Washington Watch

Oct. 1, 2009

Senators Say, “Save the C-17”

In mid-September, the Senate Appropriations Committee added $2.5 billion to its version of the Fiscal 2010 defense budget to buy 10 additional C-17s, despite Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ insistence that enough of the aircraft have already been bought.

The SAC added the airplanes after a bipartisan group of Senators wrote to the committee chairman and ranking member, asking to keep the airlifter in production, at least until new major strategy and requirements studies report out. The fleet is being eaten up by heavy usage, and ending production now would shortchange the airlift fleet and hurt the industrial base, the group argued.

The 20 Senators, in an Aug. 19 letter to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), said they “respectfully request that the committee include funding to procure 12 additional C-17 aircraft in the Fiscal 2010 budget.”

The program of record for the C-17 is 205 airplanes, plus eight more that were funded in the 2009 war supplemental bill. The House Appropriations Committee included money for just three more C-17s, but neither the Senate nor House authorizers added any new C-17s in their bills. If the SAC provision survives the full Senate and House-Senate defense budget conference, the 12 aircraft would bring the C-17 fleet to 225 aircraft.

In a statement accompanying its markup of the defense bill, Inouye said he’s confident that the Defense Department will “eventually conclude” that buying more C-17s is “the right solution” to a myriad of airlift questions.

The Senators said the C-17 has been “critical” in supporting the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the only airlifter “capable of performing every airlift mission.” With the wars ongoing, “we do not see airlift needs abating anytime soon,” they said, and terminating the C-17 would leave the US with meager options if it needs more strategic airlifters in the near- to midterm.

“In our view, it would be extremely risky to discontinue C-17 production before the Quadrennial Defense Review and the upcoming Mobility Capability and Requirements Study have reassessed our requirements.”

In an apparent note of skepticism and concern that the QDR and MCRS will simply rubber-stamp an already-made decision to stop production of the C-17, the Senators made conditional their remark about the two assessments by adding, “provided that these studies are based on sound, requirements-driven analysis.” Such analysis was lacking in the decision to stop F-22 fighter production, and the C-17 cap was included among those programs Gates chose to terminate in April—long before the QDR really got going. Several members of Congress have commented that making major, irreversible procurement decisions before the analysis is done is putting the cart before the horse.

Barring any new adds from Congress, the last C-17 will be delivered in 2010. In previous years, Boeing has extended its own funds to keep the airplane in production in the belief that Congress would order additional aircraft.

Citing a Congressional Research Service report, the Senate group noted that C-17s were designed to fly about 1,000 hours a year for 30 years, but “as our overseas commitments have grown since 2001, the fleet has averaged 1,250 hours per aircraft over the last 10 years. Some aircraft have even reached 2,400 flying hours in a single year.” That “heavy usage,” the group said, coupled with a planned increase of tens of thousands of soldiers and marines to be transported and supplied, “has only increased the demand for this critical airlift capability.”

It is critical, the Senators said, that “we provide our growing force with the equipment it needs to fight and win our nation’s wars.”

In their letter, the Senators asserted that “there is no time to spare in making this decision,” given that the line will otherwise shut down in 2010 and the fact that restarting production after a break “could cost up to $1 billion,” a figure reported by the Government Accountability Office. In that November 2008 study, the GAO urged “careful planning” to ensure that the C-17 line is not ended “prematurely and later restarted at substantial cost.”

In its study, the GAO reported that “both the manufacturer [Boeing] and [the] Air Force agree that shutting down and restarting production would not be feasible or cost-effective.”

The Senators further argued that terminating C-17 production would be especially harmful to the defense industrial base, given “a waning demand for commercial aircraft and a lull in military fighter jet production.” The C-17 could keep alive the design, engineering, and manufacturing talent needed to continue building large military airplanes into the future, they said. Otherwise, “our aerospace engineering, design, and manufacturing base will atrophy, putting at risk our competitiveness on the global market [and] our ability to address future airlift requirements.”

The C-17 accounts for “30,000 American jobs stretched across 43 states,” which would be lost if it were terminated, the Senators said.

The Fighter-Bomber-UAV Stew

A Washington, D.C., think tank suggests that the cash-strapped Pentagon cut production of F-35 fighters and divert the savings to acquisition of long-range bombers instead. Another efficiency move, it said, would be to shift more of today’s fighter missions to unmanned aircraft.

The recommendations came from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which in August released its full analysis of the Obama Administration’s Fiscal 2010 budget request. The report was prepared by Todd Harrison, CSBA’s top Pentagon budget analyst.

The CSBA ideas may get a hearing in the Administration, which tapped Harrison’s CSBA predecessor, Steven M. Kosiak, to be the defense budget guru at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Andrew F. Krepinevich, CSBA president, was also recently appointed to the Defense Policy Board, an advisory group that helps the Pentagon devise new strategies.

The Pentagon “might consider” whether new bombers, given their longer range and payload, “could represent a cost-effective substitute for some number of these new fighters,” according to the CSBA, “rather than buying both new long-range bombers and thousands of new short-range F-35 fighters.”

Kosiak had said much the same thing in a 2007 report, co-authored with CSBA’s Barry D. Watts. Their study pressed for an early decision on how to proceed with the F-35.

Harrison wrote that the Pentagon’s existing plan for modernization is “problematic,” and that programs already in the pipeline will likely be more expensive than the Pentagon now projects. The F-35 program is expected to cost about $300 billion and continue into the early 2030s.

In April, Gates terminated the Air Force’s lone bomber program, claiming that he thought USAF had not adequately defined what the aircraft should be able to do. It isn’t clear whether the bomber will be included in the Fiscal 2011 budget.

The CSBA report went on to say that unmanned aircraft, with “much greater range and loiter times, and a much lower price tag, could enable a radically different force structure that achieves the same level of effectiveness at a much lower cost.”

What’s Causing the Traffic Jam

CSBA produced its recommendations for an explicit purpose: to help DOD live within what are expected to be tight defense budgets in years to come. The problem has been compounded by the lagging pace of modernization in recent years.

The matter is urgent, because, as CSBA said in August, “the funding for weapon systems is projected to remain flat over the next five years while a bow wave of equipment recapitalization is building.”

Harrison noted that there are several reasons for the “lagging pace of recapitalization” in US military equipment, exemplified by the fact that “the average age of aircraft in the Air Force inventory is 24 years and is projected to climb to 27 years by 2020.” The development of new systems is devouring a large amount of the money set aside for recapitalization, he said, and while the resulting systems deliver more capability than those they replace, they usually end up being too few in number to do the job properly.

“Trading many legacy systems for fewer next generation systems is not always the best strategy,” he asserted.

Two other approaches—buying the latest versions of legacy systems, or upgrading the legacy systems to extend their service lives and with greater capability—are cheaper than developing and buying new systems, according to the report, which notes that the Obama Administration is pursuing all three approaches in its modernization efforts.

The Administration “elected not to provide a detailed future years defense program” because of ongoing deliberations in the Quadrennial Defense Review, the CSBA report observed. As a result, the Fiscal 2011 budget has lots of room for “significant changes to weapon systems programs” and new emphasis could be given to the bomber and UAV efforts.

Economic constraints in the coming years will ensure that whatever small growth there is in defense spending will go toward manpower, while research, development, test, and evaluation—RDT&E—and procurement will suffer, the CSBA said.

“Pressure will likely continue to grow for DOD to scale back its plans, including both major modernization efforts and force structure plans,” Harrison wrote. This will compel “making some hard decisions. And the sooner those decisions are made, the less painful they will be to carry out.”

Fast-Tracking New Weapons

The Pentagon needs a dual-track acquisition system—one to rapidly answer demands for new kinds of equipment needed in the field right away, and a “deliberate” path for systems that fill out the traditional force structure and which must be carefully specified and developed with long-term use in mind.

Those are the findings of a Defense Science Board task force on “Fulfillment of Urgent Operational Needs,” released in late summer. The task force was chaired by Jacques S. Gansler, former Pentagon technology czar during the Clinton Administration and now a professor at the University of Maryland and director of the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise.

The experience of the last five years shows that the Pentagon “lacks the ability to rapidly field new capabilities for the warfighter in a systematic and effective way,” Gansler wrote in the task force report’s cover letter. The existing acquisition system is simply too ponderous—weighed down by laws, oversight, and the need for coordination—to move quickly enough to answer pressing demands from troops in the field.

All of the Pentagon’s needs “cannot be met by the same acquisition processes, and … the degree of urgency and technology readiness can be used to differentiate ‘rapid’ and ‘deliberate’ acquisitions.”

The task force suggested creating a joint-service Rapid Acquisition and Fielding Agency—organized similarly to the Defense Logistics Agency or National Security Agency—which would be required to get urgently needed gear to fielded forces in “as quickly as two months, and no longer than 24 months after the need is identified.”

Defense Secretary Gates has complained that it takes too long to translate a commander’s urgent materiel request into a fielded capability, so he may be persuaded by the task force’s suggestions.

The RAFA would employ “a streamlined, integrated approach for rapid acquisition,” and would be focused on “acquiring new solutions to joint urgent operational needs and should work with the combatant commands to anticipate future needs.” It would also oversee and track any urgent need requests sent up by the services and components. The task force envisioned a three-star officer heading the organization, reporting directly to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, but with a “dotted line” connection to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This level of leadership is needed “for high-level support and visibility,” the task force recommended.

The new agency would have a “separate and flexible fund” with which to buy equipment needed for requirements in wartime or “when threats are imminent.” The agency would coordinate with the services’ “acquisition, doctrine, training, and sustainment elements.”

The executive and legislative branches should move “today” to establish the new agency’s funding stream, the task force urged. The new agency should also absorb and integrate all of the “ad hoc” organizations that have sprung up to perform this function during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gansler wrote. The initial cadre of staff would be drawn from these previous organizations.

“It is imperative that the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the service leaders start now to implement” the task force’s recommendations, the group said. “Existing urgent needs remain waiting to be fulfilled with ever more limited resources, and the potential for new and even more devastating capabilities from adversaries looms large.”