Washington Watch

June 1, 2004

McCain and the F/A-22 Raptor

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been the chief opponent in Congress when it comes to the Air Force’s attempt to aquire new aerial refueling aircraft. Now he may be taking aim at USAF’s top-priority F/A-22 fighter.

In an April 11 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” McCain shook up USAF leaders with what sounded like the opening shot in a crusade against the F/A-22. McCain said the US will have to expand the size of the Army and Marine Corps if it wants to achieve its objectives in Iraq. To pay for it, he said, “we may have to make some tough choices.”

He went on to say, “We may have to cancel this airplane that’s going to cost between $250 million and $300 million a copy.” The Senator did not identify the aircraft, but a McCain spokesperson confirmed he was referring to the F/A-22.

The figure quoted by McCain includes money spent on research, development, and tooling—basically, the sunk cost. The Air Force says the per copy flyaway cost of each new aircraft, if the service buys 200 or more, is about $120 million. The price will be lower still if the service succeeds in obtaining further cost efficiencies in production.

According to a Senate staff member, McCain was not necessarily trying to target the F/A-22 for cancellation. He was simply trying to highlight the fact that Iraq operations take precedence. The staffer said that, if the funds needed to achieve success in Iraq are competing with “programs that are struggling,” then “the immediate military requirement wins, hands down. ”

The staff member signaled that McCain might seek a reduction in the number of F/A-22s in the Fiscal 2005 budget. One reason, he said, was that Lockheed Martin is behind on deliveries of the Raptor. Reducing next year’s buy might “give them time to catch up,” said McCain ’s staffer.

The Air Force declined to comment officially on McCain’s remarks, but service officials privately expressed dismay that the Senator seemed to indicate a lack of support for the Raptor.

“He is a tough critic, as the whole tanker issue has shown, and we hoped he would be with us on the F/A-22,” a senior USAF official said.

McCain’s voting record has been generally supportive of the F/A-22 over the last 15 years. He even defended the program during his bid for the 2000 Republican Presidential nomination. However, at that time he also suggested that he might only support a smaller fleet than that proposed by the Pentagon.

In response to a question put by The Concord (N.H.) Monitor prior to the 2000 New Hampshire primaries, McCain said USAF’s new air superiority fighter is “needed to ensure that the United States will maintain the ability to dominate the skies over a battlefield well into the 21st century. The F-15 has been and remains a fine aircraft, but its edge over foreign aircraft already in production is declining and a new airframe is needed for the initial phase of conflict.”

Then McCain said that the F-22 becomes less important once enemy air defenses are defeated. “Thus, as with all other military systems, I would support procurement of only those assets necessary to ensure successful missions,” he said.

The Air Force also recognized that it would require the new fighter to go beyond its primary air superiority role. In 2002, it redesignated the F-22, the F/A-22, giving it more of an attack role.

Defense analysts expressed surprise that McCain might want to cut the Raptor.

Loren B. Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank that keeps tabs on issues like tankers, said, “Typically, when an airplane is through development and production has started, that’s not the time to start looking for savings.”

Tanker Ups and Downs

The Air Force continues to fight an uphill battle to procure new aerial refueling aircraft, but on May 13 the House Armed Services Committee gave the service a shot in the arm. It was a much needed boost following a DOD report that claims replacing current tankers is not urgent.

Defense officials briefed Congressional staffers on May 12 regarding a new Defense Science Board report on USAF’s tanker fleet and plans to replace the oldest aircraft. The DSB found, according to news reports, that the KC-135 corrosion problem cited by USAF as a key reason for immediate replacement of some tankers is, in fact, “manageable” because of the service’s improved maintenance program. The DSB recommended waiting until USAF could conduct a complete analysis of alternatives—a process that could take up to 18 months.

However, the House committee, in its markup of the 2005 defense budget, noted that “current operational demands” had prematurely shortened the life of the KC-135 fleet and left it vulnerable to grounding. The potential loss of the tanker fleet, emphasized the panel, “puts the nation’s long-range strike and resupply capabilities at risk.”

The panel allocated $15 million for advance procurement of new KC-767 tankers. It went on to direct the Air Force to enter a multiyear contract to be negotiated after June 1. That contract, it said, would need review by a Defense Secretary-appointed panel of experts.

It seems certain that last year’s proposed deal to lease 20 Boeing KC-767s and buy another 80 is doomed. In March, the Pentagon inspector general had issued a report criticizing the service for being too creative in its attempts to engineer the streamlined acquisition deal. The IG said the Air Force used an “inappropriate procurement strategy and demonstrated neither best practices nor prudent acquisition procedures to provide sufficient accountability” on the program.

USAF noted that the IG found “no compelling reason” to stop the tanker deal, countering that there are “fundamental differences in interpretation” between the Pentagon IG audit team and the Air Force’s lawyers.

Joseph E. Schmitz, the IG, asserted that the Air Force didn’t follow “five statutory provisions” regarding acquisition practices. The Air Force, though, said it had addressed all the issues raised by the IG.

“This was an admittedly complex and novel proposal to lease commercial aircraft modified to serve as tanker aircraft,” said the Air Force in a written response. The service added that it “believes that … comprehensive reviews provided by numerous oversight agencies supported this transformational lease program and that its terms provided sufficient taxpayer protections. ”

The goal all along, the Air Force said, was to get the tankers as quickly as possible “while exercising proper stewardship over taxpayer funds.” At the time, the Pentagon had vetted the strategy. Edward C. Aldridge announced the details of the buy/lease plan himself in May 2003 when he was the Pentagon ’s top acquisition official.

Shortly after the release of the IG report, former USAF top acquisition official, Darleen A. Druyun, pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge. Druyun admitted conspiring with former Boeing official Michael M. Sears to obtain a high-level job with the company before she had recused herself from involvement in Air Force contracts with Boeing. At the time, the Air Force was conducting negotiations with Boeing on the tanker deal. (See “Tanker Twilight Zone,” February, p. 46.)

Boeing has already slowed work on the first of the 20 tankers the Air Force expected to lease, pending some definitive decision by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on whether to go ahead with the program.

On May 13, acting Pentagon acquisition chief, Michael W. Wynne, told reporters that Rumsfeld needs more information before making a formal decision. Wynne, according to Defense Daily, indicated Rumsfeld would probably follow the DSB recommendation for an AOA but one that is accelerated to meet timing of the 2006 budget deliberations later this year.

DSB Seeks Expanded Strategic Options

The US needs a wider variety of weaponry in its strategic arsenal, according to a panel of the Defense Science Board. The panel, looking 30 years into the future, recommended conventional, electromagnetic pulse, and chemical warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles; lower-yield nuclear warheads; and so-called “neutron” bombs.

The DSB task force examining future strategic strike forces was chaired by retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, former head of US Pacific Command, retired USAF Gen. Michael P.C. Carns, former vice chief of staff, and Vincent Vitto, president of Draper Laboratory, a nonprofit research institution.

The task force took a year to examine US strategic forces and determine whether they will still be relevant in the future and to make recommendations for new capabilities that should be developed. The report was released this spring.

The US needs systems that can hit targets precisely from very long ranges, destroy deeply buried targets, and do so more quickly, reliably, and stealthily than is possible with existing systems, the panel found. It recommended converting 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs (now scheduled for decommissioning) to a conventional role and developing a new intermediate-range ballistic missile for the Navy.

The payloads for these missiles would come from existing “successful, special-purpose, non-nuclear weapons.” These might include weapon substances described as “calmatives,” or knockout gases, that could “neutralize” leadership of a terrorist group, possibly in conjunction with the use of special operations forces. Others might be conventional explosives or devices producing an electromagnetic pulse effect that could disable enemy systems.

The panel believes that the US must maintain and refine its nuclear weapons capability because “there are already open discussions in professional journals in other countries of nuclear attacks on US deployed forces and communications.” The panel said the US and its allies will need a nuclear deterrent force indefinitely.

However, the DSB panel stated that the US should stop refurbishing existing nuclear weapons and focus, instead, on producing a stockpile of lower-yield nuclear warheads.

These new warheads, said the DSB report, will have to “produce much lower collateral damage (great precision, deep penetration, greatly reduced radioactivity) … and produce special effects (enhanced electromagnetic pulse, enhanced neutron flux, reduced fission yield). ”

The task force recommended moving toward a “new triad” of strategic systems: passive defenses, active defenses, and retaliation forces. The current nuclear triad of ICBMs, nuclear-capable bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles offers such destructive capabilities that future enemies may feel any limited weapons of mass destruction attack on the US, its allies, or interests would fall “below US nuclear response thresholds,” according to the report. The panel sees this as a strategic deterrent credibility gap that the US must shore up by developing less-destructive weapons. That would presumably enhance their military utility.

Active defenses would take the form of detection systems and countermeasures, while passive defenses might include such features as “medical protection against a covert biological attack. ”

With substantial modification, the land-based Minuteman III ICBM could last through 2040 but no longer, and a program assessing the possibilities of replacing it is already under way, the panel said. Likewise, the Navy’s inventory of Trident D-5 SLBMs will last no longer than the 2040s, after which the Navy should replace them with a new, more versatile intermediate-range ballistic missile.

The Pentagon should explore a family of stealthy, unmanned, air refuelable global surveillance and strike aircraft—land-based and sea-based versions—that could take over much of the manned bomber mission, the task force said. In peacetime, they could perform intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance missions and also serve as airborne alert carriers of weapons or nonlethal devices such as powerful lasers or EMP generators.

The panel recommended replacing the existing inventory of air-launched cruise missiles—due to reach the end of their service lives around 2030—“in kind” with stealthier, longer-ranged systems. It suggested the Air Force, by 2015, should relieve a “few hundred” of the stealthy advanced cruise missiles of their nuclear role, rearming them with conventional or “special effects” weapons.

US Strategic Command should take the lead in designing a new command, control, communications ISR architecture “essential for a netted, collaborative strategic strike network,” stated the report. It also said that current airborne and space ISR platforms are pushing the limits of what data they can collect about “enemies that are learning to disperse, move, and hide ” from them.

The task force recommended that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency take the lead in developing sensors and technologies that could be deployed by networked, “close-in” forces.

Finding a Niche

New NATO members must focus their scarce defense dollars on “niche” capabilities to cover alliance shortfalls, said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO’s new secretary general. While the statement is not new, it apparently bears repeating for NATO’s newest associates, according to de Hoop Scheffer who made a visit to Washington in March.

NATO’s new leader told defense journalists that the alliance’s force planning system still needs to be rationalized to achieve a broader spectrum of capability.

Seven new members joined the alliance the day de Hoop Scheffer spoke.

“What is NATO going to advise those nations to do?” he asked rhetorically, answering that NATO officials had told the Baltic countries and Slovenia: “You have no air forces, so please do not buy expensive fighters. NATO is going to provide air cover, but do develop niche capabilities, on the basis of which you can participate in peacekeeping operations.”

He noted that Estonia and the Czech Republic, although small and with limited defense funds, are participating in “almost all” of the peacekeeping and out-of-area operations in which NATO is engaged. The reason, he said, is that they have put their limited funds into niche capabilities such as special forces and de-mining squads or, in the Czechs’ case, equipment and training to detect nuclear, biological, and chemical agents on the battlefield.

As the new countries were ushered into the alliance, NATO fighters touched down on their runways, he said, to provide the promised air cover.

The secretary general urged NATO countries to invest in capabilities that support the alliance’s new needs. “We’re not living in the Cold War anymore,” he said.

De Hoop Scheffer said that NATO will reaffirm at its meeting this month in Turkey that member countries “should have 40 percent of their total armed forces usable and quickly deployable and eight percent sustainable.” The terms “usability” and “deployability” will be the mantra of NATO military power under his tenure, he said. In this, he will pick up where his predecessor, George Robertson of Britain, left off.

De Hoop Scheffer also said that, despite the sometimes glacial pace of consensus decision-making in Operation Allied Force and in subsequent combat operations, NATO will not try to move to a more streamlined form of action.

“We should stick to the consensus rule,” he said, adding that the problem really has not grown “more complex” since NATO’s membership doubled over the last decade.

“We are not the European Union,” he continued. “We are not going to divide into areas where we have some form of majority voting.” Countries that don’t want to participate have always had, and will always have, “ways and means of not participating,” he said. De Hoop Scheffer also defended the current system where any country can exercise its “red card” and veto a particular mission or target.

“What I’m saying is that the consensus rule has never caused a problem” in which countries opted out or failed to go ahead with a consensus choice, he asserted.

However, de Hoop Scheffer acknowledged that the NATO Response Force must, by necessity, have the ability to spring into action quickly, and he urged member nations to develop protocols that would streamline their approval of such action.

He tells NATO countries that their national parliaments should develop procedures that will ensure rapid deployment. “The NRF doesn’t have a week waiting time before they can act because one or two national