For the Air Force, the Bill Comes Due

April 1, 2007

After four years in Iraq, five-and-a-half years in Afghanistan, and 16 nonstop years of combat operations throughout Southwest Asia, the Air Force stands at a strategic crossroads. One path leads to continuation of a dominant air and space power, while the other leads to something less—perhaps a lot less.

Such was the import of somber public remarks from the service’s senior officials at the Air Force Association’s annual Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.

The Air Force must find a way to sustain today’s creaking equipment, modernize the force with next generation systems, and provide airmen to support the proposed addition of 92,000 troops to the Army and Marine Corps.

It must do all of this with what officials openly concede is an inadequate budget for Fiscal Year 2008, which begins on Oct. 1, and years beyond.

“We are at a great crossroads in the national dialogue,” said Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne, who spoke along with other USAF leaders at the symposium.

He explained that “not since the early 1950s” has the question of paying for deterrence, situational awareness, global reach, and the full spectrum of strike options “been on the table for debate,” as it is today.

A major issue is recapitalization. The Air Force will likely be “recapping by bootstrap,” Wynne allowed, because asking for an overall budget increase at this time is probably a “nonstarter” with Congress. “Strategy is about choices,” he said, “almost always about hard choices.”

One of USAF’s recent choices was to cut the equivalent of 40,000 full-time airmen to free up funds for modernization. When Stop-Loss personnel are included, the Air Force would actually lose 65,000 personnel by 2009.

The service did this because it believed it could survive the reductions through increased efficiency, and “we saw the personnel account as the fastest growing component of our cost structure,” Wynne said.

The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, agreed. “Trying to sustain manpower levels without budget increases would have delayed recapitalization and modernization,” said Moseley. “When you hold infrastructure, military family housing, and [military construction] as constant as you can, … the only two places to go for money are the personnel accounts and the investment accounts.”

The wisdom of going forward with those personnel cuts is now in question, however.

The recent national decision to expand the size of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 troops means the numbers must be re-evaluated. “We are at a point where we absolutely must assess our size relative to our ground force brethren,” said Wynne.

Five thousand airmen are tied down performing ground force taskings for the Army and Marine Corps, noted Moseley. These airmen are serving as prison guards, combat convoy drivers, interpreters, and in other ground force missions. Many other airmen are embedded in Army and other ground force units.

The Surge Effect

Moseley warned, “A larger ground component will certainly mean a corresponding growth in Air Force-provided vigilance, reach, and power.” More boots on the ground means that more combat weather teams, tactical air control parties, and other battlefield airmen and embedded specialists will be needed.

Taskings are certain to increase as well, as the Air Force will feel the effect of the “surge” of forces into Iraq in early 2007. Moseley told reporters in Orlando that there will be more demand for bomber sorties, for example, and for intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance missions by Predator and Global Hawk drones and U-2 spyplanes.

“Intratheater lift is going to go up, because you are now in the business of resupplying more people in bulk,” he said.

The demand for combat search and rescue will increase, he added, and calls for air strikes are likely to increase. Air Force mobility assets will need to make all of this possible.

Wynne and Moseley said the service has not determined how many additional airmen will be needed to support the new troops and taskings, but the 40,000 cut is likely to be discarded.

Wynne added, however, that the Air Force will live with its Fiscal 2008 budget request, sent to lawmakers in early February. The service will come back to Congress later with an updated personnel request, which will be developed once USAF understands exactly what will be needed.

Airmen in ground force taskings are performing a national service, but perhaps enough is enough, Air Force leaders suggested. “Given the ground force buildup, perhaps it is time to reassess this” use of airmen, Wynne said. The Air Force is not the Army, and putting air component troops into ground force missions “fails to leverage the airman’s role” and the unique skills airmen bring to the table, he said.

The Toll of High Optempo

The Air Force is not alone in wanting to preserve what makes it unique. Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, head of US Strategic Command, told the attendees that service cultures must be preserved even as the Defense Department searches for efficiencies and new ways of doing business.

“We have got to figure out how to … build these [joint] organizations and integrate them without losing the culture, without losing that part of a service’s ethos that makes us—either in the cockpit or in the foxhole—willing to die for the person that’s standing next to us,” said Cartwright. “We cannot erase that in the name of ‘joint.'”

The Army is benefiting from airmen performing traditional Air Force missions. In an attempt to make the roadside improvised explosive device irrelevant, for example, USAF has increased its intratheater airlift in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wynne said 3,500 trucks and 8,000 troops per month have been taken off the roads through increased use of C-17s, C-130s, and new precision drop capabilities.

The increased tempo, however, has taken a toll that has gone largely unnoticed. Moseley noted that, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, USAF has suffered 62 on-duty deaths. It has lost 83 manned aircraft—18 in contingencies, 65 in preparation for combat—and 44 unmanned air vehicles.

These totals include 48 fighters—two squadrons’ worth—and 11 manned special operations aircraft, five airlifters, two U-2s, and one B-1B bomber.

Moseley described this attrition as “least understood by all” and said supplemental funding is needed to replace these losses. To that end, the service is seeking three F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to replace F-16s lost in combat, among other war supplemental requests.

Wynne told reporters the Air Force expects normal attrition in fleets, and builds these losses into its requirements, but wartime losses were not part of the Air Force’s fleet management planning.

The service is asking for F-35s instead of replacement F-15s or F-16s for two reasons. First, the fourth generation fighters still under construction are new derivatives for foreign customers and do not fit into the US logistics chain. Second, USAF believes it is time to move forward with next generation capabilities, and F-35s are available in the same time frame as legacy fighters.

The Air Force does not get a warm reception when it raises the issue of aircraft attrition and the need for replacement systems, observed Gen. Bruce Carlson, head of Air Force Materiel Command.

No Replacements

Nevertheless, attrition creates “a real requirement” for recapitalization and sustainment, said Carlson. “Unlike our last long war, where we were … building F-4s and F-105s to replace those that we lost,” the Air Force is not receiving replacements for the F-16s and special operations forces aircraft it loses today.

Therefore, Carlson said, “we have to be able to sustain these systems for a long, long period of time.”

Upgrades are being pinched as well. Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, chief of the Air Force Reserve, noted in a press roundtable in Orlando that his biggest unfunded need is to provide additional protection systems for AFRC’s large aircraft. Defensive systems such as the Directional Infrared Countermeasure system that foils infrared missiles are expensive. The Air Force only has 49 of its total fleet of C-17s DIRCM-equipped.

With demands increasing across the board and a fixed pot of funding, something’s got to give. So far it has been readiness.

Wynne said that “operating a smaller, older fleet” is the underlying cause of the Air Force’s current readiness decline. That decline is now pronounced; officials say that unit operational readiness is down 17 percent. Wynne said USAF is flying at the same rate as 13 years ago, but with 1,280 fewer aircraft and a fleet that is far older than it was in 1994.

“Without the continuous investment we seek,” Air Force readiness will continue to decline, Wynne said. More than two air and space expeditionary forces have been deployed nonstop since 9/11—with some high-demand specialties deployed at a steady state of four AEFs. (The system was set up for two AEFs, on a rotating basis, to support contingency requirements.)

There is no relief in sight. Wynne said threats to the United States are “proliferating and, I believe, accelerating.” It is dangerous, therefore, to become overly fixated on the demands in Iraq and Afghanistan at the expense of the other security challenges facing the Air Force.

Moseley said the events that occurred just since September 2006 illustrate the dangerous world in which the Air Force now operates. In those four months:

  • Russia began delivering advanced SA-15 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.
  • China announced that its most advanced fighter, the J-10, had become operational.
  • China successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon against a target spacecraft, creating a large debris field in space.
  • North Korea claimed to have nuclear weapons and tested a nuclear device.

Meanwhile, the operations in the US Central Command area of responsibility continue to grab most of Washington’s attention. The Air Force is certainly busy in Southwest Asia, but Moseley said the region is “not our only concern.” The Air Force cannot “afford to become target-fixated on counting terrorists or insurgents,” he said. “We cannot completely focus on Iraq or Afghanistan and forget about the potentially global … competitions of the future.”

Fifty-Three Percent

Moseley noted that 25,000 airmen are deployed to the Southwest Asia Theater, and 213,000 additional airmen are directly supporting the combatant commanders in other locations.

“On the active side, that is 53 percent of the active duty force that is committed every single day to a combatant commander,” Moseley said. “No other service has 53 percent of its active component committed.”

Airmen are operating worldwide, performing missions such as the long-range bomber “presence” mission on Guam for US Pacific Command; conducting the “air bridge” delivering fuel, troops, and materiel between the US, Europe, and the Middle East for US Transportation Command; providing nuclear missile alert for US Strategic Command; and monitoring the skies over the United States through Operation Noble Eagle for US Northern Command.

Wynne said the planning assumption is that the air bridge to the Middle East will continue at least until 2010.

Noble Eagle will continue indefinitely. Moseley said “about 100 fighters are involved in this,” every day, along with roughly a dozen tankers and four or five E-3 AWACS aircraft.

Such nonstop missions have inexorably shifted funding from modernization to operations accounts. Moseley said this “regrettably coincided with a period when the Air Force expected to recover” from the decade-long “procurement holiday” of the 1990s. In 2007, the Air Force will take delivery of about 60 aircraft; Wynne noted that with a 6,000-aircraft fleet, this translates into a 100-year recapitalization rate.

Eye opening numbers are not mere hyperbole. The Air Force fighter fleet now averages 24 years of age—the oldest it has ever been. In most of the rest of the fleet, the story is much the same.

Current plans call for the service to buy 48 F-35 Lightning II fighters per year at peak production. At that rate, it will take more than 36 years to buy the planned inventory of 1,763 fighters.

And the Air Force expects to buy 15 new KC-X refueling tankers per year, a pace at which it will take more than 30 years to recapitalize the KC-135 fleet. “By the end of the buy, we will have 75-year-old tankers,” observed Moseley. “It is unconscionable to think about sending America’s airmen into combat in planes that old.”

The cracks in the old aircraft fleet are beginning to show: Carlson, speaking at the symposium, noted that Air Force Materiel Command’s depots are moving aircraft through the system well. The concern is with the aircraft, not the depots.

Carlson said that aircraft coming in for their overhauls are requiring ever-more “over and above” sustainment activity before the aircraft can return to the fleet. Over and above work results from the unanticipated problems that spring up in old airplanes.

He told reporters that the most troubling thing to him is that some fleets experience unexpected “spikes” in problems, because there are no accurate prediction models for aircraft this old. It means more work must be done in less time to stay on schedule.

Out of Blood

Compounding the problem, Carlson said, is that the old aircraft are not proving as reliable as desired when they return to the combat fleet because “there’s only so much blood you can squeeze out of a turnip.”

The solution, he said, is for different—translation, newer—aircraft to be the ones going into depot.

Further pinching readiness is the fact that fuel costs are up nine percent, and the average cost per flying hour has increased 10 percent. The Air Force only budgeted for a 2.4 percent cost of inflation.

Depot-purchased equipment for maintenance is funded at 74 percent of the requirement—down from 85 percent the year before. Spare parts costs are up six percent.

Threats in space and cyberspace also garnered considerable attention at the symposium. Wynne said neither domain is a sanctuary where the US can operate without threat.

Officials found China’s January ASAT test, which proves China has the ability to destroy US satellites, particularly noteworthy.

“The recent Chinese test marks a turning point in the work our country must do to assure space dominance,” said Wynne. “There can be no place in space for piracy or blackmail, and the Chinese, willingly or not, have sent a message that our guard must be stronger.”

STRATCOM’s Cartwright said the US has been much too passive about space situational awareness. “We’re willing to wait days and weeks to make sure we understand who’s out there and what they’re doing,” he said. “It is a very reactive type of mind-set” that needs to change.

Carlson said that, in the future, the Air Force must anticipate emerging threats and what is needed to counter them. “Our strategy is that [AFMC] will develop the technology and the capabilities needed … as we prosecute the wars of the future as well as those that we’re involved in today.”

AFMC’s Air Force Research Laboratory has already been at work on a way to improve space situational awareness, he said. If ordered, USAF in about nine months could field new hardware that fuses disparate strands of data and would “provide increased situational awareness for our friends” at Air Force Space Command.

Cyberspace poses unique challenges and is an area where the US does not have dominance, as it does in air and space.

“In the cyber domain, our foes can mass,” noted Wynne. “There is asymmetry, the cost of entry is low, and the enemy can throw many trained operators into the fight.”

He went on to say that the service is setting up Cyber Command to lead operations in networks and the electromagnetic spectrum. The command will initially be run out of 8th Air Force at Barksdale AFB, La., and is expected to later become a major command in its own right. (See “War in the Third Domain,” p. 58.)

Cartwright said DOD cannot “let the geeks turn [cyber operations] into a special language behind a bunch of closed doors so that a warfighter has no idea how to use it.”

Cyber Command was put under 8th Air Force, which provides bombers and network capabilities to Air Combat Command and STRATCOM, partly to emphasize its combat mission. “Cyberspace is a fighting domain where the principles of war do apply, and we need true warfighters in this domain,” observed Wynne.

As in space, a more aggressive mind-set is needed. “We’ve got to get out of the mind-set that it is purely a defensive activity,” said Cartwright, with the implication that DOD is “willing to accept attack and then respond by building a better defense.”

The Air Force recognizes that cyber operations require a skilled cadre of personnel, and 8th Air Force is determining exactly what resources and personnel need to be devoted to the mission. Cartwright said getting qualified cyber-warriors is not the only issue—DOD will also need to keep them.

“When you train a person to be good in this environment, it’s not unlike the Manhattan Project,” he said. “You’ve given them the key to the kingdom. So how are we going to retain them? What are we going to do about responsibility after they leave?”

For the cyber domain, and across the Air Force, the service needs to “think outside the box a bit and derive new solutions, find new technologies, and develop new tactics, techniques, and procedures,” said Moseley. “In short, we need to build the 21st century Air Force.”

This means, he told reporters, that it may be time to begin a new debate about defense spending, in light of the fact that after five years of shooting war the US is still devoting a historically small percentage of its gross domestic product to defense.

If the needs are presented clearly, Wynne said, “I believe the American public will pay what is plainly needed for defense. It has to be explained, and our duty is to make the case.”

Making the Most of Everything

The US military needs to be careful that it does not inadvertently build shortcomings into its capabilities, said Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, chief of US Strategic Command. In the case of aircraft, he said, future platforms will be limited if they are built with closed architectures that require major software overhauls for updates instead of simple “plug-and-play” upgrades.

“If we’re relying on what we designed five years before we flew and [which] then got to the warfighter five years later, Moore’s Law has just been lost to the warfighter,” he said, referring to the principle that computing power will double every 18 months at the same cost.

Meanwhile, with stealthy and survivable missiles and strike aircraft proliferating throughout the Air Force, it may be time to consider an overlooked mission area. “That survivability attribute has to be brought not only to our missiles and our aircraft, but also to our ISR platforms,” Cartwright said.

There is a definite operational shortcoming a stealthy surveillance or reconnaissance aircraft could fill. “I love the SR-71,” he said. Unfortunately, “when we gave it up, we also gave up penetrating ISR. We’re hurting as a result of that. We’ve got to change that equation.”