some secret handshake deal. Wynne responded simply that Boeing had, as the company said, merely gauged the attitude toward C-17s in Congress and made its own bet.

The Fighter Dilemma

The unexpected two-month grounding of F-15 A-D models provoked feverish, if unofficial, brainstorming about what USAF could do if the nightmare scenario became reality.

The nightmare scenario was this: Scores of elderly F-15s, beset with fatal structural flaws, are condemned and swiftly retired, with no replacements anywhere in sight.

The obvious answer would be to more rapidly replace the F-15s with new F-22s, but that’s more easily said than done.

On Dec. 12, 28 Senators and 68 members of the House of Representatives wrote to Pentagon chief Robert M. Gates, urging him to keep buying F-22s, at least through the end of the 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review.

They said that, in light of the F-15 groundings and reports indicating that “significantly more than 220” Raptors are needed to fulfill national strategy, ending F-22 production now would be, at best, “ill advised.”

Gates was willing to listen. In late December, Pentagon Comptroller Tina W. Jonas directed USAF to shift $497 million marked for F-22 shutdown costs to fix up the old F-15s instead. The move effectively set the stage for continued F-22 production.

The Air Force had made little secret of the fact that it wanted to ask for an additional 20 F-22s beyond the three-year multiyear buy that finishes delivery in 2011.

To go faster, though, would take some doing, not to mention an immediate infusion of cash. Some items in F-22 construction—such as labor-intensive large forgings and castings—require more than two years to produce.

Lockheed Martin has in recent times built F-22s at a rate of 24 a year. The company officials said it would be relatively easy to ramp back up to that figure, and that its facilities could be revamped to reach 32 a year.

However, if USAF needed the fighters faster, costs could go up, because either additional shifts would be required with heavy overtime, or facilities would have to be expanded with new tooling and factory floor space. A potentially more time-consuming task would be finding, training, and certifying workers.

“We have not done those kinds of excursions recently,” a company official said, meaning that it had not computed the costs of larger-buy options available to the Air Force.

Asked to identify the longest-lead item in F-22 production, Lockheed said simply, “titanium.” Because it is in short supply, its cost has skyrocketed in recent years. One problem is that Russia is one of the world’s chief sources. Obtaining titanium has also caused headaches because of “buy American” laws sharply affecting military programs. The Pentagon maintains a list of programs that take priority when certain materials get scarce, and the F-22 isn’t on it.

Of the Air Force’s hundreds of F-15s, about 180 F-15A-Ds were supposed to remain in service into the mid-2020s. Replacing them with F-22s—above and beyond the 183 Raptors now planned—would require buying at least 20 a year to be minimally efficient. At that rate, it would take nine extra years of production to replace the F-15 fleet fully. Raise the rate, and replacement time would decrease. At 30 per year, the F-15s could be wholly replaced in six years.

However, USAF is also struggling to fund the F-35 fighter. It needs to build 110 per year to replace the F-16 in a timely manner, but can only afford 48 per year in its budget.

Lt. Gen. Raymond E. Johns Jr., deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said accelerating the F-35 isn’t a viable option because that would introduce additional risk in the program, which has a carefully laid-out development and production plan.

“I can only ramp up the F-35 … as it matures,” Johns said. “I can’t pump it up artificially.”

There are no other good options, USAF officials said. They have ruled out buying more F-15s or F-16s because the versions being built for foreign sales are different than those USAF has. The service also doesn’t want to backtrack from stealthy, fifth generation designs and buy more of what it considers obsolescing fourth generation fighters.

Moreover, Johns said, he can get the F-22s “faster” than he could get the other aircraft, because USAF would have to get F-15 or F-16 customer countries’ permission to “cut into” their production runs.

Air Force officials said it would be nearly impossible to buy a foreign fighter such as the French Rafale or Eurofighter Typhoon, and in any case, the service would want the best available.

Maj. Gen. Paul J. Selva, the Air Force’s strategic planner, said at a Capitol Hill airlift seminar, “Think about the emotion in this room when [USAF leaders] talk about having to hire [Russian and Ukrainian] Antonov transports to carry our armored vehicles because our C-5s don’t work. Now think about the emotion in this room if we had to say, ‘We’re going to have to buy Sukhoi fighters.'”

Johns said the Air Force will probably want to let the F-15 structural issue “settle down” and then make a careful decision on how to press to flesh out the force beyond 183 F-22s.

However, he said, lives enter the calculation, and the F-15’s days of being able to operate over hostile, modern air defenses are over.

“We’re about warfighting capability,” Johns said. “And I don’t want to go into a fair fight. I never want to resource an Air Force to accept high casualties.”