Air Force Programs at the Core

June 1, 1997

For some time before the Defense Department unveiled its latest defense review, harsh pressure had been coming down on the Air Force’s basic program for the future. The plan was attracting microscopic scrutiny in many key areas, from force structure to fighter modernization.

The Air Force developed the multiyear roadmap to sustain its power and extend it into the first years of the next century. It envisions an expenditure of some $450 billion over six fiscal years–1998 through 2003–for aircraft, space systems, research, personnel, operations, and other facets of air- and spacepower.

Air Force leaders, in statements to Congress, portrayed the program as modest and lean. One USAF report said the service “achieves a balance” of its many competing needs but that doing so was “not easy.” Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, USAF Chief of Staff, said the program carried “moderate to high risk.”

Severe criticism erupted anyway. Many in Congress voiced concerns about the cost of the F-22 air-dominance fighter. Others attacked the Joint Strike Fighter. Some said USAF could get by with fewer new C-17 transports or defer planned upgrades to the heavy bomber force. A host of critics argued that the Air Force should commit some funds to procurement of more B-2 bombers and less to USAF’s own priorities. Others charged that the program shortchanged basic research.

The challenges emerged well before the completion of DoD’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the first full-up assessment of its kind in four years. The QDR, completed in May, was bound to fuel new dangers. For example, a near-final draft of the QDR report concluded that the US does not need as many forces as it now fields to support the defense strategy.

Just a Beginning

The controversy is sure to continue throughout 1997. The Secretary of Defense, William S. Cohen, remarked that the QDR was “just the beginning” of the broad-gauged defense reassessment. Yet to be heard was the National Defense Panel, a group of nongovernmental defense analysts set up to second-guess the QDR, as well as powerful members of Congress.

The program that USAF was under pressure to defend was presented earlier this year as part of DoD’s Fiscal 1998­2003 Future Years Defense Program (FYDP). The basis was the Clinton Administration’s 1993 Bottom-Up Review of defense, which said the US required forces able to fight and win two major regional conflicts (MRCs) more or less at the same time.

The FYDP links policies, strategy, and objectives to specific forces and programs. It breaks into major force programs reflecting acquisition, personnel, and support costs.

Air Force leaders said service programs are geared to USAF’s six “core competencies”-air and space superiority, global attack, precision engagement, rapid global mobility, information superiority, and agile combat support.

By far the greatest scrutiny has fallen on general-purpose forces, comprising fighter, attack, bomber, and special-mission assets, plus their weapons and support. General-purpose aviation forces are those programmed for major theater war.

Air Force spending on general-purpose aviation has declined steadily throughout the 1990s, budget reports show. In 1990, the service allocated $25.6 billion to its general-purpose theater aviation forces. The proposed figure for 1998-$15.8 billion-marks a 40 percent drop, largely as a result of force reductions.

Fighter Forces

Within this category, the fighter and attack aircraft component rates top priority. The Air Force had two distinct but interrelated goals–maintaining adequate force structure and modernizing tactical inventories with “leap ahead” systems, thus keeping capabilities up, average age down, and numbers steady.

Well into the 1980s, the Air Force had a goal of 40 combat-coded fighter and attack wings. Late in the Cold War years, the figure dropped to 37, in 1991 to 26, in early 1993 to 24.3, and in late 1993 to 20. Many viewed the latter figure as inadequate.

USAF continued to view 20 wings as the requirement for two MRCs and fully funded that number throughout the six years of the program. Yet, signs are that fighter forces could shrink again.

One threat is political–the QDR’s view that US armed services should cut forces to free up money for modernization.

The service also faces a fighter gap that could affect its force structure. In the first decade of the new century, fighter inventories are expected to drop 10 to 12 percent below levels needed to fill out the 20 wings. From 2005 to 2010, the Air Force will be short the equivalent of one wing of fighters because of higher-than-anticipated attrition, the Pentagon said.

Finally, the Air Force faces threats to its modernization plan. That plan comprises two large programs–the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter. Should either be canceled or substantially reduced, USAF’s fleet and force structure will inevitably grow smaller, older, far less capable, or all three.

Air Dominance

At present, the fighter program facing toughest scrutiny is the one that lay at the core of Air Force modernization–the stealthy, supercruising F-22 Raptor.

The Air Force program was geared to the F-22. It committed the service to invest $20.4 billion over six years to fund research and to procure the first 70 operational F-22s. The F-22’s total cost “to go,” the Air Force reported, was $44 billion.

With production set to begin next year, plans called for F-22s to start showing up in the force just after 2000 and for the first squadron to reach initial operational capability (IOC) in 2005. The program was to run until 2013 and yield 438 operational fighters–enough to change out four wings’ worth of air-superiority F-15s on a one-for-one basis. Some viewed this as controversial and pushed to reduce the size of the program.

The Air Force badly wants the F-22, and the reason can be summed up in a word: capability. USAF recently published a paper comparing today’s heavyweight champ–the F-15-with the F-22. The result was eye-watering: The effectiveness of the F-22 exceeded that of the F-15 by a factor of three.

Some viewed this capability to be an unaffordable luxury, given the fact the F-15 still overmatches anything that flies. The Air Force does not dispute assertions that the F-15 is still the world’s top air-superiority machine. The problem, claim service leaders, is that it is getting old. The F-15 has been in service nearly a quarter of a century and will be 30 years old by the time the first F-22s arrive. This poses two problems.

First is the increasing vulnerability of the fighter force. During the F-15’s long run, the fighter builders of other nations worked hard to catch up. Now, they are starting to succeed, USAF officials said, specifically noting France’s Rafale, Russia’s Su-35, and the multinational Eurofighter.

“The Joint Chiefs [of Staff] believe that, in fact, there still is a threat that must be countered by our tactical forces,” remarked Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the JCS vice chairman.

The F-15, upgraded several times already, has little room to improve. The proliferation of Russian SA-10 and SA-12 surface-to-air missiles creates additional dangers for the nonstealthy F-15.

At a recent hearing in Congress, one senator questioned the F-22, noting it would be not only superior but overwhelmingly superior. “I do not dispute that at all,” replied Ralston, “but I certainly would not want to be put in the position of arguing for parity in tacair.”

The second problem is attrition. Without expensive measures to keep them flying, F-15s will simply age out of the force. Paul G. Kaminski, then under secretary of defense for Acquisition and Technology, said the average age of the air-superiority fleet will hit 20 years in 2003, twice the norm. The Congressional Budget Office, after looking at the basic force numbers, concluded that USAF must have a full production run of F-22s and keep its F-15s in service for “unprecedented” periods just to prevent “unmanageable” fighter shortages.

At a House hearing, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) asked Fogleman to describe USAF’s fallback plan if the F-22 goes down. “We don’t have anything,” the Chief of Staff answered.

Multirole and Attack

Similar problems facing USAF multirole and attack forces provided the impetus for the Air Force program’s other tactical aircraft effort–the stealthy, multiservice Joint Strike Fighter.

The program calls for buying large numbers of the JSF to replace the single-engine, multirole F-16 and ground-attack A-10. The F-16 is a special problem. It was built at high rates-up to 180 per year in the 1980s-and will suffer block obsolescence not long after the turn of the century.

The inventory contains about 800 F-16s and 200 A-10s. Without a major acquisition effort, officials warned, there will be a precipitous decline in the fighter forces around 2005.

In its 1998-2003 program plans, the Air Force prepared for heavier spending on the JSF, now being developed jointly by the Air Force and Navy. The services programmed a total of $10.1 billion for development through 2003; the Air Force portion comes to $5.1 billion. It put up half a billion dollars for 1998.

The first production JSF aircraft is expected to show up in 2005, with first deliveries to operational units in 2008 and IOC in 2010. According to General Fogleman, USAF’s biggest buys will start about 2010, when the number of F-16s in the fleet starts to drop off rapidly.

Though fighter modernization is critical, the scope of the F-22 and JSF programs have spooked some lawmakers. They maintain that an enormous “bow wave” of unfunded fighter costs, totaling billions, is building up.

This is simply wrong, Fogleman asserted in a meeting with members of the new Airpower Caucus in Congress. “Within the budget that came over here, for the outyears of this program, the F-22 is fully funded,” the Chief said. “The Joint Strike Fighter is fully funded. . . . Everybody says, ‘You guys are pushing the bow wave at us. A big bow wave is coming.’ Not true.”

Heavy Bombers

The Air Force program projects the continuation of a lean operational heavy bomber force across the six-year period.

There are numerous estimates of the bomber requirement. The Bottom-Up Review of 1993 set a force level of up to 184 total bombers–B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s–though it was not clear how many were to be operational. The Bottom-Up Review said that 100 bombers would be needed for each MRC but that the force could “swing” from the first MRC to the second.

The Pentagon reports that today 202 bombers are in the total active-duty inventory-13 B-2s, 95 B-1Bs, and 94 B-52Hs. However, said DoD, only 105 of these are ready for combat operations. The rest are held in semiactive status or are otherwise not combat-coded. Most are to be fully modernized and equipped over the longer term.

The Air Force has programmed no new bomber purchases through 2003. The Air Force’s bomber priorities center on obtaining a variety of conventional weapons upgrades to the fleet to bolster bomber capability in theater combat.

B-2. The 1998 budget contains $625 million to continue work associated with the B-2 bomber and its systems.

None of the money was programmed for additional aircraft beyond the 21 previously authorized and procured. The corporate Air Force supported the decision, but it is hotly opposed by some on Capitol Hill, who maintained that the B-2 would prove to be a makeweight of US global military power.

When asked at a Congressional hearing to explain the thinking behind the “no B-2” decision, Fogleman replied, “We have other things that are higher priority than B-2s.”

The Air Force program supports the delivery of two more B-2 aircraft to Whiteman AFB, Mo., in 1998. The buildup to 21 stealth bombers will be finished with delivery of the last bomber in 2000.

B-1. The B-1 bomber, designed to be a nuclear weapons delivery system, will continue undergoing a Conventional Mission Upgrade Program to turn it into an exclusively conventional platform.

The Air Force programmed $1.7 billion over the six-year FYDP to carry out this effort. The upgrade is intended to improve the B-1’s lethality and survivability, allowing it to go into action on the first day of a war to help halt an enemy advance in its early stages.

Each remodeled bomber in the fleet will be able to carry 84 general-purpose 500-pound bombs or 30 cluster bombs. When work is done, officials said, the B-1 will be able to hold enemy targets at risk in high-, medium-, and low-threat environments.

The budget also provides money to reclassify six inactive attrition-reserve aircraft to combat-coded status so that the Air Force can reactivate the B-1 squadron it shut down in 1995.

Longer term, the Air Force would increase the operational inventory of B-1Bs. Eighty-two of the bombers will have achieved this status by 2001, when enough modern weapons will be available.

Precision Weapons

Deployment of modern, precision guided munitions on front-line bomber and fighter aircraft figures prominently in the Air Force program. The Air Force plans to procure 76,183 advanced weapons of all types over the six-year period, at a cost of $4.4 billion. Even so, USAF will not have enough to meet its requirement.

Under the current plan, the Air Force will begin equipping the B-1 fleet with the Joint Direct Attack Munition in 1999 and with the Joint Standoff Weapon, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, and the Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser by 2002.

USAF also has programmed the addition of these weapons to B-2 bombers, adding a formidable conventional mission capability to the stealth fleet. The aircraft will be able to attack almost any target, anywhere, anytime, said Air Force officers.

The fleet currently employs the Mk. 84, 2,000-pound unguided conventional munition. Later Block 20 aircraft carry the Global Positioning System-Aided Munition (GAM), an interim precision weapon demonstrated last year with great effect. Later B-2s will carry JDAM, JSOW, JASSM, and the GAM-113 hard-target penetration munition.

Specialized Aircraft

For theater operations, the Air Force has long maintained a broad array of specialized aircraft that perform critical functions–airborne warning and control, electronic warfare, air defense suppression, reconnaissance and surveillance, and the like.

The six-year program contains funding to acquire two additional RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft and to reengine the fleet. These systems are in heavy demand from theater commanders, and the new aircraft will reduce Rivet Joint’s extremely high operations tempo.

The highly successful E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System aircraft will soon go into full operation. The Air Force will buy one in 1998 and two in 1999, headed toward a fleet of 20.

The part of the program devoted to Air Force special operations forces is tiny–less than half a billion dollars per year in 1998 and 1999. General Fogleman told a Senate panel not long ago that the Air Force plan calls for procuring 50 CV-22 tiltrotor aircraft for long-range troop insertion and extraction.

The Air Force is pursuing a longer-term proposition with another kind of combat aircraft–the YAL-1A Attack Laser, a 747 jumbo jet equipped with a high-energy laser. USAF is betting that the Attack Laser will prove critical for shooting down threatening ballistic missiles aimed at deployed forces. Under current plans, Air Combat Command would operate the YAL-1A from a US base and rapidly deploy it around the globe. The Air Force programmed a six-year outlay of $1.6 billion for research and risk reduction. Seven aircraft are currently planned; five aircraft are required to support two high-altitude Combat Air Patrol orbits. Total costs are estimated at $6.2 billion.

Mobility Forces

Mobility forces–transports, tankers, ground equipment, personnel, support operations, and other elements of rapid global response–form the basis of another major force program.

In the 1990s, airlift has bucked the budget trend. Spending within this broad category generally has increased throughout the decade, albeit at a modest pace. Air Force reports show that the expenditure level for airlift, $6.7 billion in 1990, will hit $8.2 billion in 1998 and $8.7 billion in 1999.

Long-range mobility force structure–380 strategic lifters of all types at the start of the decade–has drifted downward, however. USAF programmed a total of 314 operational strategic airlifters in 1998. The decline is attributed to C-141 retirements.

The force structure generally lines up with the results of the latest official airlift assessment-the Mobility Requirements Study/Bottom-Up Review Update of 1994. It established a new requirement for a two-MRC scenario, calling for 49.7 million ton-miles per day (mtm/d) of airlift capacity.

The program calls for the total capacity of the US airlift fleets to grow from today’s level of 48 mtm/d to 53 mtm/d as a result of the acceptance of new C-17 airlifters. The C-17s are intended to replace the aging C-141s. If the Air Force does not purchase additional C-17s beyond the 120 planned, capacity will return to 48 mtm/d when all C-141s have been retired.

C-17. The Air Force program identifies C-17 acquisition as its number one near-term requirement and builds on the fact that USAF already has purchased 48 of 120 C-17s in the planned fleet.

Service planners allocated a total of $16 billion over the six-year period to pay for the remaining 72 aircraft approved for purchase. The 1998 budget makes a $2.2 billion down payment, procuring nine C-17s and associated spares and research. In the following year, 1999, the Air Force will plunk down even more–$3 billion to procure 13 new airlifters.

The Air Force will then ramp up the program to its highest production rate, buying 15 C-17s in 2000, 2001, and 2002 and then taking the last five in 2003.

Older Lifters. The C-5 Galaxy is programmed to provide a significant portion of the nation’s air cargo capability for years to come. The Air Force will concentrate on increasing the C-5’s effectiveness and availability with a capital investment plan that aims to lower the aircraft’s high cost of ownership and raise its currently low reliability rate.

Elsewhere, the venerable C-141 is nearing the end of its operational service life. Its structural integrity has declined in recent years. The Air Force will selectively modify a few aircraft until they are all retired in 2006.

Tankers. Programmers also gave aerial refuelers some attention. The Air Force budgeted a sufficient amount of funds to modify 180 aging KC-135 aircraft. This is part of a plan to refurbish 602 active-duty, Air Force Reserve Command, and Air National Guard KC-135s with three new types of avionics.

Air Force programmers, noting the KC-135’s status as the service’s “core” tanker, concluded its avionics and communication equipment “must keep pace” with advancing technology and that a major cockpit modernization effort was in order. The so-called Pacer CRAG upgrades will spruce up the entire KC-135 fleet with modern compass, radar, and Global Positioning System navigation equipment.

Strategic Forces and Space

Strategic forces are maintained at a low level. In 1990, strategic nuclear systems and operations consumed $15.6 billion of USAF funding (out of a DoD total of $23 billion). Today, the program allots only about $4 billion per year.

The Air Force has programmed no money for new nuclear systems.

It funds continued operation of 550 ICBMs in each of the next two years. Today, the force comprises 500 Minuteman III and 50 Peacekeeper weapons, a level down by about half since the start of the decade. The total would shrink again in the outyears if Russia ratifies the completed START II treaty and go down even further if START III is concluded.

In 1998, the program reduces funding for ballistic missile replacement equipment by 61 percent, for missile modifications by 45 percent, and for missile spares and repair parts by 53 percent. However, it continues the ICBM modernization program to fix age-related degradations, reduce life-cycle costs, improve reliability, and strengthen nuclear surety and safety.

However, Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall told Congress that USAF had decided it would modify the Minuteman III’s hardware and software so that it could be fitted with the Mk. 21/W87 warhead, which would be taken from Peacekeepers set to be deactivated through the START II treaty implementation. She reported that the Air Force took the decision after an in-depth study. It determined that reusing the warhead was the best and most cost-effective way to ensure Minuteman safety and reliability.

The major force program that consumes the largest share of USAF spending–$18 billion to $19 billion per year–concerns intelligence and communications. This program includes not only “blue” Air Force programs but also national systems, with space being a large part.

For example, the program through 2003 would allocate $3.3 billion for research on the next-generation Milstar communication satellite.

Another $5.2 billion would go for development of the Spacebased Infrared System and procurement of the first two spacecraft. SBIRS is intended to replace the aging Defense Support Program satellites. The program calls for launch of the first of six high-Earth-orbit SBIRS craft in 2002. The first of up to 24 low-Earth-orbit satellites would go up in 2004.

Reserve and Guard Forces

The major force program that covers Air Force Reserve Command and the Air National Guard has fared well throughout the 1990s and continues to be favored in the 1998-2003 program. In response to a question, General Fogleman told the Senate Armed Services Committee that all AFRC and ANG programs are fully funded this year.

In 1990, USAF spent $7.3 billion on the Reserve and Guard. The figure has varied only slightly over the years. Expenditures will be about $7 billion in each of the next two program years.

The program continues to focus on those Reserve and Guard units that would deploy soonest in a major regional conflict. The program and its budget fully fund high readiness levels of these units. The Air Force also programmed funds for initiatives to increase the peacetime use of the Reserve and Guard in order to relieve the operations tempo of active-duty forces.

The program supports a combined AFRC and ANG military force of 180,786 in 1998. ANG will operate 1,157 aircraft and pull more than 361,000 flying hours in interceptor, tactical airlift, air refueling, general-purpose fighter, and reconnaissance missions.

The Reserve, with 64 flying units and 395 aircraft, was programmed to 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.

According to Gen. Thomas S. Moorman Jr., the Air Force vice chief of staff, the AFRC and ANG together are programmed to provide 40 percent of Total Force capability while consuming only 15 percent of the Air Force budget for personnel and operations and maintenance.

The General indicated that the favored status of the Reserve and Guard won’t change any time soon. The Air Force’s use of its reserve components, he said, has proved “enormously successful.”

Projected USAF Spending, 1998-2003

Budget Authority, in Billions
Fiscal Year Current Dollars FY 1998 Dollars
1998 75.0 75.0
1999 76.7 75.0
2000 78.5 75.1
2001 81.7 76.3
2002 83.6 76.3
2003 85.9 76.5
Total 481.4 454.2

The 1990s Air Force

Total Obligational Authority, FY 1998 Dollar Billions

Forces Categories 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
Strategic Forces $15.6 $14.6 $12.1 $9.6 $6.1 $5.1 $5.0 $3.8 $4.1 $4.0
General-Purpose Forces 25.6 24.4 20.0 17.5 17.2 16.7 16.7 15.9 15.8 16.5
Airlift Forces 6.7 5.8 6.90 8.1 8.6 8.9 8.5 8.2 8.2 8.7
Reserve and Guard Forces 7.3 6.4 6.8 7.1 7.1 7.4 7.1 6.8 6.9 6.8
Special Operations Forces 1.4 .3 .3 .3 .4 .4 .4 .4 .4 .4
Total 56.6 51.5 46.1 52.6 39.4 38.5 37.7 35.1 35.4 36.4
Support Categories 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
Intelligence and Communications $21.4 $19.8 $21.3 $21.0 $20.3 $17.7 $18.1 $18.1 $18.8 $18.5
Research and Development 10.8 9.3 8.9 8.3 7.4 8.3 8.4 8.1 7.8 7.1
Central Supply and Maintenance 12.0 10.4 7.1 6.3 4.4 4.3 4.0 3.7 3.7 3.6
Training, Medical, General Personnel 11.8 13.4 9.2 8.9 8.3 8.6 8.4 8.1 8.0 8.0
Administration and Other 1.7 1.6 1.6 1.6 1.6 1.5 1.6 1.5 1.5 1.6
Total 57.7 54.5 48.1 46.1 42 40.4 40.5 39.5 39.8 38.8