Air Force Normal

April 1, 2011

Nearly 10 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Air Force is still ramping up to field the systems needed to fight the War on Terror. There is danger in this approach. Today’s wars are not expected to last much longer, and in an era of flat budgets, the systems needed for today are crowding out the capabilities needed for tomorrow.

The MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft can serve as a case in point and represent the larger effort to develop the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance and strike capabilities needed in today’s battles.

The current plan is for USAF to be able to fly 65 simultaneous combat air patrols with the Reaper in 2013. Tactically, this will help meet demands by US and NATO troops and commanders in Afghanistan for better force protection and situational awareness. Strategically, the more Reapers in place, the easier to track, monitor, and kill insurgents when necessary.

The Reaper is a significant upgrade of the iconic MQ-1 Predator drone that essentially created its own combat niche. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ Reaper production is still building toward a maximum rate of 48 MQ-9s per year. By March, the Air Force had 48 Predator and Reaper CAPs in place—compared to just 18 in 2007.

The Reaper is not the only ISR asset being pushed into Afghanistan. MC-12 Liberty aircraft were hastened into service to provide manned intelligence for ground troops; the C-27 small airlifter is to deploy this year to help meet the resupply needs of dispersed troops; and Air Force Special Operations Command continues a lengthy growth spurt.

These are all necessary capabilities needed for today’s wars, but the 2012 USAF budget request, delivered to Capitol Hill in February, is a risky proposition. It seeks 114 aircraft for the Air Force, but 51 of these are unmanned. Of USAF’s 63 manned aircraft, 19 are F-35 trainers, and there is literally one operational fighter, bomber, or attack aircraft requested: an AC-130 gunship.

The Navy and Marine Corps, with a smaller combined inventory, actually have a much healthier aircraft modernization budget request. They seek 207 manned aircraft in 2012—a request that includes not just F-35s, but some 40 F/A-18 Super Hornet and EA-18 Growler fighters.

When pushing for the systems needed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates once derided the military services for having “next-war-itis”—an unhealthy preoccupation with the theoretical next war at the expense of today’s combat needs. Today, with Gates serving as the Air Force’s investment advisor, the opposite has become true.

Gates brushes off criticism that he is mortgaging the nation’s future capabilities by pointing to his support for the F-35 and a next generation bomber.

USAF had a program in place to develop a bomber by 2018, however. Gates canceled it just two years before ordering a new program. The F-35 should become a workhorse fighter, but has been repeatedly delayed. Just this year, DOD pulled 57 Air Force airframes out of the Pentagon’s five-year spending plan.

“For the Air Force, its traditional orientation has been air-to-air combat and strategic bombing, and members of those communities have so dominated the service leadership and organizational culture that other critical missions and new capabilities have been subordinated and neglected,” Gates asserted in comments at the Air Force Academy last month.

The Secretary clearly feels the Air Force is at risk of relapsing into what he views as unhealthy old ways when today’s wars end. “I’m concerned … that once I depart as Secretary, and once US forces draw down in Iraq and in Afghanistan in accordance with the President’s and NATO’s strategy, things can get back to what some consider to be real Air Force normal,” he said March 4.

“This must not happen.”

Apparently Gates feels the Air Force is still run by a clique of parochial generals who value bombers and air superiority fighters above the nation’s true military needs. “The services must not return to last century’s mindset after Iraq and Afghanistan, but prepare and plan for a very different world than we all left in 2001,” Gates said.

Give the Air Force some credit. With the War on Terror nearly a decade old, thousands of Air Force tech sergeants and captains have known nothing but the demands of today’s wars, and are keenly aware of what works and what is needed. Even at the highest level, two of USAF’s four-star generals (Gen. Phillip M. Breedlove, vice chief of staff, and Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., head of Air Education and Training Command) were still colonels on 9/11.

With experience forged in war, USAF seeks a force applicable for both low-level insurgency and major theater war. One need look no further than the service’s modernization priorities to see the Air Force is committed to a balanced portfolio. USAF’s top priorities are tankers, fighters, ISR, long-range strike, and space assets—systems useful not just for Afghanistan, and not just for possible future war with China, Iran, or Russia, but for all wars.

This is the real Air Force normal. The Air Force now needs to change its stated priorities into actual purchases, and time is running out.

The nation cannot afford tunnel vision, and cannot simply promise tomorrow’s needs will be met. Without proper investment, the American wartime advantages that for decades provided deterrence, kept the US unchallenged in the skies, and kept ground troops safe from enemy air attack will be lost.

The Air Force recently sent 250 fighters to an early retirement, is flying its smallest fleet since before the Korean War, and its oldest ever. The 2012 budget does not arrest this trend.

Mobility, ISR, drones, and space systems are necessary but insufficient. DOD needs to get the F-35 into service and push for a next generation bomber, or it risks creating an Air Force without combat aircraft.