Washington Watch

April 1, 2009

The Speed of Need

When a Missouri Air National Guard F-15 broke in half during a November 2007 training mission, the resulting crash sent shock waves through the Air Force. No one was immediately sure why the fighter’s structure had failed.

Its age—more than 25 years—and relentless hard maneuvering were suspected contributing factors. To be safe, Air Combat Command chief Gen. John D. W. Corley ordered the F-15 fleet grounded. Most of it was idled for months, and many pilots lost their certification in the Eagle. During the interval, America was largely without its front-line fighter force.

The cause was finally found, and Corley let the Eagles fly again. Stress had indeed felled the fighter, though the failed part was found to have been made improperly.

Solving the puzzle, though, raised disturbing questions about whether F-15s could fly another 20 years, as the Air Force was expecting them to do. If they couldn’t, the loss of the F-15 would throw the service’s whole fighter plan into question. That plan—still in force—would see some fourth generation F-15s retained well into the 2020s, substituting for fifth generation F-22s that are needed but not budgeted.

Corley, in a March 2008 press conference, said he was “desperate” for hard information about the health of the F-15 force. It was announced that a fleet-representative F-15 would be put through a torture test at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, to see how many years the Eagles really had left in them. The answers were to be available around now—to inform the Pentagon’s choices about how many F-22s and F-35s it should buy.

Unfortunately, the stress test, upon which so many answers hinge, has yet to be performed. Air Force Materiel Command explained that funding to start the test fell out of the Fiscal 2009 budget. It’s supposed to be in the Fiscal 2010 budget. A contract could be awarded this summer, and work could start in the fall.

The answers won’t be quick in coming. It will take time to select an F-15 for the test, then put it through depot maintenance to correct its aches and pains—corrosion, structural defects, etc.—to make it a truly “representative” test article. All the dangerous parts, such as fluids and explosive charges in the ejection seat, must be removed, and the aircraft must be taken apart, fitted with instrumentation, and put back together again.

It will also take time to build and calibrate the Full Scale Fatigue Stress Test rig, with all of its wires and levers that will bend the airframe, subjecting it to the same forces it would receive in years of operation. At best possible speed, the test itself will start in October 2011 and wrap up around December of 2014.

A spokesperson for Corley said that ACC and AFMC will work together to “elevate the priority of this effort.” The command couldn’t say why it’s apparently not a priority now.

In the meantime, the Air Force will get some F-15 data on which to base its choices, but not right away. Two “high time” F-15s—both a one- and a two-seat model with more than average hours flown—will be taken from the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., and torn apart. This will be done to look for any obvious safety issues and to examine whether any particular parts have only “limited durability” remaining, the ACC spokeswoman reported.

The data obtained will in turn feed the building of revised F-15 computer models. The teardowns will take place this year and the refined computer models are supposed to be ready in 2010, a year after the critical choices regarding the F-15, F-22, and F-35 have been made.

Asked in mid-February about the pacing of the test, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz told reporters in Washington that “the stress test takes time, and we’ll be doing that in good faith. We’ll no doubt discover those things that we need to know.”

Old SAMs, New Tricks

Anyone who thinks the Air Force will only be challenged by new air defense systems exported from Russia and China—the so-called “double-digit SAMs”—had better think twice. Economical upgrades are giving digital, jam-resistant teeth to obsolete but ubiquitous 1960s-era surface-to-air missiles around the world. Upgraded SAMs are also being made more mobile—a quality USAF leaders found particularly vexing in both Iraq and Serbia.

Air Power Australia, which describes itself as an “independent defense think tank” said in a January paper that “hybridization” of old SAMs with new components such as advanced radars is “occurring on a larger scale than previously appreciated” and is an issue receiving “little attention in the West.” Soviet-era air defense systems are evolving rapidly.

The upgrades make sense for many nations, APA said. Rather than buy all-new systems such as the S-300, which is Russia’s most advanced export air defense system, users of old SA-3, SA-5/6, SA-8, and SA-11 systems can retain and extend the service lives “of often large inventories of equipment, and large war stocks of missile rounds.”

Upgrades being offered and installed by Belarus and Ukraine, as well as Russia and China, include “increasing radar performance, jam resistance, and track capabilities, and some examples improving either mobility of the system or the kinematic range of the missiles.” The APA went on that “it is worth considering that many thousands of such systems” were exported by Russia during the Cold War, to clients ranging from Warsaw Pact nations and other allies to those “being courted or influenced by the Soviets.”

China, which license-built many of these systems, and which is manufacturing its own variant of the S-300, has “maintained its own market for indigenous and cloned Soviet missiles and radars.”

The APA defined four classes of such hybridization upgrades. Class 1 it defined as simple replacement of old analog equipment and mechanical components “no longer supportable” with new ones. This level of upgrade simply restores the original capabilities of the system, but extends its service life. Thus, some SAMs thought to be out of commission might be put back in service.

A Class 2 upgrade APA defined as having all the characteristics of Class 1, but with replacement of “key functional components,” such as radar receivers, transmitters, and signal and data processors, with “modern digital equivalents.” At this level, jam resistance is increased, as well as radar detection range. Still, the system might retain “many of the electronic vulnerabilities of the original.”

A Class 3 upgrade would be one that makes a previously static system mobile, either by putting it on new trailers or rebuilding it as a group of self-propelled units. The ready availability of geolocation systems, such as GPS or Glonass, means that SAMs can rapidly move and accurately recalibrate, giving missiles a better ability to triangulate their prey. An inability to find and destroy all of Serbia’s mobile SAMs in Operation Allied Force was faulted for some aircraft losses in that conflict, and in Deliberate Force.

A Class 4 upgrade the APA defined as a hybridized system pairing “an entirely new engagement radar, and often a new acquisition radar,” with older missiles, sometimes enhanced with new guidance packages, motors, or other tweaks.

An example would be the SA-5 missile system, which Navy EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft were able to “render … unusable” in skirmishes with Libyan air defenses in the 1980s. In a hybridized system, where the SA-5 is paired with components of the SA-20/21, the Prowler would be “ineffective” in jamming digital radar, APA claimed. Both Syria and Iran have access to such a hybrid. It is “a good case study of what is achievable for modest development investment,” APA asserted.

Such a combination “allows Russia to provide a counter-ISR [intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance] capability to nations that they may not trust with the most advanced weapons such as the SA-21 40N6 missile, currently in test.”

Likewise, some frequency-hopping radars being offered as upgrades by China will represent “an entirely different proposition” versus “the legacy article, in terms of its engagement envelope, tactical mobility, and resistance to jamming.”

APA concluded by saying that hybridization of integrated air defense systems is likely to expand, as holders of old gear “seek to exploit their sunk investments” and as “vastly better capabilities of new-technology phased array engagement radars” become available and “manufacturers of radar equipment seek to expand their markets.”

The Four Percent Solution

Congress in late February had begun considering a joint resolution that would peg US defense budgets to a minimum of four percent of gross domestic product each year for 10 years. This marked the second time in the past two years that such a resolution had been offered.

The resolution was co-sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). A similar move initiated last year found sympathizers but no traction on Capitol Hill.

Four percent of the 2008 GDP of $14.3 trillion equates to roughly $575 billion. The sponsors of the bill would not include in the calculation any supplemental funds covering war costs.

Going to a level of four percent of GDP for defense was suggested several years ago by then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley. More recently, it has been championed by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As recently as November, Mullen told reporters at a press conference that four percent of GDP “should be a floor, given the challenges that we have.”

Mullen added that he was trying to trigger a debate about national defense spending, and that four percent “seems about right,” adding, “I’m not hung up on four percent, but I think having our national security investment correct, in the times in which we’re living, is absolutely critical.”

Inhofe’s version of the resolution, offered to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12, noted that the demands on US forces have increased even as the size of the force decreased, and that “the nation cannot continue to commit the armed forces with other assignments around the world without funds needed to carry out the missions they are assigned.”

The resolution ticked off a litany of signs that US defense has grown thinner, noting that the Navy fielded 276 ships in 2007, after reaching a high of 568 ships in the late 1980s. Air Force fighter wing equivalents have “dropped from 37 at the time of Operation Desert Storm to 20, and the average age of Air Force aircraft has risen from nine years in 1973 to 24 years by 2007.”

The Air Force procurement budget, Inhofe pointed out, “has been cut by almost half between Fiscal Year 1985 and Fiscal Year 2006,” in constant 2008 dollars. By the same measure, the Air Force’s research, development, test, and evaluation budget “is projected to drop by half between Fiscal Year 2006 and Fiscal Year 2012.”

The overall defense budget, Inhofe said, would fall to 3.2 percent of GDP under the roadmap that the Bush Administration had handed off to President Barack Obama.

A level of four percent would still compare as cheap when measured against historical lows and highs, Inhofe said, and would be “almost a full percentage point lower than the ‘hollow force’ era following the Vietnam War.” Without it, the nation will be “unable to equip, train, and modernize a full-spectrum force to preserve America’s security.”

Including the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is already spending more than four percent of GDP. However, war costs are funded out of separate supplemental spending bills which aren’t supposed to finance the routine upgrade or replacement of worn-out or obsolete equipment.

Moreover, a larger and larger portion of basic defense spending has been going toward pay, retirement, and health care, while procurement of actual things—vehicles, aircraft, ships, etc.—has been on a long downward trend.