Washington Watch: The F-22 and Other Priorities

April 1, 1997

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, had a blunt response to suggestions that the cost of USAF’s F-22 air-superiority fighter might be threatening the health of the Pentagon’s overall tactical aircraft plan. His message: Without the F-22, there is no plan.

The program’s other elements–the Navy F/A-18E/F and the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter–hinge on the F-22, the General told the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 25. “Without air superiority,” he explained, “you are not going to function.” He said that the F-22, by dominating the airspace over the battle area, will provide “the environment in which you will be able to operate F/A-18s . . . and Joint Strike Fighters.”

One possible upshot of killing the F-22, therefore, would be the need to redesign the JSF and possibly the F/A-18, at great cost, to give them more air-to-air punch, said Fogleman. “If you take the F-22 out of the equation, you are going to have to seriously rethink the Joint Strike Fighter and F/A-18,” he concluded, adding, “It’s pay-me-now or pay-me-later. You cannot operate without air superiority.”

The General’s message was clear–the F-22 comes first, or should, in a balanced tactical aircraft program. With these remarks, he put the Air Force on the offensive in what shapes up as a contentious budget year for the fighter. The battle over the F-22, USAF’s top modernization priority, is sure to continue throughout Congress’s review of the Fiscal 1998 Pentagon budget and the Quadrennial Defense Review, set to end next month.

The budget contained something of a surprise: USAF will undergo yet another troop cut. When it happens, noted an Air Force budget document, “Our military end strength will be at its lowest level since before the 1948 Berlin Airlift.”

In the budget that Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen unveiled on February 6, the Clinton Administration sought $250.7 billion for Fiscal 1998, which starts October 1, 1997. It represents a one-year real drop of $5.8 billion and marks the thirteenth year in a row that defense spending has declined. Plans call for real defense spending (with inflation factored out) to be flat again in 1999 but to turn up slightly thereafter.

These funds would pay only for Defense Department activities. On top of that would come $14.6 billion to fund the defense projects of the Energy Department and other agencies.

Four-Percent Solution

The problems of the F-22, successor to the venerable F-15 fighter, stem almost totally from powerful downward pressures on the federal budget in general and the DoD budget in particular. The Pentagon’s overall fighter program, it is said, will consume too big a share of the defense budget and should be cut back. The F-22 enjoys strong support within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, but it is now coming under sharper scrutiny.

In response to questions, Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall noted that the amount committed to upcoming fighter modernization, as a percentage of Air Force spending, will be lower than it was during the last modernization, which played out from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. It was in that period that the Air Force procured the F-15, F-16, and A-10.

Procurement of those three aircraft consumed roughly six percent of the Air Force budget, said Widnall, whereas the next round of modernization, comprising the F-22 and JSF, will take up only four percent of the USAF budget.

“We do believe that these programs–the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter–will fit within the Air Force budget,” she said.

The F-22 promises to be the most controversial single hardware item in the 1998 DoD budget, which is part of a six-year blueprint projecting total defense spending of $1.57 trillion. That figure is $11 billion higher than was projected last year. The Air Force’s share comes to $75 billion, which, in real terms, marks a small increase–not quite one percent–from this year’s $74.3 billion.

USAF’s overall spending plan breaks out into these major categories: $14.5 billion to research and development, $15.3 billion to hardware procurement, $23.9 billion to operations and maintenance, $19.3 billion to military personnel, and $2.3 billion to construction and family housing, with $249 million in offsetting receipts.

Air Force funding for modernization (combined procurement and R&D) comes in at $29.8 billion, sufficient to cover highest-priority investment programs and systems.

Fighters. The Pentagon budgeted $2.2 billion for the F-22 program in Fiscal 1998. Plans call for the Pentagon to fund the F-22 at $2.4 billion in 1999, enough to continue with a full development effort and to pay for the first two production aircraft.

“The F-22 is . . . one of our highest modernization priorities,” said a top DoD official. “It is not on the bubble, because we’re going to need an F-22 in the future.”

One reason is the aging of the fighter fleet. By 2004, the year the F-22 enters into service, the F-15–the world’s top air-to-air fighter–will have been in use for 30 years.

In addition to funding the F-22, the Air Force plans to commit $458 million of a Pentagon-wide total of about $1 billion to continue development of the JSF, a program that is expected to produce new fighters for the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the British Royal Navy.

Aviation procurement also includes funding for a handful of older USAF fighters. The Air Force plans to buy three F-15Es for $170 million in 1998 and another three of the multimission fighters for $165 million in 1999.

The Air Force also has begun budgeting for yet another type of combat aircraft–the Attack Laser. The YAL-1A, a 747 jumbo jet equipped with a high-energy laser, could turn out to be a key component in Pentagon plans to shoot down threatening ballistic missiles in the boost phase and perhaps even to shoot down aircraft. The Air Force expects to spend $454 million over the next two years to develop the YAL-1A technologies and hardware.

Bombers. The budget contains $624.8 million to continue work associated with the B-2 bomber and its systems, though none of that money is to be used to procure additional aircraft. The Administration provided no funds for new procurement of bombers beyond the 21 previously authorized.

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R­S. C.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Fogleman whether he had given “any thought” to buying more B-2s.

“Sir, we think about them all the time,” said the Air Force Chief of Staff. “The problem is, in order to afford a balanced Air Force within the procurement accounts that we have, we have not been able to find a way to put them in.”

The new budget contains some $342 million to continue to equip B-1 bombers with precision guided munitions. Another $484 million is earmarked in Fiscal 1998 for procurement of four types of precision weapons–the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, the Joint Standoff Weapon, the Joint Direct Attack Munition, and the Sensor-Fuzed Weapon.

Widnall said that these aircraft constitute, for theater commanders, “the tools to join the fight while other forces are still deploying.”

Mobility. The 1998 budget allots $2.4 billion to procure nine new C-17s plus spare parts, research, and military construction. In the following year, 1999, the Air Force will spend $3.4 billion to procure another 13 new lifters.

DoD has published an official requirement for 120 C-17s. Air Force budget documents maintain that getting large numbers of the new lifter into the force is USAF’s number one near-term need.

USAF also will spend $54.7 million to buy one new C-130J theater transport.

Aerial refuelers also get attention. The budget provides enough money to modify 180 aging KC-135 aircraft, part of a plan to modify 602 active-duty, Reserve, and Guard KC-135s with three new types of aircraft avionics.

Battlefield Awareness. The Pentagon’s planned battlefield awareness investments include many major Air Force programs designed to provide detailed, timely information on air and surface battles. Among them:

$1.36 billion for three more E-8C Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System aircraft in 1998, and two in 1999.

$134.7 million to upgrade the fleet of E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft with Block 30/35 electronic support measures, Central Computer Memory Upgrade, Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, GPS, and Radar System Improvement Program.

$116.5 million for 15 units of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, a lightweight, high-performance air surveillance system, and several ground stations.

$560 million for continued development of the Spacebased Infrared satellite system, successor to the Defense Support Program warning satellite.

$718 million for the Milstar satellite follow-on system.

$311 million for the Global Positioning System, about half of which will buy three additional satellites and the other half will fund more research.

USAF’s active-duty strength at the end of 1996–the latest complete fiscal year–stood at 389,001 troops. Plans call for the service to cut another some 8,000 this year, dropping the total to 381,100. After that, end-strength cuts were to cease.

However, USAF’s most recently published figures set yet another, lower target of 370,821 troops, meaning USAF will shed another 10,000 active-duty members next year.

When the Air Force achieves the lower projected level, it will be 39 percent smaller than it was at its Reagan-era peak.

One Pentagon official said the new force cut stemmed from “an explicit decision” made by the Air Force to cut end strength and free up money for other uses. Fogleman confirmed to Congress that the push came from “the force,” not DoD. However, Thurmond warned that such a reduction requires Congressional approval.

The latest Air Force budget supports a combined military force of 180,786 in the Air National Guard and in Air Force Reserve Command–107,355 Guardsmen and 73,431 Reservists.

ANG will operate 1,157 aircraft and rack up more than 361,000 flying hours in the interceptor, tactical airlift, air refueling, general-purpose fighter, and reconnaissance missions.

AFRC, with 64 flying units and 395 aircraft, will provide 100 percent of the Air Force’s weather reconnaissance, more than half of its strategic airlift, and 30 percent of the air rescue and medical airlift capability.

The Air Force’s Fiscal 1998 operations and maintenance funding levels support the operation of 20 fighter wing equivalents, 87 major installations, 5,140 primary aircraft authorized, 1.87 million flying hours, 550 ICBMs, and 24 GPS satellites.

Readiness Over All

Flying time for active Air Force fighter and attack aircrews has been set at 18.7 hours per month, down from 19.3 this year and 20.0 the year before. Bomber and transport crews continue flying at their current rates.

“These are slight reductions,” said a Pentagon executive. “We’re absolutely confident, in talking with the services as they propose them, that this reflects no change in readiness.”

Indeed, the Fiscal 1998 defense budget still is dominated by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry’s penchant to protect force readiness above all else.

One high-ranking DoD executive described the latest budget drill this way: “Secretary Perry gave precise instructions: ‘Your first priority is readiness. Your second priority will be quality of life. Third priority is, well, complete the downsizing without breaking anything. And then finally, if you’ve got any money left over, put as much as you can into modernization.’ “

DoD funded many programs to acquire or hold on to high-quality personnel. In military pay accounts, the Administration proposed the full legal pay hike of 2.8 percent in 1998 and three percent for each of the ensuing four years.

The DoD proposal protects commissary benefits. The budget also continues to give attention to quality-of-life initiatives. For example, the budget supports construction, replacement, or refurbishment of about 5,900 family housing units; construction or modernization of 11,000 barracks living spaces; and strong child-care and family support programs.

In contrast, procurement continues to stagnate, as it has for more than a decade, despite many promises to the contrary.

At this time last year, DoD said the procurement “holiday” was over. Specifically, officials said 1997 procurement spending of $38.9 billion would mark the low point and that it would turn up in 1998 to $45.5 billion. It would then rise every year and exceed $60 billion in 2001.

Yet, when the actual 1998 budget was presented, procurement again had fallen short.

“Last year, we proposed to be at $45.5, and . . . we’re at $42.6,” said a senior DoD executive. “So, obviously, we fell short by $2.9 billion. . . . Was I lying to you last year? . . . Scout’s honor, I was not lying to you, but my guess is my credibility . . . is lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.”

DoD now says the much-promised procurement “ramp-up” will start in 1999 and reach $68.3 billion in 2002. Few, however, are sanguine about the prospects.

Steep Ascent

“It’s going to be a very hard climb,” Defense Secretary Cohen told the House National Security Committee on February 12. The climb, he went on, resembled “the ascent level of an F-15.”

The 1998 budget request is, in real terms, 40 percent below the inflation-adjusted sum of $418 billion voted in Fiscal 1985, the peak year of post-Vietnam defense spending.

As a share of the nation’s GDP, defense spending goes down to 3.0 percent in 1998 and will fall to 2.6 percent in 2002, compared to 6.3 percent of GDP in the mid-1980s.

Most Pentagon spending will go to everyday activities–training, maintenance, exercises, repairs, payroll, health care, and the like. The operations and maintenance account is projected to hit $93.7 billion, consuming 37.4 percent of the budget. Military personnel accounts take another $69.5 billion, or 27.7 percent. The family housing and “other” account will take up $4.4 billion. Taken together, these fast-spending categories account for two-thirds of the new Pentagon budget.

The remaining one-third of the total will go to long-term investment in military power. Procurement accounts for only 17 percent of Pentagon spending, a huge decline from the Reagan-era peak. Research and development comes in at $35.9 billion, or 14.3 percent of the budget. The rest-$4.7 billion-goes to construction.

Service shares have remained relatively constant. In 1998, $214.2 billion, or 85 percent of Pentagon spending, will be allocated to the three military departments. Of the services’ total, the Air Force’s $75.0 billion reflects a 35.0 percent share; the Navy Department (Navy and Marine Corps) gets $79.1 billion, or 36.9 percent; and the Army gets $60.1 billion, or 28.1 percent.

Department of Defense agencies and defense-wide activities get the other $36.4 billion–15 percent of the total defense budget of $250.7 billion.

Since the big drawdown began in the late 1980s, the White House and Congress have approved a net reduction of 722,200 active-duty troops. The large US force of 2,174,200 deployed in 1987 (the post-Vietnam peak year) will have shrunk to 1,452,000 by September 30, 1997, declining by more than 33 percent.

Plans call for the uniformed military in Fiscal 1998 to lose another 21,000 active-duty troops, with the force to level off at 1,431,000. This is 14,000 below the goal set by the 1993 Bottom-Up Review. The force left at that time will be 34 percent smaller than the Cold War force at its 1987 size.

The budget allocates approximately $19 billion to service reserve components. Selected Reserves are to total 892,000 at the end of 1998, down 24 percent from their peak of 1,171,000 in 1989.

DoD officials said that civilian end strengths are being similarly reduced. By the end of Fiscal 1998, the Pentagon will have shed some 363,000 civilian defense employees since 1987 and will lop off another 54,000 by the end of the six-year plan, leaving a total of 718,000.

The 1998 budget contains no new force-structure changes for the Air Force, Army, or Marine Corps. The Pentagon kept hands off of force structure, one official said, because “we did not in any way try to anticipate what the QDR was going to do.”

In the February 25 Senate hearing, Thurmond asked the Air Force Chief of Staff whether the United States could reduce its force structure and still be able to fight and win two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts, as current strategy requires.

The General replied that the US faces “moderate to high risk” even with its current level of forces, “and so, if you take any of the force structure that we have today away from us, and if it is not replaced by high-leverage kinds of capabilities, then I think clearly that the risk of executing two MRC strategies is going to go up tremendously.”

For another year, anyway, the budget will provide funds for USAF to stick with 20 active and reserve fighter wing equivalents and about 100 deployable bombers. According to the budget documents, the Army will hold steady at 10 active and five reserve divisions, and the Marines will have three active and one Reserve Marine Expeditionary Forces.

The Navy’s 1997 “battle force” fleet of 354 warships will shrink over the next two years to 335 warships, mostly because of retirements of nuclear-powered attack submarines. The Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers remains unchanged, with 11 of the big decks available.

In the procurement accounts, the Pentagon continued to emphasize aviation. DoD in 1998 would commit $2.5 billion for the development and procurement of 20 more Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters. In addition, DoD would provide $1 billion for JSF development work and $1.1 billion to procure five Marine Corps V-22 aircraft and to continue research and development work.

The Ballistic Missile Defense program seeks $3.5 billion in the next fiscal year, down from $4 billion appropriated in 1997. DoD said it planned to spend $21.4 billion during the six-year period 1998­2003. Of that $3.5 billion, roughly $2.7 billion will go for the Theater Missile Defense system and the balance to the National Missile Defense system.