Ryan’s Outbrief

Sept. 1, 2001
Air Force leaders knowingly held back on weapon modernization and facilities maintenance in favor of near-term readiness over the last four years, reports Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the outgoing Chief of Staff. They were forced into an unwelcome choice by tight budgets, high operating tempo, and the conviction that doing otherwise would fundamentally threaten USAF’s capabilities for decades.

“For the years that I’ve been Chief, … we emphasized people … [and] readiness investment, big time, at the expense of modernization and infrastructure,” Ryan said in an interview with Air Force Magazine at the close of his tour.

The choice was made in full knowledge–“with malice aforethought,” Ryan quipped–that the Air Force’s aircraft and facilities were rapidly aging and declining in serviceability. However, he felt it was crucial to retain skilled personnel and near-term capability and hope that, eventually, someone would bring funds to the rescue for the other things.

“If you lose your readiness, you lose the people,” Ryan said of the thinking behind the decision. “If you lose the people, you lose it all, for a generation.”

Ryan also discussed the Air Force’s unflinching support of space during the lean years, the benefits of moving to the Expeditionary Aerospace Force concept, Air Force prospects in an increasingly joint environment, the movement of major service programs to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, the push for aerospace integration, and the need to modernize the Air Force’s aging fleet.

As a result of leadership priorities, the service was able to execute a highly successful air war in Yugoslavia when called on two years ago. However, senior officers have seen the fleet languish–with the average age of aircraft approaching 30 years–and the backlog of facilities maintenance theoretically mount into centuries.

The Slide Begins

In the early 1990s, Ryan explained, there was a misperception on the part of the senior Air Force leadership that “an excess” of spare parts was available. This thought stemmed from the rapid pace of the post-Cold War drawdown and the feeling that the inventory, which was created to support a larger fleet, would last a while.

But six months into his tour as Chief, Ryan reported, readiness indicators began “tipping over.” The supposed spares surplus had quietly turned into a shortage, masked by the efforts of diligent crews and a flurry of cannibalization.

“When I got here,” he observed, “we found out we were right down on the mounts, no shock absorber left.”

Mission capable rates and overall readiness–affected by empty spares bins and a growing shortage of qualified crew chiefs–“took a dive from the 92 percent area to the 65 percent area, in a matter of three years,” he noted. He saw no choice but to “stop the decline in readiness and turn it around.”

The decline has stopped, but the mission capable rates are only slowly rising again.

Spares and personnel accounts figured heavily in the equation because Ryan felt there would be a profound exodus of skilled people if they were not given “the tools to do their job.” He was already beginning to see signs of a brain drain while he was head of US Air Forces in Europe, he noted. As the economy heated up, the civilian market for skills acquired in the Air Force became voracious, making it tough for the service to compete for qualified people.

Ryan characterized the strategy as “protecting the basis of the fighting force-readiness and people-while waiting for help to show up.”

There was reason to believe help would come, Ryan said. The economy was humming, the nation was beginning to run budget surpluses, and there were indications from both parties that it would soon be necessary to “go back and look at the fundamentals of keeping defense funded,” he said.

Echoing the Bush Administration’s campaign promise that “help is on the way” for the military, Ryan said he feels help is indeed “on the way. … We had a real [budget] growth of nine percent in the budget for [Fiscal] ’02. That’s a pretty good whack upwards.” The figure is adjusted for inflation, and Ryan said next year’s budget should make it possible to avoid seeking a supplemental funding request for flying hours and operations.

However, he admitted that the increase will do little to cover Air Force modernization needs, which he himself has characterized as being underfunded to the tune of more than $10 billion a year.

“Eventually, you have to step in and recapitalize,” Ryan said.

He acknowledged that “aircraft inflation”-the cost of maintaining aircraft that have reached or exceeded their planned life expectancy-runs above economic inflation. The dollars added for the next budget will probably just cover the rising cost of maintaining the aging fleet.

“The cost of operating the fleet just continues to go up every year,” Ryan said. The aircraft are “continuing to get old, and you have to cope with that.”

The 170-Plane Solution

To keep the Air Force aircraft inventory at status quo, it would be necessary to buy 170 airplanes a year, but the service has only been acquiring “about 100” per year, Ryan noted, and for the majority of his tenure, those have been mostly trainers. During his first year as Chief, the Air Force bought no fighters, for the first time in its history.

“There are ways you can change that formula-buy more airplanes or cut the size of the force so you don’t have to buy as many airplanes,” Ryan observed. However, he added, “Nothing I’ve seen so far in this [Quadrennial Defense Review] says you ought to cut the size of the force substantially, given the demands that we see for the future.” There will be no letup in the need for the capabilities the Air Force is able to provide, though it gets harder to provide them without a substantial round of replacement.

“We are going to have to step up to the recapitalization issue in the next years,” he observed. “We can’t continue to operate a force that’s going from 22 years old to 30 years old, and that’s where we’re headed unless we change.”

Ryan does not believe, however, that the pendulum should swing back toward modernization and away from readiness.

“That is a formula for failure,” he insisted. “You can never ask people to join and then stay in a force that is less than premier, particularly when you are talking about an activity that is so unforgiving, … operations in the aerospace domain, particularly against people who don’t want you to be there.”

The Air Force should not sacrifice readiness to buy new systems, he said, or “de-emphasize the quality of the people who work for you.”

Ryan feels that the Air Force’s performance in the Balkans was vindication of the priorities service leadership set.

“We were able to generate and deploy to 21 locations across Europe in a very ‘min’ time and execute, along with our Allies, 30,000-plus sorties. And the combat environment was intense, and we only lost two airplanes and no crews,” Ryan pointed out. “That’s pretty amazing.”

The Air Force’s new Global Strike Task Force concept–which calls for using bombers and speedy fighters to quickly gain entrance to a theater of war by knocking out anti-access enemy systems–is “just naming something we [already] do,” Ryan observed. “That’s what we did in Kosovo.”

The prominence that such concepts seem to have taken on in the Pentagon’s strategy reviews does not, however, lead Ryan to think the Air Force will get more emphasis than the other services in the future.

Kick Down the Door

“We’re a … contributing member of the joint team,” he said. “And quite honestly, in many situations, jointness does not mean that everybody goes at once. Jointness means we capitalize on the capabilities of each of the contributors. And our contribution normally is right there in the front, going in there, kicking down the door.” It matters little whether the Air Force contribution is all that’s required, or as support to a broader effort, so long as the mission is achieved, he said.

“It isn’t the be-all and end-all,” Ryan added. “That’s just the first shots in a major conflict. There are a hell of a lot of other contributors to it, too.”

He also described Global Strike Task Force as “a natural outgrowth of how we’ve organized ourselves in the [Aerospace Expeditionary Force].”

Ryan believes he has made great strides in taking care of Air Force people. He is particularly proud of the Expeditionary Aerospace Force concept, which was matured and implemented during his tenure. The EAF and its operational units, the Aerospace Expeditionary Forces–assemblages of roughly equal capabilities in Air Force people and equipment for overseas assignments–solved a major headache for the force, Ryan asserted. It gave personnel predictability about when they would be away and made the process of spreading the duty around fairer.

There were many other steps taken to make the Air Force more livable, Ryan asserted.

“We’ve done a lot of stuff for our folks to [enhance] the attractiveness of serving in the military for a career-not just a short stint-[to make service] as appealing to the members and their families as we could make it.”

He ticked off examples: “The infusion of money into military family housing, pay raises, medical, time off after deployments.” These, he said, were expensive but needed steps.

“That kind of challenge will remain for my successor,” he added. Making sure service personnel are well cared for is a job that’s “never completed.”

The new Administration’s increased emphasis on jointness doesn’t cause Ryan any worries that Air Force priorities will somehow lose out amidst the competing demands of the overall force.

“If we raise our people correctly, it doesn’t matter what [color] uniform they wear,” he said. “We don’t find much parochialism at all among our [regional commanders in chief] or indeed in the Joint Staff. So I wouldn’t presume we’ll have that same problem as we go further into jointness … at an operational and strategic level.”

Ryan asserted, “Jointness is not putting an F-16 on the wing of an F-18. … Jointness is how you put together the strengths of the tactical units at an operational level to achieve a strategic objective.” The notion of making all soldiers “purple” is misguided, he said.

“Where you ‘get joint’ is not at the combat level,” said Ryan. “Jointness is how you orchestrate the different mediums and capabilities … to achieve the effects you want.”

Strong on Space

Despite the emphasis on readiness and personnel accounts, Ryan asserted that the Air Force did not scrimp on capitalizing space.

“We have, over the years, … funded the space piece of the aerospace force to assure that it’s viable and doesn’t fail,” Ryan said. This, he noted, was undertaken without the status of executive agent for space among the services, a status that DOD has conferred on the Air Force as a result of this year’s Space Commission recommendations.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve been great stewards of space,” Ryan asserted.

One of Ryan’s early themes was “aerospace integration,” and he dedicated a great deal of the Air Force’s intellectual power to streamlining the connections between space-based, ground-based, and airborne assets.

The Space Commission, headed by Donald Rumsfeld until shortly before he was nominated to become Secretary of Defense in the Bush Administration, highlighted these communication links but also suggested that space may evolve into a separate branch of the military, a move that Ryan opposed and still believes should not come for many years.

“It would be very premature,” he said. However, he doesn’t think the suggested spin-off will recreate the institutional barriers he worked to break down. “No one believes that separation of functional areas that are dependent upon each other is smart business,” he asserted. “And it certainly isn’t smart war.”

There is no clash of concepts between the Space Commission suggestions and the Air Force, he said.

“How we think of ourselves in the Air Force is that we are the experts in the vertical dimension, because we do that from cradle to grave, from requirements to retirement of the system,” said Ryan. “We’re the only service that does that across that spectrum. And so, integration for us doesn’t mean it excludes others; it just means we want to capitalize on the strengths of each of the pieces of the medium in which we operate … and make sure that each is supported by the other. … I don’t see dueling concepts.”

The Administration wants to move the Airborne Laser, Space Based Laser, and Space Based Radar, all major Air Force programs, under the control of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, a DOD agency. Ryan said it was not completely unexpected that it has happened, given the fact that the Administration highlighted missile defense and gave it priority in budget deliberations.

He said the Air Force has no qualms about the move, provided that Air Force-specific requirements for the systems, which may not relate to missile defense, are not lost in the shuffle.

The Airborne Laser, for example, “will have applications elsewhere,” Ryan said.

“We … are looking at the requirements to perhaps have it go after cruise missiles,” or be involved in air defense, or even an “air to ground capability,” Ryan said. He feels such requirements will get a fair shake because “Air Force people will still manage the program” for BMDO.

Rumsfeld’s Review

Ryan believes the Air Force is well-positioned to deal with whatever restructuring may come with completion of this year’s strategy reviews and Quadrennial Defense Review.

“We are a blessed institution in that we can change ourselves very rapidly [and] … do that pretty darn well,” Ryan said. “We can mold [the service] to the needs of the future.” He noted that, in the 1990s alone, the Air Force went through two major reorganizations. First came the 1992 reduction of five USAF major commands into three–Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, and Air Force Materiel Command–with all of the changes that went with it. The second was the creation and refinement in the late 1990s of the EAF, during his own tenure.

To fully realize the EAF, though, the Air Force will need more time, Ryan acknowledged. Service schools have already begun the process of spreading the new thinking, but it will take more time to break down organizational “stovepipes” and make USAF “a whole, organic service force that has a true understanding of what our mission is and how everyone fits into accomplishing the mission. And that’s what EAF is all about.”

He called it “a unifying cry” that merges expeditionary, aerospace, and force. “That’s what we do.”