Transformation Gets a Boost

April 1, 2002

If the latest Air Force budget is any guide, the pace of service “transformation” is about to pick up considerably.

All figures refer to new budget authority, and all amounts are given in constant 2003 dollars. The term “this year” refers to 2002 and “next year” to 2003.

USAF’s $107 billion proposal essentially forgoes troop increases, buys of existing aircraft, infrastructure repairs, and other stopgap measures, despite pressures caused by today’s high optempo. Instead, the budget emphasizes longer-range projects promising revolutionary leaps in combat capability.

It sustains or increases funding for numerous high-technology programs and concepts ranging from stealthy air combat and strike vehicles to precision munitions, from unmanned combat air systems to space based radars, high-capacity space communications, and advanced information systems.

The purpose is clear. “We have been on a journey … for transformation for several years,” said a top Air Force officer, “but this budget will help us accelerate the journey.”

In Air Force parlance, transformation means a fundamental change that yields “order-of-magnitude” leaps in power rather than incremental gains. It is based on interactions of advanced technologies, innovative operational concepts, and imaginative organizational structures.

No one believes USAF is ignoring today’s readiness in pursuit of tomorrow’s capabilities. It allocated many billions of dollars for pay, bonuses, training, maintenance, and the like. Even so, a detailed examination of Fiscal 2003 budget plans makes the push for transformation only too apparent.

Transformation was a major theme of the overall Pentagon program. The plan unveiled Feb. 4 by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seeks $379.3 billion in Fiscal 2003, which starts Oct. 1. This marks a real, after-inflation increase of $41.4 billion, the largest one-year boost in defense spending in two decades. (For more on the DOD budget, see charts on p. 55-57.)

By the Numbers

The Air Force’s $107 billion budget amounts to a real increase of 10 percent over this year’s budget. USAF’s share of the overall DOD expenditure is unchanged at about 28 percent.

Air Force planners anticipate modest budget growth in the out-years, the last four years of the 2002-07 program. USAF plans on spending $110.6 billion in 2004, $112.5 billion in 2005, $115.7 billion in 2006, and $118.7 billion in 2007.

Next year’s Air Force budget can be broken down into five principal categories. They are: procurement, $27.3 billion; Research and Development, $17.6 billion; Operations and Maintenance, $34.0 billion; military personnel, $25.5 billion; and other accounts, $2.6 billion.

It is the Air Force procurement and R&D accounts, totaling $45 billion, that are the focus of transformation. That process, as explained by Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche, “involves harnessing the attributes of stealth, precision, standoff, space, and information technology.”

Unmanned Combat Aircraft

Nowhere is the effort more apparent than in the field of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

The smashing success of UAVs in Operation Enduring Freedom generated new interest in using these unpiloted craft for a wide variety of missions, including combat operations. A USAF officer who briefed reporters in February said Bush Administration officials viewed UAVs as being among the leading transformational technologies anywhere.

At present, keenest attention is focused on the X-45 Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, a system now in development. Many believe it will be cast in a starring role in future attacks on heavily defended targets such as radars and air defenses.

The aircraft has the potential “to provide revolutionary suppression of enemy air defenses and strike capabilities to future joint force commanders,” said Roche.

Air Force funding for this stealthy, unpiloted strike aircraft almost tripled in one year, to $58 million, and will soon go higher. The Air Force also wants to speed its completion, seeking operational assessment in 2008–two years earlier than planned.

“We are pushing the envelope,” said one Air Force officer.

Elsewhere, the budget boosts production of the Predator UAV, a system used heavily and to great effect in the Afghan war.

In one form, Predator was an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance system, providing persistent visual coverage of target areas. However, another variant of Predator–this one armed with Hellfire missiles tucked under its wings–conducted remote-control attacks on selected Taliban and al Qaeda targets.

Liking what it saw in the war, USAF allocated $154 million to purchase 22 new Predator systems next year. Each will be equipped with advanced radars and laser designators.

The Air Force believes Predator will bring about a major improvement in the “sensor-to-shooter” cycle. “The successful weaponization of Predator,” said Roche, “holds the promise of significantly shortening the time-critical targeting time line.”

The additional funding will more than double the size of the Predator fleet and bring into the force six faster, higher-flying Predator B aircraft.

Plans call for using advanced communications systems to link Predators with other aircraft and ground stations so that it can deliver its visual and electronic goods and receive orders in return. Undersecretary of Defense Dov S. Zakheim noted that, if the Pentagon has its way, the new Predators will be able to “talk to just about everything” in a combat zone.

Manned Combat Aircraft

USAF leaders see great transformational value in the F-22 air superiority fighter and F-35 strike fighter–manned aircraft long in the works but destined to enter the force in large numbers only in the next decade or so.

Both fighters are stealthy. And, declared Roche, “Stealth will be absolutely essential to establish air superiority in the decades ahead against rapidly improving air defense systems and fighters.”

The Air Force argues that the F-22’s combination of low observable technology, supercruise, high maneuverability, and supersophisticated avionics make it a transformational system par excellence. Senior officers say that, in the future, it will be the key to penetrating anti-access defenses and countering third-generation fighters.

When equipped with advanced, miniaturized ordnance, the F-22 will also be a formidable strike aircraft in its own right.

The new spending plan proposes to take the F-22 up to a brisker production rate. It provides $5.2 billion for next year–enough to continue development, procure 23 production aircraft (vs. only 13 this year), and buy long-lead equipment for more fighters in 2004.

Officials envision a steady increase in F-22 procurement, rising to 36 per year.

The budget strongly supports the F-35 strike fighter (aka Joint Strike Fighter) soon to be the source of aircraft not only for the Air Force but also for the Navy, Marine Corps, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy.

USAF plans next year to spend more than $1.7 billion of a Pentagon-wide total of $3.5 billion to continue F-35 development. The Navy provides the rest. No procurement money has yet been requested.

The JSF program this year entered the engineering and manufacturing development phase. USAF procurement is set to begin in 2005, with initial operational capability in 2010.

As Roche tells it, the F-35 will act in concert with the F-22 over future battlefields. Its transformational credentials, he said, center on “persistent battlefield stealth,” resulting from its “combination of stealth, large internal payloads, and multispectral avionics.”

Precision Weapons

USAF’s procurement budget contained nothing for long-range airpower aircraft platforms. However, the Air Force views the B-2 stealth bomber as a transformational system. The budget allotted $297 million to continue work on B-2 modifications, but once again, the service failed to request more than the 21 bombers it already has in hand.

With no new platforms on the way, Air Force bomber priorities center on obtaining a variety of conventional weapons upgrades for use in theater war.

Of these, the most prominent is the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, another star of the Afghan war. It is a low-cost tail kit, which when linked to the magic of Global Positioning System navigation signals, transforms a standard 1,000-pound or 2,000-pound iron bomb into an all-weather, day-or-night, near-precision weapon.

All three USAF bomber types–B-1B, B-2, and B-52H–now can carry the 2,000-pound JDAM.

And the B-2, which currently carries up to 16 2,000-pounders, could be able to carry 80 of the new 500-pound JDAMs, currently in development. “This will provide the first step in the Air Force’s transition to miniature munitions,” Roche said.

These weapons now are used by fighter aircraft as well. Eventually, the F-22 will employ 1,000-pound JDAMs against anti-access and air defense systems, for example.

The Air Force wants to dedicate $534 million next year to production of 22,700 JDAM tail kits. The Navy plans to spend $297 million for 12,300 kits.

Wartime usage of JDAM approached 3,000 per month, and the services were running dangerously low. According to Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the budget provides enough money to build a sufficient stockpile of JDAMs.

Other “high-priority” munition systems, according to Roche:

Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile is a precise, stealthy cruise missile built to hit hardened, heavily defended, fixed, and relocatable targets from outside of area defenses. The budget allotted $111 million for 100 JASSMs.

Joint Standoff Weapon is an accurate, all-weather, unpowered glide munition, capable of destroying armored targets at ranges exceeding 40 nautical miles. USAF wants to buy 113 of them for $55 million

Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser is an inertial-guided tail kit that gives greater accuracy to the Combined Effects Munition, Sensor Fuzed Weapon, and the Gator Mine Dispenser from medium to high altitude in adverse weather. USAF plans to spend $71 million for about 5,000 kits,

Small Diameter Munition, under development for the F-22, will offer standoff capabilities against the most difficult surface-to-air threats. The F-22 will carry up to eight SDMs internally.

Precision itself is revolutionary, said Rumsfeld. “Bombs are no longer regarded as solely area weapons,” he noted. “Instead, they can be used like bullets from a rifle, aimed precisely and individually.”

Persistent ISR

The Air Force places great new emphasis on developing and linking together air- and spacecraft that provide timely data on air and land battles, around the clock and in any weather.

“We are focusing on the horizontal integration of our manned, unmanned, and space assets in order to provide real-time actionable, exploitable intelligence to commanders,” declared Roche.

A big part of this effort involves UAVs. They provide, in Roche’s words, “unmatched access” for ISR missions and reduce the danger of sending pilots in harm’s way.

Global Hawk. The Air Force is committed to the production of this giant, high-altitude UAV, which saw its first action over Afghanistan, as the successor to the U-2 system. Development of advanced sensors will permit Global Hawk to support the time-critical targeting mission better than is now possible. Plans call for committing $629 million to develop and procure three more Global Hawks this year and accelerate improvements.

Predator. Roche said demand for the older Predator UAV remains high, and so the Air Force will continue to deploy it in the ISR mode.

Other systems are viewed as equally significant. The E-8 Joint STARS is a case in point. The Air Force committed money to buy another E-8 aircraft–the 17th and last of the line–at a cost, with research spending, of $334.8 million.

USAF has committed $815 million for continued development of the Space Based Infrared System-High, successor to the Defense Support Program warning satellite constellation.

The Space Based Radar is the system viewed by many as having the most transformational potential of all. From high in space, the SBR would provide near-continuous overflight of enemy targets. In the view of Roche, such a sensor “will revolutionize battlespace awareness.” He calls it an “absolute leap-ahead technology.”

The Air Force is seeking $91 million for the SBR next year.

Getting There

In the view of the Air Force, even the C-17 transport has transformational value, given its power to make direct deliveries of troops and cargo over great distances.

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

It allots $4 billion to procure 12 new C-17 airlifters and to fund spare parts, R&D, and basing support construction. DOD has raised its official requirement from 120 to 180 C-17s, while some believe the actual requirement surpasses 220.

Aerial refuelers are getting lots of 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 Command.

The Air Force is giving strong consideration to another replacement option: lease or purchase of up to 100 Boeing 767 Global Tanker Transport Aircraft.

One way or the other, the Air Force will have to fix the tanker problem–and soon. “The average age of our KC-135 tankers is now over 41 years,” said Roche, “and operations and support costs are escalating.”

No Growth Force

The new budget leaves the Air Force at its current small size. In the late stages of the Cold War, USAF end strength stood at 608,000. The force was down to 357,000 at the start of this year, and next year’s request is roughly 359,000.

Within the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command, one finds essentially no change in end strength. USAF has a combined reserve military force of 182,000–108,000 Guardsmen and 74,000 Reservists.

The end strength picture could change, however. Roche and others have been quoted as saying that the Air Force needs to get bigger if it is to continue its current operational pace at home and overseas.

Estimates of possible increases range from 7,000 to 10,000, with further growth in the Air National Guard under discussion.

As for force structure, the Total Air Force will maintain roughly 20 Fighter Wing Equivalents, 12-plus wings in the active force and seven-plus FWEs in the Guard and Reserve. Much of the fighter force structure will be forward deployed in Asia, Europe, and Southwest Asia.

Combat Readiness

Air Force O&M funding contains about $10.9 billion to pay for 2.1 million flying hours–1.3 million in the active force, the rest in the Guard and Reserve.

Flying time in the next year for active Air Force fighter and attack aircrews has been set at 17.1 hours per month, the same as planned this year.

Materiel readiness is a different story. The budget does nothing to reduce the high average age of the fighter fleet, the problem that some officers view as USAF’s most worrisome.

USAF failed to include any money in next year’s budget for new F-16 or F-15 fighters, which have been in service for two decades. The situation has been worsened by the wear and tear sustained by F-16s assigned to fly combat air patrol over US cities.

USAF bought four F-16s last year. Formerly, 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, but that plan is now suspect. Roche has said he hopes to be able to avoid spending money on such “legacy” aircraft.

However, the Secretary noted that the F-16 line will be open for some time, filling foreign fighter orders. That means the Air Force could get back in the queue and place a new order at any time.

Waiting to do this poses a risk, given the fact that, as Roche said, “our fielded forces have aged to the point that they will not be able to compete with emerging and future threats.”

He added that, until the F-22, F-35, and UCAV become operational, “we will continue to rely heavily on our legacy fighters–the F-15, F-16, F-117, and A-10.”

USAF documents note that the mission capable rate for these and other major Air Force systems stood at 73 percent at the end of 2001. That is a slight improvement over 2000, but it still marks a drop of a full 10 percentage points since 1991. Much of the decline can be attributed to aging aircraft.

“We now face a dangerous situation,” said Roche. “Our aircraft fleet is getting older, less capable, and more expensive to maintain–all at the same time.”

Retention Still Worries

On the personnel front, Air Force leaders remain apprehensive about pilot retention. Last year, the retention rate was 49 percent, up a bit from 41 percent in 2000 but dramatically lower than the high of 87 percent in the mid-1990s.

USAF has been able to fully man its cockpits, but only by pulling pilots away from critical staff positions. Rated pilot staff manning has fallen to 51 percent of requirement.

Moreover, the airlines continue to hire military pilots, prompting Roche to say, “We can expect the USAF pilot shortage to continue for at least the next eight years.”

The enlisted force continues to be a focus of concern. That is because 2001 was another year in which USAF failed to meet goals in two of three major re-enlistment categories.

First-term enlisted retention hit 56 percent, surpassing the goal of 55 percent. However, second-term airmen retention held steady at about 70 percent (goal: 75 percent), and career retention was stuck at 90 percent (goal: 95 percent).

The new budget attempts to address the personnel problem. It proposes a 4.1 percent raise in basic military pay to help bring it 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). And the service is set to spend billions more on bonuses, special pays, housing, medical care, and other personnel-related benefits.

Roche acknowledged that air and space supremacy carry a high cost. However, he suggested, the US has no alterative but to pay the price.

Roche’s words: “The demonstrated superiority of our air and space forces over Afghanistan … must not be taken for granted. Success is not a birthright. We must continue to transform to stay ahead of our adversaries.”