Roche Plots a Course

Oct. 1, 2001

The Air Force may be 40 percent smaller than it was 10 years ago, but James G. Roche, the new Secretary of the Air Force, says the service can get smaller still–and must, if it is to have hope of paying for all of its top-priority programs.

Roche declares that he does not want to see USAF leaders have to “go beg for more money” from Congress, adding that the service must learn to live within its means and not make frequent use of midyear supplemental funding requests to cover shortfalls.

The civilian service leader warns that no large cash infusions are likely to come from either the Bush Administration or Congress, but he insists that the Air Force be allowed to keep any savings and plow it back into needed programs.

“There is no windfall of money coming,” Roche said in an August meeting with defense reporters in Washington, D.C. “We’ve got to manage ourselves.”

In Roche’s view, the Air Force has no choice but to make itself smaller. “For years,” he reported, “there has been an insufficient amount of funding to take care of a bunch of things. … The fact that there was underfunding in such a pervasive manner has really surprised us.”

At the session with defense reporters, Roche was asked for his view on the general subject of cutting USAF’s force structure to free up funds for other purposes.

“Is there part of the Air Force that could be cut?” Roche responded. “Sure there is. … Do we have some old things that could go away? Absolutely.”

First on the Roche list of options: Get rid of a third of the 93-airplane B-1B bomber fleet and apply the savings generated to pay for an update of the 60 remaining B-1Bs to make them more combat capable–adding new weapons, jammers, and other systems to improve both their readiness and survivability.

He conceded that the announcement of the move, which caught many by surprise and was hotly challenged by irate lawmakers, was not handled “particularly elegantly” and was a swift lesson that the changes he wants to make will not come easily.

Eye on B-52s

Though the Bush Administration has emphasized the need for long-range airpower, the bomber force faces other cuts.

Roche has declared, “I’ve had my evil eye on” 18 older B-52 bombers based at Minot AFB, N.D. The Air Force has labeled them expendable and keeps them in an “attrition reserve” status at the insistence of Congress.

Roche, however, said the BUFFs draw off funding for maintenance but are not kept in a fully combat-ready condition. Again, he would retire them and use the savings to improve the rest of the B-52s with upgraded systems.

“There are 30 planes there,” said Roche. “We have crews for 12. We would like to get rid of the other 18. Those are not just going to sit there [like] stone monuments. They get sent to the weapon school. And because they are attrition reserve, they get put into a pool [and] are used at various places, but we have 12 more than we would want. … Carrying these other aircraft just doesn’t seem to make sense to us.”

Another candidate for elimination: the oldest and hardest-to-maintain C-130 tactical transports. “We probably have a number of old C-130s that ought to be retired,” said the service Secretary, “especially as the new C-130Js come on line.” He noted that the Air Force is retiring worn-out C-141s as the new C-17s enter the inventory.

Roche appeared to draw a line at making any reductions to USAF’s collection of 10 Aerospace Expeditionary Forces. Each of these first-to-deploy composite units contains some 150 aircraft, most of them fighter and attack aircraft.

“We can talk about reducing force structure,” said Roche. “That is different from talking about reducing say, AEFs, our expeditionary forces. … [The force] is organized so as to ensure that our personnel don’t get too much more than 120 days away from their home base. That would be more difficult, because those are the forces that are used routinely to meet the requirements we have in Northern Watch, Southern Watch, Bosnia-Kosovo area, Korea, and elsewhere.”

That said, Roche went on to put some of the fighter force on the endangered list, along with some bombers and lifters.

“We have some old fighters as well that we would look at,” noted Roche. Pressed for specifics, he mentioned A-10s and older-model F-16s. And that was not all. “Some of the early F-15s are tired and they ought to be taken a look at to be retired,” he maintained.

Roche expressed clear concern about the rising cost of keeping older airplanes in combat trim.

“One of the things we want to take a good strong look at is the cost per flying hour,” he explained. “If we have planes that are consuming so much maintenance money, it might be better to retire them, if we can bring new planes on board.”

Losing “a Flag or Two”

With retirement of aircraft might also come some elimination of units. “We would have to … see what the proper distribution [of aircraft] might be, but we might lose a flag or two,” he allowed.

However, he also recognizes that, around the world, “we still have these obligations that we have to do”–the defense of South Korea and the aerial blockade of Iraq. In late summer, there were few signs that those missions would be going away any time soon.

A 23-year Navy veteran who retired as a captain, Roche commanded a destroyer and worked as a liaison to Congress and the State Department. He also worked in the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment under Andrew Marshall, who headed the Pentagon’s recent strategy review.

After his Navy service ended, Roche served as Democratic staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and then went to work for Northrop Grumman in a number of executive positions, ending as president of the company’s Electronic Sensors and Systems Sector.

Roche believes strongly that the Air Force must be allowed to close bases to “get the inventory consolidated, just as you would do in a business.” The Air Force, he said, “has bases all over, and we feel we are overcapitalized at least 20 percent.”

He is open to sharing facilities with the other services. Roche believes, for example, that more can be done to consolidate training with the Navy and to share bases with other agencies. USAF is looking at putting “more of one type of an airplane on a base as compared to mulitiple types,” he added.

For Roche, the bomber question–specifically, the planned reduction of the force–has become especially acute. He defended his desire to dramatically downsize the fleet by arguing that new, very small, but very precise munitions will make each bomber significantly more effective and that one should look to the fighters-particularly, the F-22 Raptor-for the real advantages in future aerial warfare.

The 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb, he noted, will dramatically increase the number of aim points which can be struck by a B-2 bomber in a single mission.

“We would put … 360 [SDBs] on each plane [and use] 10 planes–meaning we’d have 3,600 of them” on a single mission, Roche noted. Bombers are “particularly good against fixed targets,” but, he noted, there were only some 200 fixed targets at the outset of the 1991 Gulf War.

“We have basically mastered the fixed target problem,” he asserted, and at present it does not seem necessary to acquire any more bombers to address it.

The “Access” Challenge

However, to do battle against persistent, anti-access threats–weapons of mass destruction, mobile surface-to-air missiles, and offensive ballistic and cruise missiles–it will take a very fast aircraft that is stealthy, Roche insisted.

The F-22 will be able to remain over the battlefield, responding quickly when mobile targets are spotted. And, Roche said, it will be better able to “work much more closely with the Army,” finding and destroying time-critical ground targets.

“Bombers aren’t good for that role,” Roche explained. “Bombers tend to just pass through an area. You need something like the F-22 to be able to operate over somebody else’s territory and be able to respond either to an air-to-air situation or to go after some very particularly important surface targets,” he said.

Only after an enemy fighter threat is completely pacified would a bomber be useful in this role, he noted, and only when escorted by F-22s.

Still, the Pentagon was in the throes of its Quadrennial Defense Review, and Roche conceded that the Pentagon leadership “may come along and say we want more” bombers.

His operating philosophy, however, will be one of razors and razor blades. The analogy is that the Air Force, instead of buying new razors, will seek new razor blades. It will emphasize the expendable munitions more than the relatively long-lived platforms that carry them.

The F-22 drew from Roche an unequivocal statement of support. He reported that the aircraft, now in testing, has been exceeding requirements for stealth, for some aspects of its avionics, and “it has really pleased us” with its supercruise capability.

“The F-22 is ready to go into … production,” Roche told reporters on Aug. 14. “The plane works. It works, gang. It [the fighter program] is 20 years old. It is time to get on with it.” (The Pentagon approved low-rate production of the F-22 on the same day that Roche spoke.)

He insisted that waiting for the airplane to be perfect is not economically or militarily wise and said he will promote spiral development and fielding of systems which are deployed in blocks that can be upgraded. This approach allows fielding new systems much more quickly than in the past.

Differences between the Air Force and the Pentagon’s own cost predictors add up to zero in the next four years, and the widening disparity beyond that is something that can be solved with multiyear procurement of the airplane, investment in production efficiencies, and reassurance of vendors that the program will go forward, according to Roche.

The Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board gave the F-22 a green light to enter low-rate initial production, with the Air Force free to build as many F-22s as it can get under a new production cost cap of $45 billion. Roche has said he preferred managing to a dollar figure than a production figure, as it gives greater flexibility to program managers.

Is it 331 or 303

The Air Force has said it can build 331 fighters for that amount. The Pentagon auditors say the figure is more like 303.

It will be tough getting Congress to go along with the cuts he wants to make throughout the Air Force, Roche said, but he added that the B-1B trim is only the opening salvo. He warned, “I have every expectation, with the [Fiscal 2003 budget], that there is going to be a lot more of this.”

He said Congress is not ready to fork over huge amounts of money for military forces-a position he can understand.

“If I put myself in their shoes,” said Roche of the Congressmen and Senators, “there is no massive external threat to the country,” and the trade-offs he is suggesting can be “very subtle to constituents” who might stand to lose economically if units are eliminated and bases closed. All in all, he acknowledged, this is a tough sell back home.

However, he also thinks the Air Force is just too small for any part of it–Guard and Reserve included–to be declared exempt from cuts.

The Total Force-active, Guard, and Reserve-has to “take these problems on together if we are going to make any headway,” said Roche. “If you are getting rid of old stuff, it has got to be gotten rid of.”

Efficiency doesn’t mean just cuts. Roche said a new philosophy will be to make sure that there are no longer any single-purpose airplanes in the fleet.

A future tanker, he speculated, might be a good platform on which to put sensor arrays, since “it is going to be in the area.” He is taking a hard look at what missions can be moved to space in the near future and which will take longer.

For example, he believes that a Space Based Radar with moving target capability is a technology “ready to be tried.” However, the approach should be experimental at first and not an effort to do it all on the first attempt.

The hash-out of which intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions to move to space, whether to package more of these capabilities on one multimission aircraft, and what will be the role of uninhabited aerial vehicles is the “toughest intellectual problem” facing the Air Force leadership right now, Roche said.

Even if the Bush Administration does not develop a sweeping new defense strategy, elements of transformation of the Air Force are already under way, Roche said.

Enter the UCAV

He noted, for example, that Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicles will be a hallmark of the future Air Force and that “there is no group that is fighting” against them in some sort of turf war. Rather, he has detected the sentiment that the vehicles will be a benefit, and USAF people are asking, “How can we bring some of these on faster?”

Ballistic missile defense, and the new emphasis it is getting from the Bush Administration, will also help transform the military, Roche asserted. Primitive ballistic missiles were used in the Gulf War. “People forget we had … 28 young people killed from Scuds in Saudi Arabia,” said Roche. “This is not a fictitious weapon.”

Roche noted that the military threat to Western Europe has markedly declined while the threat in East Asia appears to be on the rise. This is another factor which will drive the military in new directions. Such considerations will cause a second look at “how we design things” which are needed for operations in the Pacific.

However, he noted that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will not make hasty decisions to abandon anything prematurely.

Rumsfeld is trying “to get people to articulate issues, and then he absorbs all of that and he has made the point over and over: You don’t replace something that works with something you don’t understand.”

Roche and the Secretaries of the Army and Navy will work as an executive committee to rationalize forces, avoid unnecessary duplication, and try to distill issues for Rumsfeld, Roche said at a Pentagon briefing. He said he and the other Secretaries agreed to take on the jobs-at a pay cut and with attending losses with the sale of their defense-related assets-only if they would be allowed to shake things up and give the military a thorough overhaul. Rumsfeld agreed that this is what he wants to do, Roche reported.

Roche said he has been criticized for not recusing himself from major acquisition decisions that might involve his old company but maintains that he has severed all financial ties with it and stands to gain nothing from influencing procurement decisions involving Northrop Grumman. At his confirmation hearings, he said he would rather divest himself of whatever he had to divest to have a free hand as Secretary.

He instructed his lawyers to “do what is right” so as to eliminate any potential conflicts of interest. Because of company retirement rules, “I can’t go back,” so he dismisses any charges of partiality.

Besides, he believes “the taxpayer is better served by honorable people who do things that are totally transparent but who know something” about the defense business and the national industrial base.