The Long and Short of Combat Capability

Aug. 1, 1986

US strategic deterrent forces lack capability to re­taliate promptly against hardened Soviet nuclear forces and command and controls assets. That is their primary and pervasive shortfall, USAF’s new Chief of Staff, Gen. Larry D. Welch—who was Commander in Chief of the Strategic Air Command at the time—told an AFA symposium in Las Vegas on April 30.

The only solution to that shortfall is the Peacekeeper ICBM, with the deployment of 100 of these missiles representing “the essential, rational foundation for an affordable force to deal with Soviet offensive forces.” Any other approach, General Welch said, “costs more and provides less,” adding that “Peacekeeper is here, it works, it’s affordable.”

General Welch said that the US at present has only “about half the capability we need against [hardened Soviet targets], while the Soviets have about twice the capability they need against our hardened nuclear forces.” The resultant imbalance, he explained, “is clearly the most destabilizing factor in the current stra­tegic equation, and correcting that problem demands first priority.”

In urging that the full complement of 100 MX ICBMs be fielded promptly, General Welch did not slight the requirement for a follow-on ICBM, however. In the lon­ger term, the Small ICBM will provide “enduring surviv­ability and . . . add much to stable deterrence.” He acknowledged that the Small ICBM is caught up in con­tentious arguments within the defense community and Congress with regard to size and whether it should be a single-warhead or MIRVed design. At the same time, he pointed out that “controversy is par for the course for strategic systems.”

Full Steam for the Air-breathing Component

In assessing the air-breathing component of the strate­gic triad, General Welch praised the B-lB as a “superb bomber [that] will serve us well for years to come, first as our most capable penetrating bomber and then as a cruise-missile carrier.” The Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB, or “Stealth”), he added, will continue that bomber penetration role into the next century. The ATB program is “doing well in development, and I ex­pect to see it fielded on schedule.”

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger has an­nounced that the ATB program is “on schedule, the technology is well understood and working, and we expect the system to be operational in the early 1990s. In terms of mission capability, the ATB ‘s unique low-ob­servable characteristics make it far more survivable than the B-IB. This superior survivability, combined with the ATB’s payload and range, substantially in­crease its effectiveness over that of the B-IB.” Secre­tary Weinberger disclosed in the same announcement that the total estimated cost for R&D and procurement of 132 operational Stealth bombers, expressed in FY ’81 dollars, is $36 billion, with the result that the estimated average cost of the “far more capable ATB is $277 mil­lion for each aircraft,” compared to $265 million for the B-1B.

While there is strong support for the Stealth bomber within the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill, current and growing trends to cut back all defense spending might slow down the tempo of the ATB pro­gram, General Welch cautioned at the symposium.

An important, ancillary element of the air-breathing leg of the strategic triad that General Welch singled out is SRAM II: “SRAM-A is eleven years old and had an engine life that was guaranteed for five years.” Replac­ing the aging SRAMs, the new Chief of Staff pointed out, is one of the Air Force’s top priorities. “SRAM II does have the capabilities we need and will be a tremendous addition to our future bombers,” he declared. The Air Force set specifications for SRAM II, General Welch explained, that “are modest but adequate. We are not pushing the state of the art, and we are not pressing for all the capabilities that we could have built into [the weapon system], because we are so interested in getting SRAM II fielded as quickly as possible.” This urgency results from “our concerns about the age of SRAM-A,” General Welch told the AFA symposium.

On the plus side of the strategic ledger, General Welch said that “we now have a well-conceived national strat­egy for dealing with the Soviets, and we now have pro­grams planned to produce the forces to underwrite that strategy.” He added that “the current strategy of flexible response with counterforce capabilities is the right ap­proach to credible deterrence, [with the Administra­tion’s strategic modernization blueprint providing] the right set of programs to underwrite that strategy.”

At the outset of this decade, US strategic nuclear forces “were poorly suited to a flexible response strat­egy,” but by upgrading existing forces and developing new systems, “the Air Force over the past few years has corrected some of these deficiencies.” Upgrades to the B-52s and the Minuteman Ills over the past six years have “doubled the capabilities of those systems against Soviet hardened targets, despite increasing hardness and more sophisticated defenses.”

The B-52 fleet’s average daily mission-capable rates have gone up over the same period from about forty percent to about seventy percent, while the ICBM alert rates held steady at a high ninety-eight-plus percent, General Welch reported. Return on investment from upgrading operational systems has been “superb,” ac­cording to the Chief of Staff, with the Minuteman ICBMs, for instance, providing “over half of the coun­try’s daily alert force for twelve percent of the total cost of strategic offensive forces.”

The Impact of SDI

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), General Welch told the AFA meeting, is bound to make a major long-term contribution to deterrence: “We need continued strong support for that initiative” because of its poten­tially synergistic effects in terms of overall strategic deterrence capabilities. Since the Soviets deploy about seventy-five percent of their strategic nuclear warheads on ICBMs—in contrast with a more balanced US ap­proach that relies to a more or less equal measure on SLBMs, ICBMs, and air-breathing systems—it is not surprising that Moscow views SDI with concern. SDI, General Welch suggested, might render the monumental Soviet investment in ICBMs “less useful” and hence create conditions where “we can reduce our reliance on strategic systems.”

But reduced reliance on strategic nuclear offensive capabilities, USAF’s new Chief of Staff suggested, does not mean the elimination of such forces and weapons in their entirety: “I can’t share the feeling that, someday, strategic offensive systems will go away. [It’s not a] matter [of] how successful SDI is. I would remind those few who believe in defense only that the Maginot Line [built by France to keep the Nazi Wehrmacht at bay] was not a failure. The failure was that the builders of the Maginot Line did not preserve any offensive capability to take advantage of what [these fortifications in depth] did for the defense.” SDI, in concert with strategic offensive capabilities, can make possible a strong, stable deterrent, General Welch emphasized.

Shifting to the human factor undergirding all Air Force capabilities, General Welch stressed that “much of our attention over the past several years has been on quality performance by quality people in the most motivating atmosphere we can produce.” Programs oriented toward people, he added, “continue to be a high-lever­age investment in productivity, resulting in increased readiness and more credible deterrence.” The Air Force, according to its new Chief of Staff, is manned by “bright, dedicated people who can and do produce ex­traordinary results. We can’t buy that kind of perfor­mance, [which] we count on to do our daily work. But this country owes our people fair and adequate compen­sation. Failure to provide that is the most foolish kind of shortsighted nonsense.”

Space and Deterrence

While the effectiveness of the US strategic deterrent stands or falls with the capabilities of the forces that make up this deterrent, the ability “to put those forces in motion” is also of key importance, the Commander in Chief of the US Space Command, Gen. Robert Herres, told the AFA symposium. It is reasonable, he suggested, to “think of deterrence as preventing an attack on the US by threatening unacceptable retaliation against a ra­tional foe.” At the same time, he argued, it is important to recognize that deterrence, in effect, is not a simple, single act of retaliation but “a series of events—a pro­cess that obviates the need to engage in retaliatory ac­tion.”

A potential aggressor, he pointed out, obviously must assess the capabilities that reside in the bomber force on alert, the ICBMs poised in their silos, and the Tridents patrolling the oceans, but “the credibility of these forces depends on a process that begins at the far-flung sites and stations of Space Command and NORAD [and that] comes together at the National Command System at Cheyenne Mountain.”

Among all the missions of the armed forces, none is more central than the ability to deter a strategic attack and “to be able to provide warning to our nation’s leader­ship that such an attack is under way and [what its] purpose is. Unless we can do that—and do that well, swiftly, and accurately—the credibility of our nuclear deterrent forces is greatly diminished.”

Telling the National Command Authorities (NCA) and “my fellow CINCs that we are under attack and characterizing the nature of the attack is a process that depends heavily on space-based assets. The first sensor that would detect a nuclear attack is based on satellites. We receive the sensor data at Colorado Springs over a communications link that uses another satellite. After we make assessments of the indications provided, we pass the information of what is happening to the Nation­al Military Command System over communications links that use, among other things, yet more satellites,” according to General Herres.

Not only are the US Space Command’s space-based C3 satellites the nation’s only fully survivable warning system, but some of these satellites would also be used to communicate the President’s decision to employ US strategic nuclear forces, General Herres pointed out. “Our space assets thus are absolutely essential to react to a nuclear attack on the US,” he told the AFA meeting, adding that this factor introduces a “new dimension in the configuration of our strategic forces.” Because the support provided by space-based systems to terrestrial forces across the spectrum of conflict is becoming indispensable, the need to expand the capabilities and size of the orbital support forces is imperative, General Herres emphasized.

Changing Organizational Structure

Until the formation of the US Space Command in September of last year, the only space system under control of a unified command had been the Satellite Early Warning System, General Herres disclosed. The Aerospace Defense Command controlled that opera­tional space system. But the formation of the US Space Command “gives us the opportunity to arrange for the orderly transfer of [operational space] systems from the R&D to the operational force structure.”

Comprehensive technological advance tends to make it possible to perform a host of critical support functions better with space-based assets than with terrestrial sys­tems, he suggested. He cited three broad functional areas that fall into this category: “For one, surveillance, including environmental and geodetic; second, naviga­tion; and third, C3I.” In the case of the latter, he pointed out that nearly half of the US military satellites currently in orbit are communications satellites.

The head of the US Space Command took pains to dispel the myth of lagging Soviet military space technol­ogy: “Everything we do in space they do, plus a lot more. For instance, they [carry out] radar ocean recon­naissance with their RORSATs, and they do electronic intelligence with their EORSATs.” The US, he pointed out, has no counterparts to these important Soviet sys­tems, which can track and hence threaten the forces of the US maritime CINCs at a time when this nation is investing “billions of dollars in projecting force across the seas—such as [with] our carrier battle groups.”

He pointed out in this context that the Soviets, in support of major exercises, routinely launch such satel­lites as RORSAT. Last summer, for instance, the Soviets launched two RORSAT systems for that very reason, he pointed out.

While some US military satellites appear to have a technological edge over their Soviet counterparts, “this gap is closing.” As a result, the fact that the Soviets deploy more satellites than the US takes on added sig­nificance: “Two years ago, we operated roughly the same number of satellites in orbit as the Soviets, about 125 each. Today, we still operate 125, but the Soviets now have more than 160 operational satellites in orbit. Three of these 160 satellites on orbit can function as man-habitable systems. Salyut 7 and Soyuz T-15 are doing so right now. [The Soviets] continue to find new ways to use space and to use satellites on orbit longer.”

The head of the US Space Command explained that the high Soviet launch rate “exercises their launch facili­ties regularly and on a [continual basis]. Their launch inventory includes eight different boosters that collec­tively have demonstrated a very high launch success rate, with only three failures since the beginning of 1984.” In terms of manned space time, the Soviets have piled up an aggregate total of more than eleven man-years, compared to only four years for the US. That lead “is widening with every passing day.” This kind of expe­rience, he added, “pays big dividends for the Soviets” in terms of such capabilities as repairing satellites on orbit.

The Need for ASAT

Because of the broad and widening Soviet military space capabilities, the importance of producing and test­ing operational US ASATs is growing. The vexing prob­lem at this time is that the US ASAT program “is still on hold because of the congressional moratorium against further testing. We need more testing to develop more confidence,” according to General Herres. This setback notwithstanding, he said that “we plan to develop [an operational ASAT] system by 1990, with an inventory of satellites that can challenge the highest priority targets that we have been [instructed] to deal with.”

The US Space Command’s mission of space defense is somewhat analogous to the maritime task of sea control, General Herres said. But in the absence of an opera­tional ASAT, “we don’t have much capability to carry out that mission.” He acknowledged that “it would be nice if we never had to carry out this mission, or never needed the [associated] capabilities, but that is un­likely.”

It is of cardinal importance—in a deterrent as well as an operational context—that the US develop and main­tain forces that can hold at risk those Soviet military satellites that are essential elements of the threats facing US terrestrial and naval forces. “Furthermore, I don’t see how we can tolerate a situation under which the Soviets can threaten our own near-earth orbiters and we don’t have the capability to respond in kind.” He admit­ted that it is impossible to know the precise circum­stances under which the Soviets would choose to attack US satellites in near-earth orbit, but warned that if “they ever take one out, we might find that the most viable option would be to respond in kind.” Such a form of reciprocity, he suggested, “might be the cheapest re­sponse, whatever the circumstances. The nation needs this capability.”

The US Space Command’s comprehensive, “nonco­operative” space surveillance system that is now in place represents a precondition for an operational ASAT-based space defense strategy, according to Gen­eral Herres. “We track more than 6,100 objects in space,” he noted, “including the [some] 320 satellites that are operational all the time.” He emphasized the paramountcy of “knowing what is going on up there,” not merely in terms of the ASAT mission but for a range of other operational reasons.

TAC’s Progress Report

The elusive goal of building up USAF’s tactical air-power to forty fully equipped and fully manned fighter wings is slipping, even though significant progress is being made, Gen. Robert Russ, the Commander of Tac­tical Air Command, told the AFA meeting. “Since 1980, we have increased the TAF [tactical air forces] by over two combat wings, but that’s not the whole story. Air­craft deliveries lag funding by about two years, and congressional funding for fighters through 1986 will bring us within almost two wings—meaning about thir­ty-eight wings—of our forty-wing tactical Air Force goal,” he said.

While this tentative schedule delays attainment of the forty-wing goal, USAF’s tactical air forces are experi­encing significant improvements through the acquisition of such first-line aircraft as the A- 10, F- 15, and F- 16, he pointed out. Similarly, he added, “We have made prog­ress in our weapons. The inventories of our new infrared missiles are up 500 percent, [and] radar missiles are up 150 percent.” Also, weapons quality is up: “Our infrared missiles can now be fired from all aspects, and we have doubled the size of the launch envelope for our radar missiles.” With regard to air-to-surface operational ca­pabilities, he said, “It now takes one aircraft and one bomb to do the same job it used to take half a squadron of aircraft and some sixteen tons of bombs to accom­plish.”

Hand in glove with the hardware advances is in­creased aircrew proficiency. Since 1980, the number of various training sorties has gone up anywhere from forty-five percent to 127 percent, while “our major acci­dent rate decreased fifty-eight percent.” Stressing that the TAF’s aircraft maintenance level has advanced to the “straight A” category, General Russ reported that mission-capable rates scored a forty-four percent in­crease over the past six years while standdowns due to maintenance requirements or unavailable spare parts declined by better than sixty percent.

Citing a host of examples of brilliant performance by TAF crews during recent exercises, General Russ sug­gested that the TAF’s overall combat capability is in­creasing appreciably: “We have been able to revise tac­tics and improve our weapon systems performance by fine-tuning our training and software, [which translates into] better survivability and more lethality.” With re­sults like this, “when critics wonder if we have our money’s worth from defense expenditures, I can only say, ‘Look around, there is plenty of proof.'”

Turning to the research and development field, Gener­al Russ suggested that, in the aggregate, the US is main­taining a technological edge that is becoming manifest in the Air Force’s proposed Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program. In spite of difficult technology trade­offs, ATF, he predicted, will be both a “very stealthy and a very maneuverable aircraft.” Such a combination, he explained, would represent the performance optimum in new fighters—”an aircraft that is maneuverable against any other type of aircraft yet [that] also incorporates the maximal amount of stealth.”

Increased Emphasis of SOF

Three years ago, the Air Force, and especially Mili­tary Airlift Command, started emphasizing “our Special Operations Forces [SOF], even though we had been involved in this field for much longer,” MAC’s Com­mander in Chief, Gen. Duane Cassidy, told the AFA symposium. Special operations, he added, are hard to define and, under some circumstances, involve almost all of the Air Force’s combat elements.

MAC, he stressed, is unambiguously committed to broad improvements of USAF’s organic special opera­tions capabilities: “We are acquiring twenty-one new MC-130 Combat Talon II aircraft; we will buy twelve C-130Hs for conversion to AC-130 gunships; we expect to purchase eighty CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, the first of which is [slated for] delivery to MAC in 1993; and we will modify another twelve HH-53s for the Pave Low [mission] on top of the nine we already have.”

The bottom line is that “we have a great deal of in­volvement in special operations.” A total of eighty-eight programs is under way—and “fully funded”—to en­hance the Special Operations Forces. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that “we are playing catch-up ball [in this field], which is a fact that I think the Air Force has [allowed for] with some of its funding profiles.” One of the most important consequences of playing catch-up ball, he suggested, is to “use what you have right now effectively while planning future [remedies]. The two most pressing and critical fields are command control and communications [C3] and [boosting] the mainte­nance reliability of some systems that are difficult to maintain.”

In the first instance, he said, the solution is to mold the SOF command and control requirements “right into the upgraded MAC C3 system.” In the second instance, current SOF aircraft are handicapped significantly in terms of reliability and maintainability because of aging and piecemeal tailoring of individual aircraft.

MAC, he said, is trying to standardize the thirteen aircraft of the Combat Talon fleet: “Each one is different, because these aircraft have been brought into the system in a not very disciplined manner [because of the need to optimize individual] aircraft against various threats. We need to get some commonality into those aircraft.” This type of ad hoc approach, he pointed out, will not be permitted in the acquisition of new systems.

Another means for getting higher utilization from the existing sparse SOF resources is to adjust some pro­grammed depot maintenance (PDM) cycles, involving in some instances cutting the cycle by nearly fifty percent. The long-term solution to enhanced force effectiveness, General Cassidy suggested, is to buy systems that are intrinsically more reliable and maintainable. To com­pensate for inadequate reliability, commanders have to assign two SOF aircraft to missions where one, in theo­ry, would suffice: “We expect to remedy this through greater reliability and maintainability.”

In the airlift field, MAC’s central requirement is the C-l7, “the program that will take airlift into the twenty-first century. . . . I believe our nation needs this aircraft, and so does our Air Force,” General Cassidy said. Ac­knowledging that the term “new [program] start is a dirty word in Washington this year,” he nevertheless stressed that “now is the time to modernize [airlift] and not flinch over money.”

Explaining that the C-l7 “was designed by its users,” ranging from the Air Force’s major commands to the US Army and the Marine Corps, General Cassidy empha­sized that no airlift program in the past has ever enjoyed the enthusiastic, total support that is being accorded the C- 17. “We have been talking about the C- 17 for at least six years. We have cleverly compressed a twelve-year program into eighteen years and stretched it out so far now that it has become very expensive. . . . Now is the time to get on with producing this airplane,” MAC’s Commander in Chief argued.

Logistics and Manpower Issues

The Air Force’s Reliability and Maintainability 2000 Plan, Gen. Earl T. O’Loughlin, Commander of Air Force Logistics Command, told the AFA symposium, represents “our commitment to creating systems we can operate in any combat environment and deploy with the minimum combat support. Through it, we are working to help shape the technologies we inherit from industry and the labs, we are becoming more literate in technolo­gies, and we are developing business strategies to ex­ploit technological advances.”

AFLC, General O’Loughlin indicated, is boosting productivity through capital investments: “This fiscal year alone, we are spending $160 million on new equip­ment and repair technology.” The payoff from these investments, he said, is the ability to “repair and modify our systems quicker and better [which results in greaten readiness and sustainability.”

Increased funding for spares over the past six years has resulted in dramatic improvements in readiness, the AFLC Commander pointed out. The availability of spare engines, for instance, is up by 362 percent over what it was in 1980, he said. The AFLC Commander acknowledged that some funding reductions seem un­avoidable this year, which necessitates that “we … spread those reductions as carefully and as wisely as we know how.”

Gen. Andrew Iosue, Commander of Air Training Command, predicted that the Air Force will continue to do well over the next two to three years both in terms of recruiting and retention. Over the longer term, he told the AFA symposium, a shrinking manpower base could create problems. The present pool of some 2,000,000 eighteen-year-olds, for instance, will go down to 1,700,­000 within a few years. This means that the pool of males in this age group goes down by about thirty percent while the total DoD recruiting requirement remains con­stant at between 300,000 and 325,000.

This condition adumbrates some recruiting problems in the future, he suggested. As a result, sentiment in Congress to revive the draft might acquire a new head of steam. The draft, he argued, would not help the Air Force, which “never had a draft, gets better quality from the All-Volunteer Force, and would find the draft more expensive because it gets us into a revolving-door [situation]. . . . They come in, but you can’t keep them in.”