Washington Watch: Another Year, Another Cut

May 1, 1994

The Air Force budget is dropping fast, but many in Congress have called on USAF to find a way somehow to keep more bombers on the ramp. They say the aircraft are vital to the success of the Clinton Administration’s defense strategy, which calls for the US to be prepared to fight multiple regional conflicts. “I am very concerned, and I know others are, about not having enough bombers to carry out a two-war scenario,” warned Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In a March hearing, Senator Nunn declared, “It’s very obvious to me that we don’t have enough [bombers] in this overall force structure.” A Senate Budget Committee report charged that the Fiscal 1995 Pentagon budget, made public February 7, “does not meet essential defense requirements for long-range bombers.” Sen. Kent Conrad (D­N. D.) claimed the Air Force was headed toward a force of only eighty-seven combat-coded B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s, a fact he said other lawmakers would be “very surprised to learn.”

The perceived “bomber gap” was fast becoming a key issue–though not the only issue–for lawmakers assessing the capability of the much-reduced US armed forces to fight and win two “major regional conflicts” at roughly the same time-a planning goal the Pentagon used in its 1993 Bottom-Up Review of defense programs, budgets, and force structure. In the new strategy that emerged, bombers were cast in a starring role.

Senator Conrad pointed out that the Pentagon review saw a residual need for “up to” 184 bombers. Plans called for about 100 of these aircraft to be combat-coded for conventional war, with the remainder being used for training, nuclear reserve, testing, and the like. Now the Pentagon reports it plans to retire or otherwise lay up more heavy bombers, eventually dropping the total number of bombers to 140 in 1999. According to Senator Conrad, the bomber share of USAF’s new budget and program actually finances only 126 long-range aircraft. [See “Aerospace World,” p. 15.] In late spring, the precise numbers were still in dispute.

A “Swing Strategy”

Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there was an element of risk in dropping to 100 deployable bombers but that the risk would shrink as USAF developed new precision guided munitions for bombers during the next few years.

The Pentagon claimed it would need 100 bombers to fight one major regional war but was initially fuzzy on what it would do if the second war broke out more or less at the same time. Rudy DeLeon, the new under secretary of the Air Force and a close associate of former Defense Secretary Les Aspin, explained to the Senate in March that USAF must be ready to shift bombers from the first war to the second and to plug any gaps with its fifty-four aging F-111 fighter-bombers. This “swing strategy” also was mentioned by Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall in Senate testimony.

Senator Nunn questioned what would happen if all or most conventional bombers were still needed in the first war even after the second broke out: “That’s going to be an issue in regard to B-52 retirement and whether we keep open the possibility of more bombers.” USAF was taking steps that would permit the later reactivation of two B-1 squadrons and two B-52 squadrons, each containing twelve bombers. The Air Force reported that the total cost in annual appropriations would be $350 million. Initial spare parts would cost another $50 million.

The bomber dispute was but one contentious issue stemming from the White House’s $263.7 billion national defense budget for Fiscal 1995, the first installment of a five-year, $1.3 trillion defense program covering 1995­99. Critics say that the plan cuts many corners on US force capabilities, failing to fully fund even its own declared requirements. The Administration acknowledges that its five-year funding projections fall $20 billion short of what must be spent to support the Bottom-Up Review force.

The Air Force portion of the new funding blueprint seeks $74.5 billion in budget authority. This marks a real, inflation-adjusted decline of $776 million–about one percent–from 1994 levels. It devotes $12.4 billion to research and development, $18.2 billion to procurement, $23.3 billion to operations and maintenance, $19.2 billion to military personnel, and $1.7 billion to construction and housing, with offsetting receipts of $300 million.

The latest proposal represents the sixth straight year of cuts in budget authority for the Air Force (the ninth in the last ten years), and it will have predictable results. In the coming year, the total aircraft inventory will drop by 184 airplanes to 7,009 in the active and reserve forces. The Air Force will lay up another wing of F-16s and half a wing of F-15Cs. In 1989, the Air Force operated fifty-two big installations abroad; that number now stands at twenty-nine and will soon fall to only twenty-one.

The Air Force’s active-duty end strength next year will decline to 400,051 troops, down 208,149 from a 1986 Cold War level of 608,200, meaning that the Air Force will have eliminated one out of every three airmen over that period. The last time Air Force end strength stood so low was in 1948, before the Berlin Airlift, but plans call for cutting the force further–to 390,000 by 1999.

Emphasis on Here and Now

The new 1995 program continues to place major emphasis on current operations at the expense of investment in equipping the future force. Current operations would consume $42.5 billion, or 57 percent of the budget. Only $32.3 billion, or forty-three percent, would be spent on research, development, and procurement of new weapons or on construction. The gap between operations and investment widened over the past year, and the service now is living heavily off built-up stocks of equipment and weapons.

“We can live off the stocks that we built up during the Cold War,” said one Defense Department official. “We bought lots of things in the 1980s, so we don’t need to be investing as heavily in buying current state-of-the-art weapon systems now.”

In Fiscal 1995 (which begins October 1), funding for operations and maintenance, the key to combat readiness, will go up for the Army and Navy but not for the Air Force, where it will experience a one-year real decline of about five percent, mostly as a result of the sharp decline in USAF force structure. Even so, USAF leaders believe they can maintain a well-supplied, high-quality fighting force with the available money.

The service will continue to operate at a tempo that generates roughly the same number of flying hours per month for each aircrew as in 1994. Flying time for active-duty tactical fighter aircrews will even rise slightly, from 19.5 hours per crew per month to 19.7 flying hours per month. The planned flying hour program provides 19.9 hours in the cockpit per month for bomber crews, up about two hours per month over 1994. On the airlift side of the force, flying hours will be about the same as in 1994.

Elsewhere, the picture is not so bright. One Air Force document points out that though the new budget is “sufficient to support current force structure, field new or modernized systems on schedule, and sustain the infrastructure,” the service had to “put demands on our logistics and infrastructure accounts” in order to stay within budget guidance. Depot-level repairs are funded at only ninety percent of requirement, depot-purchased equipment maintenance at eighty percent of requirement, and real property maintenance at seventy-two percent.

Pentagon documents warn that the Air Force is seeing some shortages of war reserve spares for F-15E fighters and B-1B bombers. It also noted that a squeeze on spare parts funding may soon cause a decline in aircraft mission capable rates and that spare parts would have to be borrowed from other units or from war reserve stocks to support peacetime training.

“As some senior leaders have indicated, we are starting to see warning signs again of a potential hollow force,” claimed Air Force Secretary Widnall, though she was quick to add that service officials are not ignoring the warnings.

Manpower Concerns

One major warning sign involves military personnel. Air Force officers are increasingly concerned about slack recruiting. Even with lower requirements for new troops each year, filling quotas is becoming difficult. Among those already in the service, there are signs of morale problems and unease brought about by the rapid drawdown of the force. Said Secretary Widnall, “The rate of change is a major source of stress on our people.”

For Air Force officials, continued recruitment of high-quality personnel is essential. The Air Force plans to bring in approximately 31,000 military and 12,000 civilian members each year for the next few years. The Pentagon said it would allocate sufficient resources to make sure that at least ninety percent of all new recruits are high school graduates and that sixty percent are in the high-aptitude group, as measured by standardized tests. Current Air Force performance already exceeds those levels.

The Pentagon budget contains funds for a 1.6 percent pay raise for active-duty military members in 1995. The pay hike is less than the rate of inflation but more than many expected, given the fact that in 1994 President Clinton tried to freeze military pay and finally accepted a 2.2 percent military pay raise imposed by Congress.

“I’m personally delighted that we were able to get the pay raise at all,” said one Pentagon official. “We fought very hard to make sure that we would be able to have a pay raise for the troops. Is it as high as I’d like to have? No. But I’ve got to tell you, I think it becomes a symbol of our commitment to them.”

Meager Modernization

Weapons modernization has been squeezed hard. “Look at aircraft,” said a senior defense official, who noted that in 1985 all the services “were buying 900 combat aircraft. This year, our budget is going to have 127 combat aircraft–and that’s a stretch because forty-two of them are trainers and sixty of them are utility helicopters.”

In 1993, the Air Force made its last planned purchase of stealthy B-2 bombers, buying four. The 1995 budget includes $793 million for the B-2, but not for additional airplanes. The funds would be used to cover continued research, testing, and equipment needed to maintain and operate the airplanes. The budget requests $120 million to develop and procure modifications for the B-1 bomber, many of which are aimed at equipping that airplane for nonnuclear missions.

The C-17 cargo airplane is the largest single expense item in the entire Pentagon budget. To continue the C-17 program, the budget includes about $2.9 billion–$2.7 billion for six airplanes and $221 million to continue flight testing. The Pentagon announced in December that it would continue buying six airplanes annually through Fiscal 1996 and will then determine whether to buy more C-17s, buy commercial cargo airplanes, or both. The budget requests $104 million to explore the possibility of resuming production of C-5 military cargo airplanes or adapting a commercial air freighter for military use.

The new USAF budget proposes $100 million to terminate production of the F-16 fighter and $564.2 million to buy two E-8 Joint STARS aircraft and components.

Future Fighters

In the 1995 budget, the Air Force comes out reasonably strong on the fighter front. The Pentagon approved the expenditure of $2.5 billion next year to continue developing the F-22, the stealth replacement for the F-15, to ensure air superiority for decades. Procurement money for the Lockheed-built jet is scheduled to start flowing in 1996, with production to end in 2011.

Initially, the Air Force planned to buy 750 of the hot new aircraft. The service later lowered the planned buy to 648, and the number stayed there until this spring. The Air Force confirmed that it now plans to reduce the overall F-22 production run to 442 aircraft–a reduction of more than forty-one percent from original plans. The new number will provide for four wings of fighters, with 100 fighters in each, and forty-two F-22s for pipeline and attrition reserve purposes. Total program cost has been set at $71.6 billion, measured in 1994 dollars.

The Air Force budget sets aside $100 million this year as its share of the cost of the USAF-Navy Joint Advanced Strike Technology program, which is designed to produce experimental airplanes that will test technologies for future combat aircraft. The Navy also is contributing $100 million.

The 1995 program focuses on providing new armament for bombers to use in theater war scenarios. A key component is the AGM-137 Triservice Standoff Attack Missile (TSSAM), a stealthy, conventional cruise missile capable of air and ground launch. The air-launched version is being developed for Air Force and Navy fighter and bomber aircraft. The Air Force will spend $373.9 million this year to procure the weapon and $81.6 million to continue development.

The Air Force also intends to spend $85 million in R&D money to further develop the Joint Direct Attack Munition, $49 million on the Joint Standoff Weapon, and $113.5 million on the Sensor-Fuzed Weapon. “Taken together, these advanced munitions and sensors will provide US forces with more highly concentrated firepower to blunt an armored invasion in the opening phase of a regional conflict,” said Mr. Aspin.

Lost in Space

The Air Force budget contains some $440 million to produce additional Defense Support Program spacecraft. There will be no funding for the Follow-On Early Warning Satellite, and the Air Force will avoid $4.4 billion in FEWS costs over the next five years. It will, however, spend $150 million this year on a replacement program, ALARM (Alert, Locate, and Report Missiles).

The budget requests nearly $600 million to continue developing and building launch rockets already in service, but Air Force leaders want to develop new types. “Our space-launch vehicles also require modernization,” said Secretary Widnall. “The current systems are derived from 1960s technology, and they are costly and often unresponsive to user needs. . . . We, along with NASA and the commercial sector, must step out smartly to scrub our requirements and pursue a national launch solution that is robust, reliable, and cost-effective.”

Modernization programs for strategic forces have been completed or severely curtailed, and funding for strategic nuclear forces is the lowest it has been in more than thirty years. The Pentagon reported that 500 Minuteman III missiles will be deployed at three bases. All Minuteman IIIs will be downloaded to single warheads. Peacekeeper missiles will be retired by 2003.

Return of Procurement

There are signs that the steep decline in defense procurement might be ending. The Bottom-Up Review concluded that it was essential to proceed with selective modernization of key weapon systems to maintain the technological superiority of US forces. After a long decline, funding is planned to start increasing in 1996 and rise by twenty percent by the end of the decade. That shift depends on whether the Pentagon and the services can achieve major reductions in overhead and drastically overhaul the defense acquisition system.

“We cannot sustain these low levels of procurement for long,” Secretary of Defense William J. Perry testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last February. “There will come a time when we have used up that excess inventory, and then we will have to start building at higher rates than we now are building.”