Washington Watch: Still in the Hole

April 1, 2000

Washington’s reaction to President Clinton’s new military budget dramatizes the scope and magnitude of the effort that now will be required to rebuild the nation’s armed forces. The Administration’s line is that the budget, which increases defense spending $3.3 billion, protects Clinton’s “commitment” to “military excellence.” Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said it funds “very robust capabilities” for “current contingencies” even while “protecting our investment for the future.”

Yet even prominent skeptics of increased military spending immediately branded the $291.1 billion program as inadequate and urged Congress to provide additional billions to the Pentagon. The proponents of higher spending say the military must receive a bigger allocation in 2001 and years thereafter because it confronts problems on a truly staggering scale.

A partial listing of those problems includes requirements to replace a huge inventory of aging Cold War weapons, to attract and retain large numbers of increasingly scarce high-quality troops, to provide health care coverage to millions of military retirees, and to develop revolutionary defense technologies.

Each of these efforts will require the addition of billions of dollars to planned budgets.

In these circumstances, calls to raise military spending have come from unusual quarters. Example: Rep. John R. Kasich (R–Ohio), chairman of the House Budget Committee. “We’re going to have to put more money into the Pentagon,” said Kasich, a longtime “deficit hawk ” who opposed spending on the B-2 bomber.

Others simply pointed out that the approved program is underfunded. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank that is frequently critical of military spending, said the program may be short as much as $50 billion per year. Another independent group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, claimed that the underfunding could be as high as $100 billion per year.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Floyd D. Spence (R–S.C.), a longtime Administration critic, argues that the needs are simply too great to be fixed quickly. “When you look back at these past eight years,” Spence said at a Feb. 9 hearing, “the Administration’s cumulative defense budget requests have fallen more than $300 billion short of even covering … inflation. ”

Spence added, “After years of decline, the Administration has dug such a deep hole that it’s going to take a decade or more of real growth in defense spending to climb out. ”

Warner’s Warning

Echoing Spence’s comments was Sen. John W. Warner (R–Va.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “One year won’t do it,” he said. “Two years won’t do it. It has to be a succession, in my judgment, of five to six years of increased spending. We ’ve got to continue that momentum at least for five to six years.”

The new budget fails even to cover all of today’s most urgent needs, let alone work off those that have accumulated over the 1990s. The plan, in fact, fails to finance $16 billion worth of critical service requirements.

This is hardly a military secret. The nation’s top uniformed officers discussed it openly.

Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the Air Force Chief of Staff, noted in February testimony that next year’s budget, as is, fails to cover $3.5 billion worth of requirements. There were shortages of $1.1 billion for modernization, $991 million for infrastructure, $986 million for readiness, and $410 million for military personnel.

The situation only gets worse in the future. The total shortfall for the five years of the Future Years Defense Program, covering 2001–05, comes to $12 billion, according to Ryan’s accounting, and that is only a partial list of USAF needs.

The planned budgets of the future do not sufficiently support Air Force modernization needs, according to Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters. “We are modernizing every one of our old platforms and also replacing some of them with more modern equipment,” said Peters. “However, the rate at which we’re replacing them will not sustain the force sizes we have today. We would have to get additional funds to do that. ”

Today, Air Force materiel readiness is in trouble. USAF documents note that the mission capable rate for major Air Force systems stood at 73.5 percent at the end of 1999, the last year for which complete figures are available. That is down a full 10 percentage points since 1991, even as the service carried out major operations such as Northern Watch (northern Iraq), Southern Watch (southern Iraq), Deliberate Force (Bosnia), and Allied Force (Yugoslavia).

Retention Still an Issue

The Air Force’s leaders remain apprehensive about the low pilot retention. Last year, the retention rates in this category fell from 46 percent to 41 percent.

The “take rate” for the pilot bonus at the eight-year mark, which fell from 81 percent in 1994 to 27 percent in 1998, ticked back up in 1999 to 42 percent. This is still far below the Air Force goal of 50 percent, and USAF’s pilot shortage grew from about 800 in 1998 to 1,200 last year. Still, the Air Force said the upward trend in the bonus take rate is cause for “a measure of guarded optimism. ”

The enlisted force continues to be the focus of concerns. That is because 1999 was the second straight year in which USAF failed to meet goals in all three major re-enlistment categories.

First-term enlisted retention dropped to 49 percent (goal: 55 percent). Career airmen retention fell to 91 percent (goal: 95 percent). Second-term airmen retention stabilized at 69 percent (goal: 75 percent).

“As a former wing commander, I will tell you that I worry about declining experience levels,” said one top Air Force officer in a background briefing. “It is an experienced force that makes the difference. You can’t replace an eight-year engine mechanic except with an eight-year engine mechanic.”

In the first quarter of 2000, the Air Force missed recruiting goals again. Ryan told a Feb. 10 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, “Our recruiting is still a challenge. We’re losing too many of our experienced people, both enlisted and officers. Last year, we missed our [recruiting] goal by 1,700 people, and thus far this year, we have indications we may again miss our annual recruiting goal for the second time since 1979.”

The new budget attempts to address the worsening personnel problem. It proposes a 3.7 percent raise in military pay to help bring military pay more in line with private sector compensation. (This is one-half of a percentage point above the forecasted rate of civilian wage growth—the Employment Cost Index). It also fully funds the pay table reforms and changes in military retirement approved last year.

The new budget also initiates a major program to compensate service members for out-of-pocket expenses stemming from use of higher-priced off-base housing.

Moreover, it finances the Air Force’s transition from a garrison-based force to the Expeditionary Aerospace Force, a move designed to reduce currently high optempo for USAF forces and inject greater predictability into deployments overseas.

In time, these measures may produce a turnaround in force readiness, but nobody thinks it’s happened yet. Ryan, in his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, sounded anything but overconfident. “The increase in funding that we received in 1999 and 2000 has helped address some of our immediate concerns,” said Ryan. “I’m optimistic that, if we sustain that funding, our readiness decline can be turned around. But it has not yet. Our readiness trends have not reversed.”

The underlying problem, said Spence, was only too evident.

Spence’s words: “The fundamental point of all this is for us to recognize … that the nation is going to need to spend a lot more money than the Administration is requesting and projecting to spend in the future in order to maintain even current military capabilities. ”

Detail of USAF Budget

The following detail focuses on the budget year 2001, with longer-range projections provided as needed. Figures refer to new budget authority. To facilitate year-to-year comparisons, all amounts are given in constant Fiscal 2001 dollars. The term “this year” refers to Fiscal 2000 and “next year” to Fiscal 2001.

Under the new Administration plan, defense spending rises from $287.8 billion this year to $291.1 billion next year, giving the Pentagon a small but real $3.3 billion increase, the first ever proposed by the Clinton Administration.

The Air Force would get $85.3 billion, about 2 percent more than this year’s amount and a slightly larger share of the DoD budget.

Five categories make up the bulk of next year’s Air Force budget. They are:

  • Procurement, $20.9 billion.
  • Research and Development, $13.7 billion.
  • Operations and maintenance, $28.1 billion.
  • Military personnel, $20.9 billion.
  • Construction and housing, $2.0 billion.

About $300 million of the costs are offset by receipts paid directly to Air Force accounts.

In recent times, Administration spokesmen have tended to put great store in fixing problems in the so-called “out-years,” the last four years of the six-year defense program. However, there is not much relief in the out-years.

The Air Force, for its part, has planned out-year budgets of $86.4 billion, $85.5 billion, $85 billion, and $85.2 billion. In other words, spending will stay essentially flat.

Fighter Modernization

The new spending plan proposes to take the F-22 Raptor, USAF’s fighter of the future, into low-rate initial production. (That was the plan last year, but it was blocked by Congress.)

“The F-22 … is essential to guaranteeing early US air superiority in future conflicts,” said a Pentagon statement. “No other aircraft promises to do that. ”

The budget proposal included $4 billion next year for the F-22 program. This would be enough to continue development and pay for 10 production aircraft. Officials envision a steady increase in the procurement funding for the F-22 over the next several years, rising to 16 aircraft in 2002, 24 in 2003, and 36 in each year thereafter.

The Air Force budget also supports the Joint Strike Fighter program, which is expected to produce new fighters for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Britain’s Royal Air Force and Navy. USAF plans next year to commit $429.1 million of a Pentagon–wide total of $856.7 million to continue development of the JSF. The Navy provides the rest. No procurement money has yet been requested.

The JSF program will enter the engineering and manufacturing development phase next year, with first USAF procurement in 2005.

To the disappointment of some, the Air Force failed to include money in next year’s budget for any new F-16 fighters. It is procuring 10 this year to help alleviate a shortage of attrition reserve aircraft. Service officials said they planned to resume buys of the multirole fighter aircraft with purchases of six in 2003 and seven in each of the two years after that. Originally, the Air Force said it would buy 10 in 2002 and 10 in 2003.

For aerial combat, the Air Force will spend $152.5 million to buy 204 copies of the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile and $50 million for 80 AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

Though Congress added $275 million to this year’s budget to buy five more F-15E fighters, the Air Force did not request more and does not plan to do so.

(In another tactical aircraft development, the Navy put up another $3.1 billion to develop and procure 42 F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters.)

Mobility Modernization

The budget allocates a major share of procurement funds to airlifters and refueling aircraft.

It allots $3.1 billion to procure 12 new C-17 airlifters and to fund their spare parts, R&D, and basing support construction. Original plans called for buying 15 of the advanced airlifters, but the Pentagon deferred three to later years to open a spot on the production line for Britain, which says it wants to buy some of the aircraft. DoD has an official requirement for 135 C-17s.

The Air Force has programmed extensive C-5 engine and avionics upgrades but allotted only $268.6 million to buy two new C-130J tactical airlifters.

Aerial refuelers get attention. The budget provides money to continue the modification of the aging KC-135 aircraft in the active force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve.

The Defense Department committed $1.8 billion to procure 20 V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. Most will go to the Marine Corps, but the Air Force kicked in $380 million to procure four CV-22s for Special Operations Forces.

Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance Modernization

A major focus of effort this year was Air Force aircraft that provide timely information about air and land battles.

Once again, for the second year in a row, the Air Force has been given authority and money to buy an additional E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft—the 15th of the line—at a cost, with research, of $427.3 million.

The Pentagon approved purchase of the 14th model in this year. The requirement is for a fleet of 19 Joint STARS aircraft. Defense Secretary Cohen in 1997 cut the Joint STARS buy from 19 to 13, but he had second thoughts about it and shifted course.

For the Joint STARS fleet, the computer replacement program will begin next year. Additionally, the budget continues funding for a major upgrade to the E-8 radar system.

The high-altitude U-2 is receiving several enhancements, most importantly an upgraded radar with greatly improved imagery, while the RC-135 Rivet Joint fleet has been expanded to 16 aircraft. Moreover, plans call for procurement of eight Air Force Global Hawk UAVs through 2005.

Space Systems Modernization

USAF has committed $810 million for continued development of the Space Based Infrared System, successor to the Defense Support Program warning satellite. However, to save money to divert to other programs, the Air Force last year slipped both phases of the program by two years. The so-called SBIRS High goes from 2002 to 2004, and the SBIRS Low from 2004 to 2006.

Elsewhere, the budget contains $237 million for the Milstar satellite follow-on system and $461 million for Global Positioning System satellite work.

According to USAF budget documents, space systems consume a huge chunk of total procurement dollars—fully 31 percent. That’s less than combat air platforms (36 percent) but more than airlift (26 percent) and weapons (6 percent).

Long-Range Airpower

USAF’s procurement budget was virtually empty when it came to long-range airpower aircraft and systems.

The Air Force provided $145.2 million to continue work associated with the B-2 stealth bomber and its systems, but once again the service made no move to acquire more of the stealth bombers beyond the 21 previously ordered.

The new budget contains some $217 million to continue to modify the fleet of B-1 bombers for conventional theater war.

Some $645 million will flow next year to buy substantial numbers of precision and near-precision munitions—9,100 Joint Direct Attack Munition tail kits, 6,300 Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser tail kits, 300 Sensor Fuzed Weapons, and 174 Joint Standoff Weapons, plus money to continue development of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile.

A major casualty of the budget wars has been the YAL-1 Attack Laser, also known as the Airborne Laser.

USAF plans to allocate next year only $148.6 million to continue research on the aircraft, a jumbo jet fitted with a high-energy laser which would be able to attack threatening ballistic missiles in their boost phase and perhaps be capable of shooting down aircraft as well. This represented a cut to the Air Force proposal of $639 million, which DoD officials said was done for “affordability” reasons. The cut delays the first lethal test shot by two years, to 2005.

“It’s an aggressive program and a challenging technology,” said a senior Pentagon official during a background briefing for the Pentagon press, “but I think the issue largely revolved around affordability. ”

Air Force End Strength

The new budget will take the Air Force to new lows in terms of size.

Today’s active duty component is by far the smallest in the history of the Air Force. At its birth in 1947, the Air Force was composed of 386,000 active duty people. In the late stages of the Cold War, end strength topped 608,000. Force size at the start of this year was down to 366,000, and it will now shrink again.

The Air Force plans to cut another 8,000 members this year and 1,000 more next year, dropping the total to 357,000. In the budget out-years, 2002–05, the Air Force will lose another 5,000 active duty members, according to budget papers.

Within the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command, one finds essentially no change in end strength. USAF’s next-year budget provides for a combined military force of 182,000—108,000 Guardsmen and 74,000 Reservists.

The Air Force’s experience mirrors trends throughout the US armed forces.

After more than a decade of cuts, the US military has suffered a net reduction of 792,000 active duty troops. The armed forces, which numbered 2,174,000 troops at the end of 1987, had shrunk to 1,390,000 on Sept. 30, 1999. By the end of this year, the force will be down to 1,382,000 troops.

USAF Force Structure

The Total Air Force will maintain slightly more than 20 Fighter Wing Equivalents, 13 of which will be in the active duty force. The number of Guard and Reserve wings will hold at about seven FWE.

Much of the fighter force structure will be forward deployed—3.45 FWEs in the Pacific and Alaska, 2.3 FWEs in Europe, and one FWE in Southwest Asia. Moreover, said the Pentagon, the Air Force is capable of deploying, as part of its expeditionary forces, seven to eight fighter wings to a distant theater in a matter of days. The Air Force will complete its transition to an expeditionary deployment concept next year.

The Air Force next year plans to maintain a fleet of 190 heavy bombers, comprising 76 B-52s, 93 B-1Bs, and 21 B-2s. Of that number, 44 B-52s, 52 B-1s, and all 21 B-2s will be fully funded in terms of parts, maintenance, and load crews and are ready for immediate deployment in major theater war. Twelve more B-52 bombers are held in reserve for nuclear missions.

The Pentagon reports that all B-52s and B-1s in the inventory, including those in attrition reserve, will be kept in flyable condition and will receive planned modifications.

This will raise the number of B-1 primary mission aircraft to 70 by 2004.

The Air Force airlift fleet of 2001 will consist of 58 C-17s, 88 C-141s, 104 C-5s, and 418 C-130s (all assigned for performance of wartime missions). The long-range tanker force consists of 472 KC-135 and 54 KC-10 Air Force primary mission aircraft.

ANG will operate 1,030 aircraft. AFRC will have 60 flying units containing 351 aircraft.

Combat Readiness

The Pentagon’s proposed Operations and Maintenance account for next year totals $109.3 billion. The request fully funds the military services’ O&M budgets, said officials, so that operations, training, and maintenance goals can be met.

Air Force O&M funding will support the day-to-day activity of 85 major bases, 5,024 primary authorized aircraft, 550 ICBMs, and worldwide space operations. It funds 2.1 million flying hours at a cost of $4.5 billion next year.

Flying time in the next year for active Air Force fighter and attack aircrews has been set at 17.1 hours per month, down slightly from 17.2 this year but up a bit from 17.0 in 1998. Bomber crews, which flew about 19.3 hours per month in 1998 and 15.8 hours this year, will get only 14.8 hours per month next year. Part of the reason for the decline: The Air Force now does more training on advanced simulators.

Faring somewhat better are the aircrews of airlift and tanker aircraft, which will fly 23.7 and 18.3 hours per month, respectively. Though the airlift rate is about the same as last year, the tanker rate goes up.

The budget funds projected 2001 DoD costs for operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. To make sure of this, the Administration added $2.2 billion for these operations for next year. To protect readiness for the rest of this current fiscal year, the President is requesting $2 billion in supplemental appropriations to cover DoD’s unbudgeted Fiscal 2000 costs for Kosovo operations.