Washington Watch

Sept. 1, 2009

“Something Like” a Two-War Strategy

The US military policy of being able to fight two major theater wars in close succession isn’t necessarily dead, but it’s likely to be redefined as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review now under way, according to a senior Pentagon official.

No matter what its final shape, though, the emerging US concept of national defense will be constrained by flat defense budgets during the next five-year cycle.

This was the view of David A. Ochmanek, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force planning. Ochmanek, meeting with defense reporters in late July, said that the traditional “two-war” planning construct—which, with some variation, has served as the basic force-sizing tool since the early 1990s—is “not dead,” but is the subject of great debate in the QDR.

Ochmanek said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates very much wants to “retain the capacity and capability to project power into multiple regions of the world simultaneously,” but Ochmanek hedged his remark by prefacing it with the phrase “if at all possible.”

While Ochmanek insisted that in the QDR analysis, security comes first and resources second, he admitted that the QDR teams have been told to expect no real growth in defense budgets for at least the next five years, and to make choices among capabilities accordingly.

“There isn’t any ‘low hanging fruit’ in the defense program anymore,” he acknowledged. Any program cut is “going to reduce some important capability.” He added that “we, down at my level, hope that the Administration will be able to provide some positive growth to the DOD budget, so we don’t have a lot of these painful trade-offs,” but it’s part of their charter to identify possible spending cuts. The various services will get first crack at nominating their own cuts, he added.

He specified a dollar amount to the pain: across the future years defense plan, “on the order of $50-to-$60 billion.” That’s over and above the 50 or so programs Gates identified for termination or sharp reduction in April.

The QDR team seeks to account for the changing nature of warfare, Ochmanek said; in the 21st century, wars will likely take on a “hybrid” nature, characterized both by low- and high-end threats. What Ochmanek thinks will emerge is “something like a two-war or multiengagement capacity.”

The last QDR specified that a new bomber needed to be fielded by 2018, but Gates terminated the program because he didn’t feel the Air Force had adequately explained what the system should be able to do. A QDR “Tiger Team” will specifically examine “the requirements and concepts for long-range penetrating strike” and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, “recognizing that a manned bomber may or may not be the right answer,” Ochmanek reported.

Facing Defeat in Taiwan

An air war to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion may be lost before it starts, due to dramatic improvements in China’s air force and land-based missiles, and a shortage of land-based US aircraft, according to a new RAND study.

In “A Question of Balance,” released in early August, RAND authors said that China’s large and growing tactical ballistic missile force could effectively suppress Taiwan’s own air force, cutting most runways and destroying most aircraft on the ground. A large and better-equipped People’s Liberation Army Air Forces would then greatly outnumber US land-based fighters from Okinawa and Guam and would likely prevail in a conflict across the Taiwan Strait.

“A credible case can be made that the air war for Taiwan could essentially be over before much of the Blue Air forces have even fired a shot,” according to RAND. In all scenarios, the air battle was “very intense,” and in most was settled in a matter of only four days.

The results represent a dramatic shift from a similar study RAND did in 2000, postulating a conflict in 2005, which the US and Taiwanese forces won handily in most scenarios. In the new study, modeled on forces expected to be fielded in 2013, US and Taiwanese forces won the day only 20 percent of the time.

One of the biggest factors in the losses was the overwhelming number and precision of PLAAF tactical ballistic missiles, which in a pre-emptive strike destroyed not only most Taiwan air defenders but many US aircraft based in Japan. In the computer models, Japanese forces defended their own territory but did not engage the Chinese. Air Force F-15s based at Kadena Air Base and Marine F/A-18E/Fs at Iwakuni Air Base were in the fight, and many were destroyed on the ground.

It was the shortage of land-based aircraft that led to defeat for the US and Taiwan. Sortie generation was a key factor, and carrier-based aviation simply couldn’t keep up.

“In the absence of land-based airpower, [Blue Forces] fared poorly even with two [carrier strike groups] in the fight from its outset; although the addition of two carrier air wings does improve performance on both measures, Blue is still playing a losing hand, especially according to the loss ratio.”

Since the first study, China has been steadily fielding a better and “sizable” air force, with Su-27 and Su-30 Flanker variants on a par with the F-15 and new, indigenous J-10 multirole fighters considered to be in the class of the F-16. In the RAND models, China supplemented these front-line aircraft with older aircraft fitted with modern, precision “launch and leave” munitions that wouldn’t require them to engage US aircraft directly. Chinese land-based air defense missiles also now have the range to engage aircraft over the land area of Taiwan itself.

RAND said both Taiwan and US forces would fare better if there were more hardened aircraft shelters at their bases and more defenses to thin out the rain of Chinese missiles, but noted that there is no plan in the works to build the shelters or devise an effective means of stopping precision guided munitions.

Operating F-22s from Guam seemed to offer the best outcomes for the US. “We were intrigued by the surprising level of success enjoyed by Guam-based F-22s,” the RAND authors said. However, that success depends on the fielding of a new aerial tanker fleet, something the US has long delayed building.

Years Too Late

Air National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III has been very vocal about the urgent need to modernize his force.

Much has been made of Wyatt’s response to a letter from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), widely interpreted as being a call for more F-22s to equip the Air Guard. However, Wyatt insisted that he didn’t ask for more F-22s, but simply said the F-22 had the necessary capability for the air sovereignty mission, and that new airplanes of some kind are needed.

“I am basically platform agnostic,” he said. However, the systems supplied to the Guard must be relevant, state-of-the-art machines that can both defend the homeland and participate equally in the Air Force’s expeditionary rotations.

Moreover, “it’s not just fighters,” Wyatt noted. “It is tankers, … airlifters, … AWACS,” and communications. Virtually all of the Guard’s systems are aged and in need of replacement, mirroring the situation in the active duty force.

Wyatt said he is keeping “all options open” and wouldn’t rule out buying new-build F-15s and F-16s for the Air Guard mission, but that possibility has been stridently opposed by USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, who insists that such spending would divert funds needed to ramp up F-35 production as quickly as possible.

There are creative basing options that would make it possible to put more of the limited number of F-22s into the Guard than are now planned, Wyatt said, allowing them to perform both the expeditionary role and the air sovereignty mission.

Twilight Zone Industrial Base

Submitted for the Pentagon’s approval: Consider the effects of Quadrennial Defense Review decisions on the defense industrial base, or you’ll be talking to yourself when you get around to asking for new systems.

That’s the upshot of a new study, “The Unseen Cost: Industrial Base Consequences of Defense Strategy Choices,” prepared by the Aerospace Industries Association and released in July. It notes that there will be little for combat aircraft design teams to do if there are no new starts in the next few years. With no new projects, it would be hard for major airframers to justify to their stockholders the expense of keeping such design teams on the payroll, and no experienced engineers on hand when new systems are called for.

“We have been concerned for a number of years” that the industrial base has never been “counted” in previous QDRs, AIA President Marion C. Blakey told reporters in Washington, D.C. She said she fears that the new Administration—populated largely with policy-makers who haven’t been in the business for a decade or more—may not know the true situation in the industrial base, which is down to one or two suppliers in many fields, and no domestic vendors in a growing number of key areas.

Since the last Democratic Administration, many companies have consolidated or left the business altogether, and some of those that remain are wrapping up the work they have, with no new projects on the horizon. The Pentagon shouldn’t rely on “the market,” Blakey said, because there is no other customer for many defense systems, particularly the most advanced weapons. AIA believes more companies will feel pressured to leave what for some is becoming an “unprofitable market.”

She noted that the Pentagon’s acquisition, technology, and logistics chief, Ashton B. Carter, has indicated that he may push to include the industrial base in QDR deliberations, but had made no promises by late July.

According to the report, some of the capabilities already atrophied from program starvation include helicopter design, long-range strike, and space power. A lack of science and technology investment in those sectors has “degraded” them to the point where they could not provide new systems in a timely manner if asked to do so on a short timetable. Other sectors are on borrowed time, as well.

The AIA made six recommendations in its report, mostly focused on reinvigorating the relationship between the Pentagon and its suppliers. Blakey said AIA wants to make sure that the government’s “expectations” about what the industry can do in the future are based on reality, and not false assumptions. A robust defense industrial base “is not a given,” and “should not be neglected,” she said.