Back to Demolition Derby?

Aug. 1, 2006

Critics frequently dispute USAF’s claim that it needs to modernize its aircraft fleets. For anyone who may have harbored an honest doubt, though, the question was answered by a June exercise in Alaska.

Twelve super-sophisticated F-22s, in simulated combat, posted a startling 108-to-zero record against current-generation “enemy” fighters, reported Gen. John D.W. Corley, USAF’s vice chief of staff. Against the same foes, older F-15s and F/A-18s did one-tenth as well as the Raptor.

In Corley’s view, the event not only exposed the limitations of “legacy” aircraft but also showed the US could meet its defense needs with small, high-tech forces, be they fighters or other types of Air Force aircraft.

For all that, problems remain. Air Force leaders know that, when it comes to modernization, the hard part may just be starting.

The armed forces are entering what officers believe will be the bleakest period of fiscal belt-tightening in a decade. The Office of Management and Budget, alarmed by huge federal deficits, was poised to throw the brakes on spending, with consequences for the Air Force.

The Pentagon’s 2008 budget, only recently projected to hit $464.2 billion, could be slashed, along with every other budget in the new six-year defense plan.

Deep cuts seem to be a foregone conclusion. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England says the services may take “double-digit” cuts—that is, reductions of $10 billion or so.

The Air Force, as a result, should prepare itself for budget combat. Apparently, it is doing so. One operations officer at Air Force headquarters, Maj. Gen. Roger W. Burg, recently declared, “The Air Staff is focused on one thing, and it’s spelled c – u – t – s.”

Predictably, many are arguing that the Air Force should be forced to slow down its modernization. They cite several reasons.

One is the mounting cost of the Global War on Terrorism. The Congressional Research Service said in a recent report that, as of Sept. 30, the government will have spent nearly $437 billion on military and foreign aid funding in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the current pace, the bill will pass half a trillion dollars next year.

The claim is that the Air Force and the Navy must sacrifice to help finance this spending, which goes mostly to Army and Marine Corps accounts. Because their equipment is wearing out, billions are needed for replacements.

Moreover, there are competing modernization priorities, notably those of the Navy. In a June 24 letter to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, 16 Senators urged a dramatic increase in shipbuilding, starting with a boost from $8.9 billion today to $14 billion next year.

The lawmakers claim today’s 280-ship fleet is too small. They note that spending on warships has declined by 17 percent in the past five years and must go back up soon.

USAF is further threatened by what Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, sees as complacency about American airpower. Because of its successes in recent years, he argues, “the political system has come to take airpower for granted.”

As a result, politicians generally sense no urgent need to procure new air systems and see many reasons to spend money elsewhere.

Without question, USAF’s case for its program at least matches and perhaps exceeds that of the other services.

For one thing, the war has taken a toll on Air Force hardware. It has flown 239,000 sorties over Iraq and 144,000 over Afghanistan, not to mention 44,000 missions guarding US cities.

Every day, airmen fly more than 200 sorties across Southwest Asia. In addition, Predator and Global Hawk UAVs are in constant flight. C-130s carry out some 100 missions each day. Tankers depart on a wartime mission every two minutes, 365 days a year.

The fleet is old. Since 1973, the average age of USAF aircraft has risen from eight to 24 years. The average KC-135 tanker is 45 years old and was bought during the Eisenhower Administration. With B-52 bombers, the story is much the same.

Compounding the problem is Congress’ reluctance, for political reasons, to let the Air Force part with its ancient aircraft.

The Air Force wants to decommission more than 1,000 old, maintenance-intensive, aircraft—17 percent of the fleet—and use the savings to buy modern aircraft. However, it is prohibited by law from retiring 347 aircraft, 51 of which do not even fly, and lawmakers stand ready to protect others.

“We cannot afford to keep all of our legacy aircraft and still provide the combatant commanders with what they need to win this war,” warned Corley.

What will happen next is anybody’s guess. In the most recent budgetary demolition derby, which played out during 2004-05, Air Force leaders managed to protect the service’s aircraft plans and stay within OMB-prescribed spending limits only by means of a radical expedient: It agreed to cut 40,000 active duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian personnel spaces over five years.

Air Force leaders are understandably loath to repeat such a painful step, leading to press speculation that USAF might instead choose to terminate a major program, if that is needed to meet budget targets. Frequently cited as candidates are several expensive space systems.

Corley points out that the existing Air Force program was determined during the recent Quadrennial Defense Review, where it was debated at length by service leaders, combatant commanders, and civilian officials.

“I think it’s important to stress that this is not an Air Force wish list,” the general notes.

Those are important words. Air Force officials should repeat them at every opportunity. They should hope that others listen. They should also prepare for a rough ride.