Washington Watch

April 1, 2006

The Show That Never Ends

If you thought the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review was going to be the last word on national military forces and capabilities for a while, think again. Despite the fact that the Pentagon has had a “rolling” QDR for nearly two years, it will probably be another 18 months—nearly at the end of the current Administration—before the Defense Department figures out what forces, specifically, the nation needs to prosecute its military strategy.

Force structure—fighter wing equivalents, armored divisions, major warships, etc.—which was a main feature of the last three big reviews, is largely absent from this one. (See “Editorial: The QDR Has Landed, Sort Of,” March, p. 2.)

Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told defense reporters in Washington in February that the QDR released that month was largely about figuring out the big ideas of what America’s military ought to be able to do. The details of how many airplanes, ships, vehicles, missiles, etc., required for the tasks envisioned are still to be worked out.

“After all that analysis, we came back and said we have to make a lot of different changes in capabilities,” Henry explained. He is the designated point man for explaining the QDR.

“So now we will go in and understand over the next year, year and a half, specifically what is the size [of the force required]. Do we need to make any adjustments?”

However, Henry allowed that the gross shape of the US military probably won’t change much.

“It looks like we will be able to do it with the current force structure or the current end strength that we’re projected to have.” What came out of the QDR’s long deliberations, he said, was simply that US forces are weighted too heavily toward large-scale conventional conflicts and not enough toward the long, drawn-out irregular conflicts such as the ones now being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Henry said that the forces would be easier to calculate in a “static” world, but “it’s not a static world. It’s a dynamic world. The circumstances are different. You always have to be adjusting.”

While the world is “comfortable using numbers” and “bean counting” to understand how the military is shifting, Henry said capabilities are “a little more fuzzy” and harder to quantify.

What’s really needed, he said, is “the ability to generate this operational effect in the battlespace.”

The QDR talks about “goals” for certain missions—one mentions that the Air Force has a goal of conducting 45 percent of future long-range strike missions with unmanned systems—but many of these were grudgingly included, Henry said.

“There was some discomfort actually coming up with specific numbers,” because the Pentagon wanted to emphasize the “thrust” of the strategy, rather than the details, he asserted.

In a Pentagon briefing unveiling the QDR, Henry said that the bulk of hardware-oriented changes will be targeted for the years 2008-13 but that a goal is to get the plan nailed down by the end of this Administration.

He said that the deputy defense secretary and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will chair a group of the five undersecretaries and four service vice chiefs “that will oversee the implementation” of the QDR.

“There are … close to 150 specific items in the report to be executed,” he said. There are “eight different areas that we thought needed further work,” and those will be figured out in what are being called “execution roadmaps,” Henry explained.

Henry told the defense writers that the QDR “wasn’t something that you do and then you stop doing. … The QDR is actually continuing on. … We think the QDR is just a snapshot in time across a continuum of transformation that we started in 2001 but that it should also be a document of debate among our allies, with the Congress, and among the American people.”

However, he acknowledged that the part with all the details “is classified.”

Two Wars, Now and Always

The QDR doesn’t depart much from the 1-4-2-1 strategy of the 2001 review. That shorthand refers to defending one homeland; deterring conflict in four main regions of the world; defeating two conventional enemies in simultaneous major theater conflicts; and being able to thoroughly conquer—even occupy—one of them.

The nuance of the 2005 QDR is that one of those two simultaneous wars could be a “long war,” such as the one the US military is now engaged in, which is characterized by irregular warfare, fighting insurgencies, and fighting an enemy “that’s not a nation, but we’re fighting it within nations with which we’re not at war,” as Henry summed it up at the Pentagon press conference Feb. 3.

It all still works out to being able to fight two major theater wars, or their equivalents, at once.

However, with this world scheme comes the realization, Henry said, that the major “stressor” for the US is not fighting an all-out conventional war but, rather, maintaining a rotational base to fight the long war. Major conventional conflicts cause a “surge” in military operations, but models and analyses indicate such surges should be brief—and followed by long periods of stability operations, not unlike the experience of Iraq.

The wartime “lessons learned” were heavily factored into the QDR, Henry said.

Unlike the Cold War, where both the enemy and even some of the battles could be anticipated with fairly high fidelity, the world is now characterized by “unpredictability and uncertainty,” Ryan explained. The trick will be to prepare for all manner of contingencies without overpreparing for any of them, he said.

Much of the answer is to prevent problems in the first place, and the QDR puts high emphasis on deterring enemies, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and assuring allies. But to do all this will require a greater “collaborative” approach, both within the military, among the agencies of the government, and within alliances and coalitions, Henry said.

As a result, the QDR mandates greater interdependency of the services, requiring them to count on each other to fulfill certain aspects of the overall fight. It also will require willingness to depend on an ally or coalition partner, who can usually do a job more effectively and at less cost, especially in an anti-terrorist campaign, because the ally knows the local language and culture better, Henry said.

“We cannot win this long war by ourselves, either as a department or as a country,” Henry asserted. The military will have to be more horizontally integrated, abandoning the traditional stovepipe chain of command to obtain greater speed and effectiveness, particularly in the acquiring and disseminating of intelligence.

It’s also not possible or desirable to tailor the force for a particular type of conflict, so the Pentagon will no longer emphasize “a one-size-fits-all … massive retaliation” concept of deterrence, Henry said, but one that can work against any enemy, from small nonstate actors all the way up to near-peers.

He asserted that the Pentagon doesn’t agree with the notion that terrorists can’t be deterred.

“There are things you can work on the cost-imposition and the benefit-denial aspects” of deterring terrorists, he said.

“You can raise the cost to them. You go out and attack their infrastructure, their capabilities; many of them are on the run right now.” He claimed that “three-quarters” of terrorist leadership is “gone,” and you can “make their access to targets harder, [affect] their access to resources, [limit] their ability to recruit.”

Another strategic initiative will be to elevate the role of special operations forces to that of coequal priority with major conventional forces, since SOF units likely will be engaged as much, if not more, than conventional units in the long war.

Two main thrusts of the QDR directly affect the Air Force. One is a heightened emphasis on the ability to conduct long-range strike quickly, and the other is to more fully develop persistent intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities.

Still My Number

Although the planned size of the F-22 fleet has officially shrunk to 183 as a result of the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Air Force’s long-held objective of 381 Raptors “is still my number,” Air Combat Command chief Gen. Ronald E. Keys said.

Keys, in an interview in February, said 381 is the vetted, analysis-derived number of F-22s the Air Force needs, and the new figure should be viewed as what it is: the number that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has decided is affordable, rather than what is needed.

“Just because I don’t have enough money to fix my roof doesn’t mean my roof isn’t leaking,” Keys said. The fighter force still needs to be modernized, because so much of it is of advanced age.

Buying only a portion of the needed F-22s is like a partial roof repair, Keys said.

“When I go to fix my roof, I’m going to shingle part of it, I’m going to put a blue tarp over part of it, and I’m going to hope that a big wind doesn’t come up before I get the rest of the roof fixed,” he observed.

With just 183 airplanes, after discounting those needed in test, training, and repair, USAF will be able to field 126 combat-coded Raptors, or seven squadrons of 18 each, Keys said. However, how many airplanes will make up a squadron—and ultimately how many squadrons there will be—will depend on how effective the F-22 is and how often it can be turned to fly again—all things that must be discovered with operating the system, he noted. Initial operational capability was declared in December of 2005, so the Raptor is still in the infancy of its deployment.

One of the Air Force’s continuous arguments for the F-22 was that the aircraft would save money by reducing the numbers and types of other aircraft needed. Now that the fleet size will be nearly halved from the required amount, the cost of maintaining the fighter fleet—new as well as legacy types—will go up, Keys said.

“It costs you more if you buy fewer airplanes,” he said flatly. “There’s no getting around that.” Not only will the unit cost climb if fewer Raptors are built, but “we’re going to have to maintain more of our legacy force. Now, we’ve got to make some of those hard choices.”

Those hard choices will involve deciding which aircraft are in good enough shape to justify life-extension and capability upgrades. Some will be flown to a certain number of flying hours, then retired.

“Part of the legacy force has pretty good legs on it … as far as life [remaining]. I’m not worried about wings coming off and things like that yet. Part of it, the older end of it, I’m worried about those unknown unknowns: Is something going to come loose, or is the wiring going bad, bulkhead cracks, things like that.”

All in all, the Air Force will shrink by 10 percent of all aircraft and 25 percent in fighters. This will happen “I think by 2015,” Keys said.

He noted that ACC is struggling to figure out what to do about its A-10 fleet, which is going to need rewinging to stay viable for the anticipated years of service still needed from them. The rewinging will consume money that ACC had planned to spend on a precision engagement upgrade for the Warthog. The Air Force submitted the precision engagement upgrade to Congress as an “unfunded priority” in late February.

Let My Airplanes Go

Keys defended the Air Force’s decision to request that the F-117 fleet be retired and that the B-52 fleet be dramatically reduced to use the savings to upgrade the remainder.

The F-117, Keys said, is getting “long in the tooth,” having entered service nearly 25 years ago.

“It’s getting hard to sustain,” Keys went on. “We’ve got airplanes coming on—F-22, B-2—that can do most of that mission. We don’t need to carry on that cost and diversity in our force when we have other things that will do it.” He added that the F-117 is “a great airplane. It gave us great value” but it’s time to “move on.”

There have been discussions of taking the B-52 out of the nuclear mission, Keys said. If that happens, then the number needed to fulfill its conventional role will be smaller, especially since the standoff jammer mission that had been planned for the aircraft has been terminated.

“I would rather have 56 all-up, maintainable, new avionics, netcentric B-52s than a larger number” that is tough to keep in a common configuration, Keys noted.

He agreed that “it’s a radioactive issue” since Congress has consistently blocked efforts to reduce the B-52 fleet, but “it’s got to be talked about. … From a requirements standpoint, it makes sense to me.”

Echoing remarks from Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne that the Air Force is prohibited by law from retiring some 839 aircraft, Keys said, “Those just happen to be the 839 that we want to retire. They’re the oldest and the bad actors.” They’re the ones whose capability isn’t needed anymore, he said, “and we’re prevented from divesting ourselves of that part of the force that we don’t have a requirement for.”

If ACC takes the savings from operating fewer B-52s and invests it into the remaining aircraft, “I cannot make the argument that … I then must have the same number,” because each will be far more capable, he said. He wants to reduce the fleet down to an optimal number that is still sufficient for the rotation base.

The Air Force has achieved spectacular results in making its munitions ever more precise, Keys said. Now its challenge is to hit mobile targets through bad weather—and with only the bare minimum amount of destruction necessary to achieve the objective.

Toward that end, USAF will be moving toward smaller weapons—smaller even than the Hellfire missile carried by the Predator drone—that can sense targets hyperspectrally through weather or concealment techniques, Keys noted.

“Right now, I’m more accurate with my weapons than I am at finding the target,” he said. And now, “not only do I have to find the target, I need to find the stuff that’s around it. … Just finding the car is not enough; I need to know if there’s anybody in the restaurant next door.”

The Air Force will probably build on the technology derived from the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System to build a new bomber that Keys refers to notionally as the B-3. It will probably be “a bit bigger” than the J-UCAS, and Keys doesn’t know yet if it will be manned or unmanned.

The Air Force has discarded the idea of developing an interim bomber based on the YF-23 or F-22, because although it looked good on paper, “that’s a lot of money for an airplane that doesn’t get me where I want to be.”

The B-3, meanwhile, will be “the big leap, … maybe hypersonic.” However, the technology will take some maturing, he said. Munitions delivered from a hypersonic craft would have to be slowed down to be able to do precise targeting, and communicating with a hypersonic vehicle “surrounded with this cloud of plasma” is another challenge yet to be solved.

Overall, the way ahead mapped out by the QDR means there are some “hard decisions” to make, Keys observed.

“These decisions are made with the best intent,” he said. “They give us a balanced portfolio [that is] not as big as it might have been. We’re going to have to accept some increased risk, but I think we’re going to get the job done.”