An Air Force for the Lean Years

June 1, 1988

When the defense budget demo­lition exercises ended last winter, the Air Force found itself $18 billion shy of the funding it had counted on for this fiscal year and next. Reductions of the same—or even greater—magnitude will be in effect through 1993.

“Let me assure you that the American people need and deserve a better Air Force than this budget will provide,” Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge, Jr., said at a Pentagon news conference. He also said “the budget levels for FY ’89 are such that future capability will be reduced and past gains will, in some cases, be reversed.”

The scaled-down force that enters the 1990s will have fewer combat wings and fewer people. Some mod­ernization programs will have been delayed and others canceled. Un­less military compensation im­proves, personnel shortages in crit­ical specialties are almost certain. Force-structure turbulence has al­ready led to widespread apprehen­sion among military people and ci­vilian employees about the security of their careers. To save money, USAF will recruit one-third fewer airmen this year than it had planned. Military personnel vacan­cies are not being filled until unit manning drops below ninety per­cent overseas and below eighty-five percent in the continental United States.

Air Force leaders are also wor­ried about a lack of wartime sus­tainability. Flying units today are living off spare parts ordered two and three years ago. The supply will begin drying up soon. The FY ’88 and FY ’89 budgets fund less than half the requirement for aircraft spares. All of those purchased will be consumed in regular peacetime operations.

No wartime reserve stocks are being bought, and new aircraft join­ing the inventory in 1990 and 1991 will not have wartime readiness spares kits. Gen. Alfred G. Hansen, Commander of Air Force Logistics Command, predicts that these deci­sions will come back to haunt us.

“While we remain ready to re­spond to contingency operations, we may not have the staying power to sustain,” General Hansen told the Senate in testimony March 25. “We are, in fact, a peacetime Air Force and must accept the risk to our national security that that en­tails.”

The outlook would be even worse except for gains in capability achieved between 1980 and 1987. The Air Force now has newer air­craft that perform better and go lon­ger between breakdowns. The airlift and aerial refueling fleets have been beefed up considerably. By the end of the decade, strategic airlift capac­ity will have nearly doubled over its 1980 level. Fuel offload capability of tankers will be up by fifty percent.

Some of the most spectacular im­provements are not yet out of the development pipeline. An example is the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), which is to begin service in 1990. In aerial combat, it will double the ef­fectiveness of the F-15 and increase that of the F-16 by six times.

Force Posture Today

Pentagon budgets have been tail­ing off since 1985, when the Reagan Administration’s rearmament pro­gram hit its peak. Despite that, the Air Force had been funded reason­ably well up to six months ago when the wholesale round of budget re­ductions began.

Precise details of force posture are classified, but the generalized “mission capability indicators” an­nounced by the Defense Depart­ment in March show the results of the good budget years.

Aggregate US “nuclear kill poten­tial” against various targets, ranging from very hard silos to easily dam­aged industrial facilities, was about seventy-five percent better in 1987 than it had been in 1980. The im­provement was best against hard­ened ICBM silos, the class of tar­gets that is most difficult to damage, Deputy Defense Secretary William H. Taft IV told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Between 1980 and 1987, tactical air forces doubled their “relative kill capabilities” for air-to-air engage­ments. Their capability to destroy ground targets increased by 240 per­cent. These measures take into ac­count such variables as number and quality of aircraft, their probability of survival in combat, sortie-gener­ation rates, and weapons effective­ness, Secretary Taft said.

The Defense Department had been projecting that these measures of mission capability would improve significantly more by 1992. That is no longer likely. In fact, a shortfall in readiness and sustainability fund­ing could make the numbers drop quickly. Cannibalization of aircraft for parts is already increasing, and USAF says that the number of air­craft grounded as not mission-capa­ble could climb by ten to fifteen per­cent. Comparative effectiveness would decline further over time if tactical force modernization fails to keep abreast of changes in Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces.

Secretary Taft also cited a sub­stantial increase in munitions sus­tainability between 1980 and 1987. Stocks of air-to-air munitions grew from thirty-three percent to nearly sixty percent of the desired levels. Air-to-ground munitions were up from fifty-five percent of the re­quirement to seventy-five percent. (USAF says it could fly 100 percent of its air-to-ground sorties with full weapons loads, but that many sor­ties would go with less than the best choice of munitions.)

The Air Force has absorbed the brunt of the budget damage so far by reducing force structure and weap­ons acquisition. Major procurement cuts have been concentrated in the termination of about twenty pro­grams. Acquisition of other systems has been slowed—which will lead to higher unit cost for these weapons if production cannot be maintained at the most efficient rate.

For the immediate future, though, the main areas of concern are personnel, readiness, and sustainability.

Tough Times for People

Both the Defense Department and the Air Force insist that they regard their people as their most im­portant asset. They have shielded them as best they could from the budget turbulence, but total protec­tion has not been possible.

For the past several years, Con­gress has treated the defense payroll as a convenient place to save mon­ey. As a consequence, military pay has dropped behind that in the pri­vate sector by eleven percent. The gap for Defense Department civil­ians is even worse at twenty-four percent. Personnel retention rates are still good in the overall count, but losses have begun in critical spe­cialties.

The biggest problem is pilots. Current projections show that the Air Force will be short 2,499 pilots by 1993. That is equivalent to the loss of more than ten flying wings of pilots, Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Hickey, USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Per­sonnel, told Congress in March.

“Air Force pilots are increasingly opting to leave active duty because of dissatisfaction with military life and because lucrative airline flying opportunities make the career tran­sition much safer than in past years,” General Hickey said.

Retention of military engineering officers is down by eighteen percent from three years ago. The loss rate for civilian engineers has increased twenty-one percent since 1983. In both cases, the Air Force is outbid by private industry for the limited pool of technical manpower.

Even before the deep budget cuts started, Congress had ordered the Defense Department to reduce its officer strength by six percent by 1990. The Air Force cut 1,255 offi­cers last year and must come down another 2,255 this year. Personnel officials expect to achieve this by encouraging voluntary separations and limiting the number of new lieu­tenants commissioned. They warn, however, that the reductions coming in FY ’89 and FY ’90 may compel the Air Force to discharge officers it needs to keep and who want to stay in service.

The threat of involuntary fur­loughs has hung over the heads of Air Force civilians for months. These people are paid with Opera­tions and Maintenance (O&M) money, the same account that funds flying hours, readiness, and sus­tainability. After inflation, the Air Force O&M budget dropped 10.5 percent in FY ’88. This would have been a heavy hit under any circum­stances, but was made heavier still because Congress did not set the budget until December 22.

By the time the reduction was al­located among operating com­mands, they were committed to their second-quarter fiscal plans. The Air Force says “severe actions” in civilian manpower management cannot be ruled out this year, but hopes to avoid anything drastic by juggling its money. Next year will be better if the full request for O&M is approved, but even that would be 3.7 percent below 1987 in real purchasing power.

The enlisted force is in good shape. Ninety-nine percent of last year’s recruits were high school graduates, and 48.5 percent of them were in the two top mental catego­ries as measured by the Armed Forces Qualification Test. Only 0.2 percent were in the lowest mental grouping, Category IV. In 1980, first-termers were fifty-two percent of the total USAF enlisted strength; today they are forty-three percent. This higher mix of career airmen adds experience and maturity, but creates a new problem when more fully qualified people must compete for a limited number of NCO pro­motions.

USAF leads all of the services in the percentage of its members who are women, 12.6 percent as of last December. In the first quarter of FY ’88, about twenty percent of its re­cruits were women. Congress has directed the Air Force to recruit twenty-two percent women in 1989. Service officials are trying to get the quota lifted, asking that they be al­lowed to recruit to “market levels” of interested and qualified appli­cants, regardless of gender.

The Defense Department has pledged that it will manage the bud- get reductions in such a way that readiness and sustainability do not suffer. There is obvious sincerity in this promise, and the Pentagon may be able to bring it off over time with its redrafted five-year defense plan.

At present, however, the major commands are struggling with shortfalls in operating money as a result in the sudden drop in this year’s budget. In a March 30 memo, Secretary Aldridge said that “to op­erate within depot maintenance funding constraints, we are holding the repair level of exchangeables to sixty-five percent of the require­ment, maintaining engines at a fifty percent service level, and deferring all but safety-of-flight and minimum corrosion control during aircraft and missile overhauls.”

Lt. Gen. Michael J. Dugan, USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations, told Con­gress in March that “it is becoming increasingly clear that some major training exercises like Red Flag, Cope Thunder, and Checkered Flag deployments will be drastically re­duced or canceled. Also, unless the Air Force gets reprogramming au­thority, the tactical air forces may not be able to fly out their flying hour program.”

Other forces are affected, too.

Strategic Air Command, for exam­ple, will not hold a munitions load­ing competition in 1988. It has parked about twenty-five percent of its motor vehicles and stopped pur­chases of all base-level equipment.

Lower Level of Readiness

Military Airlift Command an­nounced April 9 that it is going to a lower level of operational readiness to avoid furloughing its civilian em­ployees and making deep cuts in its personnel programs. “We have de­cided to accept a short-term reduc­tion in our overall mission capabili­ty rather than to take a long-term reduction in our ability to perform our mission through demoralization of our dedicated civilians,” said Gen. Duane H. Cassidy, MAC’s Commander in Chief.

General Cassidy said that most of the money to carry out his plan will come from a thirty-five percent re­duction in local training flying hours during the rest of this fiscal year, which will affect training by C-5, C-141, and C-130 crews. He said that “this action will reduce the command’s capability to respond to such short-notice taskings as the re­cent Honduras operation and major humanitarian relief efforts.” MAC has canceled its Airlift Rodeo competition and will conduct no opera­tional readiness inspections this year.

The Air Force will cancel nine overseas deployments planned for tactical units this year. Airfield pavement repairs will be delayed in some commands. Long-haul com­munications have been reduced by twelve percent. Almost 50,000 tons of vehicles and munitions are in temporary storage for want of mon­ey to ship them.

Tactical Forces

The size of the fighter force is headed in the wrong direction. The original plan for the defense recov­ery program called for forty tactical wings by 1986. The Air Force still says this is the minimum number of wings it needs to carry out its opera­tional responsibilities. The present lineup consists of thirty-eight fight­er and attack wings—and is headed downward toward thirty-five be­cause budgets will not support more.

The good news is that combat capability of the tactical fleet has never been better. F-15 and F-16 fighters now predominate in the active forces and are replacing F-4s in the Guard and Reserve. The F- 15, in Air Force service since the mid-1970s, is more reliable and easier to maintain than the 1960s-vintage F-4. And the F-16, intro­duced in 1979, is hardier than either of them.

Compared to the F-4, the F- 16’s mission-capable rate is twenty-five percent higher, the break rate is twenty-eight percent lower, and it requires seventy percent fewer maintenance hours per flying hour. In Tactical Air Command’s Coronet Warrior exercise last year, F-15s persisted under surge conditions four times better than a computer model had predicted. Upgrades of the F-15s and F-16s promise to make their impressive performance statistics even better.

Continued modernization of the fighter fleet with additional F-15s and F-16s is one of the four pri­orities USAF has declared critical for tactical forces. The other three requirements on that list are the Ad­vanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), and suffi­cient operational support resources to keep the fighting commands from falling into the “hollow forces” trap that bagged them in the 1970s.

Some opposition to these plans has surfaced. In late 1987, Assistant Secretary of Defense David Chu ar­gued for killing the F-15E, the dual-role variant of the basic fighter, so that its funding could be applied in­stead to more advanced systems now in development. He was unsuc­cessful, but he didn’t miss by much.

A faction of Defense Department bureaucrats and Army officers is also trying to thwart Air Force in­tentions to adapt an existing fighter, probably the F- 16, for close air sup­port. These people want an all-new aircraft built specifically for that mission. Its enthusiasts envision a heavily armored, slower-moving air­plane that bristles with guns and has long loiter time. The Air Force terms this notion “The Mudfighter” and says it could not survive on the battlefield of the future. It also says that single-mission airplanes limit flexibility.

In testimony to the Senate, USAF’s Director of Plans, Maj. Gen. Albert L. Logan, said that twenty-eight percent of the thirty­-eight-wing tactical force is commit­ted to close air support and battle­field air interdiction today. Another fifty percent, flying multirole air­craft, can be tasked to perform close air support if necessary.

“The Air Force maintains less than three fighter wing equivalents for deep interdiction, and only seven wings are designated for air superiority,” General Logan said. “The bulk of the fighter force is es­sentially multirole because we lack the ability to perform all the poten­tial tactical air missions simulta­neously. . . . There is not enough tacair to go around; thus we depend on the flexibility of multirole air­craft to focus on missions as dic­tated by the circumstances of war.”

Strategic Forces

The biggest single line-item re­duction offered up in the revised five-year defense plan is the can­cellation of the Midgetman Small ICBM. In the original strategic modernization package, Midget­man and the MX Peacekeeper were supposed to be complementary, mutually reinforcing systems. In­stead, budget pressures have now set up a political confrontation that effectively transforms the two mis­siles into competitors for the same funding.

More than twenty Peacekeepers are already on alert in old Minute­man silos. The schedule calls for a total of fifty to be operational in this basing mode by December. The Air Force wants a second fifty for “rail-garrison” deployment. These mis­siles would move out on railroad tracks in time of crisis.

Peacekeeper is a multiple-war­head missile. Each Midgetman car­ries only one warhead. For equiv­alent firepower, the Small ICBM costs three times as much and takes twice the manpower to operate. Consequently, the Air Force and the Defense Department concluded that they cannot afford Midgetman when budgets are being cut so radi­cally.

The hooker is that Midgetman has a great deal of support in Con­gress. If the small missile is restored and budget ceilings remain as pro­jected, the Air Force would have to find $36.4 billion in cuts elsewhere.

By the time this article appears in print, the Air Force should have taken delivery of its one-hundredth and final B-lB bomber. Strategic Air Command continues to express satisfaction with the B-IB bomber and says it performed fantastically well in the last Global Shield exer­cise. Gen. John T. Chain, Jr., SAC’s Commander in Chief, doesn’t think much of the incessant criticism of the airplane that he reads in the newspapers.

General Chain recently rebutted “one so-called military analyst” who claimed the bomber can’t fly higher than 20,000 feet. “Well, that’s interesting,” General Chain said. “I’ve personally flown it well over 30,000 feet.” He acknowledges that the electronic countermeasures system “doesn’t work as well as I’d like,” but says that the B-IB can still penetrate hostile airspace because it’s hard to detect on radar and scoots along in all weather at 200 feet and a speed better than 600 mph.

SAC ‘s older generation of strate­gic weapons, the B-52 bomber and the Minuteman ICBM, have been modified and upgraded steadily. These systems still have consider­able military usefulness remaining, although their roles are changing as new systems come on line.

By the end of the decade, the B-lB will be the primary penetrat­ing bomber. The B-52 will then func­tion mainly as a cruise missile car­rier and assume an additional con­ventional work load in support of theater commands. In the 1990s, the B-1 will yield the toughest penetra­tion jobs to the B-2 Stealth bomber.

Live launch tests of the improved short-range attack missile, SRAM II, begin next year. Both the B-lB and the B-2 will carry this weapon when it is operational in the 1990s. Work also continues on the Ad­vanced Cruise Missile, and USAF says development is proceeding at “the fastest prudent rate.”

The Second Wave of Cuts

Congress was three months late in deciding on the FY ’88 defense budget. Thus, the first quarter of the fiscal year had already passed when the Air Force was confronted with an $8 billion cut—to be achieved in the nine months remaining. This played havoc with operations and led USAF to such wrenching actions as requesting authority to furlough civilian employees to save money. Sixteen mem­bers of Congress wrote to the Secretary of the Air Force to complain about possible furloughs in their districts. Fourteen of them had voted for the budget cut that setup the problem.

That, however, was just the beginning. The armed forces were told to reduce their spending plans by ten to twelve percent for each of the next five years. The amended defense budget sent to Congress in February cut the Air Force’s original funding request for FY 89 by $10 billion. Here are some of the consequences.

• Force Structure. Deactivation of two tactical fighter wings; reduction of the number of aircraft assigned to twelve Air Guard and Reserve squadrons, which is the equivalent of losing a third fighter wing; phaseout of the SR-71 strategic reconnaissance fleet; deactivation of two tactical air support helicopter squadrons; conversion of an Air Guard RF-4C squadron to other purposes; and mothballing of the spacelaunch facility at Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

• Manpower. The Air Force takes a nominal reduction of 25,000 military people, but the actuality is worse. It will close out this fiscal year with military strength 31,000 lower than in 1987.

• Systems. Cancellation of the antisatellite (ASAT) missile, the AGM-1 30 standoff weapon, Minuteman III penetration aids, the C-27 light aircraft, and the replacement for the Airborne Command Post. The Midgetman Small ICBM is also on the list for termination, but that is a popular program with Congress, which is insisting on at least enough funding to keep the development alive. Other acquisition programs will be delayed or deferred. The Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) account has been cut by sixteen percent.