The Issues That Count

Oct. 1, 1986

The Air Force is in good shape. Its leaders are convinced that it is more capable—better manned, trained, and equipped—than at any time in its history, bar none.

They are not complacent, how­ever. On the contrary, they are deeply concerned that the Air Force is in immediate danger of losing its hard-won momentum and of back­sliding into the troubles of its not­-so-distant past.

At the beginning of this decade, the Air Force was ailing. Its bomb­ers and ICBMs were outdated, too many of its fighters were holdovers or hangar queens, its airlifter and tanker fleets were woefully short of capacity and versatility, its training suffered from severe constraints on flying time, and it had to struggle to recruit and retain good people.

The Air Force has come a long way toward complete recovery on all those counts and more in the years since then. This was made possible by ample funding in nation­al defense budgets.

The funding was not the whole story, however. Just as important was the methodical way in which the Air Force went about putting it to use.

It did so by establishing pri­orities, by defining and delineating the issues that it needed to resolve in order to meet those priorities, and by allocating its money in sup­port of its resulting game plan.

Now this system, which worked well when there was enough money to go around, could come unstuck.

Air Force funding, as part of the beleaguered defense budget, is faltering. At the same time, Air Force priorities and issues are be­coming more complex, more nu­merous, and—in the name of a well-rounded warfighting force made up of a host of indispensable elements and capable of addressing any threat, almost anywhere, to US na­tional security—increasingly insep­arable, one from the others.

Given all this, the Air Force can be expected to have rougher going in coping with all its issues and, thus, in promulgating and protect­ing all its priorities.

The stakes are high, maybe life­-or-death. Unless the Air Force suc­ceeds, it will have a hard time in just staying even with its gains of recent years and may well have to relin­quish all too many of them.

This could be disastrous, for even as USAF has grown stronger, its task has become tougher. Its mis­sions are more numerous and more exacting. The threats that it faces are more manifold and more menac­ing.

Meeting its priorities is a tall order for USAF, even with boun­tiful funding.

Five Top Priorities

The priorities fall into five main categories—modernizing strategic offensive and defensive forces, im­proving the readiness and sus­tainability of general-purpose forces, increasing airlift capability, modernizing and expanding tactical forces, and assuring access to space (see box, p. 49).

These enfold a multitude of pro­grams, all of which pivot on a host of issues that USAF is currently ad­dressing.

The issues themselves are grouped under the three broad headings of national security, re­sources and their management, and forces and capabilities.

The national security issues cov­er what the Air Force believes it needs to do “to preserve the peace, freedom, and territorial integrity of the nation and to safeguard the fun­damental values of our democratic system.”

They also cover the threats by po­tential adversaries, most notably the Soviet Union.

Resources issues have mainly to do with USAF’s people and with managing acquisition programs, im­proving the reliability and maintain­ability of systems, and building and maintaining bases.

Forces-and-capabilities issues range the widest. They embrace strategic forces, theater forces, pro­jection of forces (including those now earmarked for low-intensity conflicts and for special opera­tions), and space.

Space cuts across nearly all categories of Air Force issues and pri­orities. The reason is that today’s satellites of highly varied purpose are increasingly expensive force multipliers. Thus, they are pertinent to how USAF manages its resourc­es and its forces, and they must be defended against possible attack.

In this connection, word has cir­culated outside the Air Force that USAF is ready to give up on its antisatellite program involving ASAT missiles launched from F-15 fighters.

In its presentation of priorities and issues, the Air Force indicates no such thing. It highlights, under space defense systems, its need for the ASAT weapons, for renewed permission to test them to their ut­most, and for the public to under­stand that the Soviets have such weapons of their own and can readi­ly deploy them.

People—The Essential Element

In the Air Force’s schematic, peo­ple issues pervade all others even more extensively than do space is­sues. USAF regards its people as the foundation of its warfighting ca­pability. It underlines its need for high-quality people to make its high-tech weapons work and de­scribes them as “essential to all Air Force mission areas.”

Pilot retention is a premier con­cern in this regard. There are many others as well, dealing with such topics as military pay comparabili­ty, the role of women in the military, medical and dental care, the tax-ex­empt status of military allowances, reimbursement for permanent changes of station, civilian-employ­ment and civilian-compensation management, military retirement, the reenlistment bonus program, and, at the root of it all, “manpower and the federal budget dilemma.”

Outside and inside the Air Force, there are skeptics who claim that USAF gives only lip service to its people issues. When push comes to shove in the looming battles over the defense budget, the Air Force will be more willing to take hits on its people programs than on its hardware programs, such critics contend.

They also claim that, no matter what the Air Force says, some of its hardware programs are obviously more precious to it than others.

This is arguable, but the Air Force, for the record, concedes nothing. Its leaders insist that its accent on people as its main con­cern, as the foundation on which all its priorities stand, can indeed be taken at face value.

They also claim that it is impossi­ble for them to designate one hard­ware program—for example, the Peacekeeper ICBM—as an un­touchable, while specifying another one—for example, the C-17 airlift­er—as something less.

Their reason for grouping priority programs as equals, they say, is that each must be viewed as inextricably linked with all others—something like molecules in a chain—in accor­dance with USAF’s main goal of “balanced forces and capabilities that deter aggression across the spectrum of conflict.”

For example, Peacekeeper’s pur­pose in the first instance is to deter war and, in the second instance, to prevent a conventional war from es­calating into a nuclear war. If con­ventional war breaks out in Europe, however, the C-17’s ability to bring reinforcements from Stateside and to land them close to the front or to move them around from battle area to battle area would be vital to NATO’s warfighting prowess.

The C-17 would also be a prime means of transporting US troops and gear into arenas of low-intensity conflict. It may even serve some­day, provided it goes into produc­tion, as a handy aircraft for special operations forces to have around.

The whole thing goes together. USAF’s need to be capable of deter­ring or waging nuclear war, high-intensity conventional war, and low-intensity conflicts and to perform special operations make Peacekeep­er and the C-17 equal partners among priorities, at least in theory.

USAF does make a distinction, however, between strategic modern­ization and its other three top priorities, including the improvement of airlift.

Strategic modernization, which embraces command control com­munications and intelligence (CI), the B-lB bomber, the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB), Peace­keeper, the Small ICBM (SICBM, or Midgetman), cruise missiles, the Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM II), and strategic defense, is acknowledged by the Air Force to be first among equals.

The Air Force has its heart in this ranking. It notes, however, that stra­tegic modernization was originally ranked foremost among national de­fense priorities by President Rea­gan, who later gave it additional lev­erage by infusing it with his SDI program.

Quite aside from USAF’s legiti­mate purpose in presenting all its priorities as peers, there is an ob­vious tactical reason for its so doing.

If the Air Force concedes that some of its priorities and the pro­grams organic to them are less im­portant than others, it would there­by strengthen the hands of defense budget-cutters in going after those lesser programs, which would re­semble crippled aircraft falling out of formation and becoming easy prey.

Shoring Up the Fighter Forces

High among USAF’s premier goals are building up fighter forces and producing for them the Ad­vanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) sys­tem.

USAF has an immutable require­ment for a beyond-visual-range, au­tonomously radar-guided, air-to-air missile that will enable its fighters to engage multiple targets while simul­taneously dashing out of harm’s way.

In terms of keeping it alive and well, the AMRAAM program is a prime Air Force issue. Were it to fail for lack of congressional support, however, the requirement would re­main. Given the threat, the Air Force would still need, as a high programmatic priority, a missile with the very same, or even better, characteristics.

The same goes for the LANTIRN program in connection with USAF’s overarching requirement for a high-priority system that will make its fighters capable of attack­ing ground targets at night and un­der the weather.

The Air Force puts a premium on modernizing and expanding its the­ater forces. There are many good reasons for this, a prime one being the Soviet Union’s average produc­tion rate of 1,000 new fighters each year since 1980 and its latter-day progression to fighters that come perilously close to matching USAF’s best.

USAF’s theater forces are a com­posite of many capabilities: fighters and reconnaissance aircraft, elec­tronic combat forces, special opera­tions forces, intertheater and intra­theater airlift, specialized command and control aircraft, and even stra­tegic bombers operating in the con­ventional-combat mode.

Essential to all of these are ade­quate amounts of increasingly capa­ble munitions.

Withal, fighters are still the key to the capability of theater forces. Ad­hering to its Tactical Fighter Road-map, the Air Force is fervently pro­moting a procurement strategy that would enable it to attain growth from the current force of approxi­mately thirty-seven combat-coded tactical fighter wings to a force of forty such wings by 1991.

This means that the Air Force must procure 260 to 280 new fight­ers each year until then, meanwhile retiring older fighters at a pace and in proportions that would keep the average age of all fighters in the ac­tive force at approximately ten years.

Among new fighters, the F-15E dual-role fighter gets top billing, along with its need for LANTIRN to enable it to meet deep-interdic­tion requirements and to find and attack fixed and mobile targets at night and in adverse weather.

F-15E procurement is under way and is aimed at a total buy of 392 of the aircraft, with initial operational capability planned for 1989.

Yet another plum among USAF priorities is the Advanced Tactical Fighter, “an air-superiority fighter capable of performing operations in enemy airspace and of countering current and projected Soviet fight­ers.

As an example of how it has taken to integrating its aircraft priorities as well as the aircraft themselves, USAF groups its Joint Advanced Fighter Engine (JAFE) develop­ment program and its Critical Sub­systems Development program, which includes avionics projects, in the ATF tent.

It also makes a point of Air Force! Navy cooperation in developing the ATF and the Navy’s Advanced Tac­tical Aircraft (ATA) so as to avoid duplication and capitalize on oppor­tunities for commonality of tech­nologies, components, and sub­systems.

USAF emphasizes, however, that the ATF and the ATA must be viewed as fundamentally different aircraft, each capable of performing missions that are unique to each ser­vice.

Master Plan for Electronic Combat

USAF’s ability to perform all tac­tical missions depends heavily these days on its proficiency at electronic combat (EC), which includes elec­tronic warfare, C3 countermea­sures, and suppression of enemy air defenses.

In this regard, the Air Force is putting the finishing touches on its EC Master Plan and Roadmap, which will give its EC planners the same sort of long-range guidance that the Tactical Fighter Roadmap gives its fighter-force planners.

Such long-range plans, including the Airlift Master Plan, for example, have come to serve as the basic instruments for USAF in laying out and linking up its priorities across the board.

The EC Master Plan and Road-map is an urgently needed docu­ment. Nearly all aspects of modern warfare involve electronics. The in­terdependence among electronic systems is growing and will con­tinue to grow as weapon systems—the ATF, for example—are more thoroughly integrated and auto­mated.

This is why USAF also regards its Integrated Electronic Warfare Sys­tem (INEWS), now being developed for the ATF, as a high-priority pro­gram.

USAF’s technological advantage in electronic combat has been slip­ping. The Soviets have been coming on with a rush in their development and deployment of sophisticated electronic systems. Of special con­cern to USAF is the progress that the Soviets have made in their inte­grated air-defense system.

If the Soviets ever gain suprem­acy in electronic combat, USAF will be in deep tactical trouble, the aerodynamic attributes and other characteristics of its fighters not­withstanding.

In the context of helping those fighters, USAF also sets great store by its programs for tactical recon­naissance and engagement and for tactical C3I.

The Joint Surveillance Target and Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) is a big one here. It is an Air Force/Army program to field a com­mon airborne radar system for spot­ting and tracking enemy rear-eche­lon ground forces and for directing air-launched and ground-launched weapons against them.

The Air Force and the Army agreed that Joint STARS should be mounted aboard a C-18 aircraft. There is pressure in some circles to give the C-18 a slip and go beyond it in developing a follow-on aircraft for Joint STARS, meanwhile delay­ing its deployment.

This is a major issue for USAF, which is fighting for deployment of Joint STARS on C-18s as quickly as possible. It is convinced that delay­ing the program until a follow-on aircraft is developed would jeopar­dize its capability to perform an ex­tremely urgent and immediate war-time mission. In this, it has the Army and the Office of the Secretary of Defense squarely on its side.

Ensuring a Complementary Mix

As important as Joint STARS clearly is, the Air Force believes that it needs a complementary mix of tactical reconnaissance systems. One sensor, platform, or method of employment, such as standoff, or­bital, or penetrating, cannot fulfill all tac recon requirements.

Consequently, USAF is also pushing hard in behalf of its Tac­tical Air Reconnaissance System (TARS), composed of an electro-op­tical sensor suite for RF-4C aircraft and a reconnaissance pod for an­other fighter yet to be designated. The program also calls for ground stations with worldwide capability for receiving, processing, and ex­ploiting the reconnaissance data.

TARS is scheduled to go into full-scale development next year. It is seen as one element of the proposed Advanced Tactical Air Reconnais­sance System (ATARS) now being devised.

The other element of ATARS in­volves a touchy subject—Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs). Called the Unmanned Air Reconnaissance System (UARS), that element would involve RPVs collecting data under conditions that are not conducive to the survival or the cost-effectiveness of manned aircraft.

USAF has been accused of ignor­ing the potential of RPVs in its al­leged preoccupation with manned platforms. It claims, however, that it is indeed interested in using RPVs on a number of missions, including reconnaissance.

USAF’s consideration of the UARS program among its major is­sues tends to give credence to its claim. Its role in that program is to design its TARS sensors and associ­ated equipment to be compatible with the RPVs that the Navy, USAF’s partner in the UARS pro­gram, alone will develop and build, beginning later this year.

Among many other theater-war­fare issues, the need for chemical-warfare retaliatory capability to de­ter a Soviet chemical attack ranks high with USAF. So do the needs to sustain the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) deployment in Europe and to fend off any fur­ther congressionally imposed lower­ing of the ceiling on US troop strength there.

Air-to-surface weapons get big play among Air Force theater-war­fare priorities.

For use in Europe, USAF needs standoff weapons, direct-attack weapons, and weapons capable of multiple kills per pass to attack the airfields, armor, and air defense sys­tems that are the keys to the poten­cy of Warsaw Pact forces.

For the Pacific, the needs are dif­ferent—improved, nonnuclear bombs and missiles capable of de­stroying the large numbers of hard­ened targets in that theater.

Overall, USAF’s goal is the de­ployment of adequate quantities and varieties of air-to-ground weapons to meet all mission demands, from the toughest to the slightest, in all theaters.

Strategic Modernization

When it comes to the capabilities of the total force, there are no issues and no priorities more important to the Air Force than those in the stra­tegic arena.

Congressional limitations on Peacekeeper missile deployment—down to fifty missiles from the 100 that USAF and the Administration had planned—and uncertainties surrounding the SICBM program imply an erosion of USAF’s land-based missile leg of the US strategic triad.

Consequently, the Air Force comes down hard with its long­ standing argument that unless that land-based leg is kept alive and kicking through modernization via Peacekeeper and SICBM, US stra­tegic forces—reduced to a dyad of missile-launching submarines and bombers with and without cruise missiles—will not be up to their mis­sions of deterrence and, if neces­sary, of retaliation.

USAF makes the case, moreover, that the Soviets, in steadily deploy­ing successive generations of land-based ICBMs, clearly show that they think the same way as USAF.

The Air Force also notes that the powerful, ten-warhead Peacekeeper and the presumably mobile, single-warhead SICBM would serve as in­struments in behalf of arms control as evidence of US strategic power and national resolve that would in­fluence Moscow to make a deal.

Issues surrounding the Peace­keeper and SICBM programs have to do with the numbers of both in the offing, their capability and surviv­ability, and, in the case of SICBM, its weight limit, which USAF be­lieves should be 37,000 pounds in­stead of the congressionally man­dated 33,000 pounds.

The bottom line for USAF where both are concerned is this: “We will continue to seek greater deterrence stability through deployment of Peacekeeper, development of the Small ICBM, and vigorous pursuit of mutually verifiable arms-reduc­tion agreements.”

The Air Force appears to address its two-bomber program less defen­sively than it does its ICBM pro­grams.

Both the B-lB and the ATB are major parts of its top-priority strate­gic modernization program, and both are coming along just fine. Un­der cost and on schedule, the B-lB is entering the inventory. The ATB seems solidly on track in the latter stages of its development, heading for first delivery in the early 1990s.

Year by year, USAF seems in­creasingly willing to express confi­dence that the ATB will indeed live up to its promise as a penetrator of Soviet defenses well into the next century.

By the same token, USAF re­emphasizes ever more firmly that it has no plans whatever to expand its B-lB buy beyond the 100 originally scheduled aircraft.

Bombers are making quite a comeback from the time, not all that long ago, when they were being dis­missed by some defense planners as out of style in the age of unmanned strategic weapons.

As USAF notes: “Because of the increased Soviet emphasis on mo­bile ICBM delivery systems and command centers, the manned bomber’s real-time potential for lo­cating and destroying relocatable systems is vital to the maintenance of a viable triad.”

As always, moreover, the Air Force makes a big point of the bomber’s ability to carry a large number and variety of weapons, to attack widely separated targets, and to change course to alternate targets or to come back home, unlike ICBMs, if war does not materialize as threatened.

The Air Force is not overlooking the B-52, either. Among its major programs are those to enhance the B-52’s potential for meeting pro­jected worldwide threats by em­ploying standoff weapons against targets on land or at sea.

“Once again,” says USAF, “the B-52’s inherent characteristics of rapid response, long range, and ex­tended loiter time, coupled with other unique mission capabilities, make it an ideal platform to support maritime operations.”

In the strategic arena, the Air Force makes it clear that its need for air defense interceptor aircraft of modern vintage is now an urgent one, given Soviet advances in long-range, bomber-carried cruise mis­siles. Hand in hand with this re­quirement is the need to improve USAF’s atmospheric threat-warn­ing systems.

To meet this need, USAF has em­barked on its Air Defense Initiative (ADI) program, which it sees as complementary to the Strategic De­fense Initiative program for defense against ballistic missiles.

Ensuring Adequate C3I

Without adequate strategic C3I, the entire strategic deterrence force would mean little or nothing. The credibility of that force, the Air Force notes, depends on systems that provide positive control and communications for the effective employment of the triad.

“In the past,” says USAF, “we have not modernized our C3 sys­tems fast enough to counter the threat. The President’s Strategic Modernization Program, however, makes upgrading C3 systems one of our highest priorities.”

Here again, some critics charge that the Air Force puts more rhet­oric than resources into moderniz­ing strategic C3. They warn that this alleged tendency will show up even more starkly, and be even more dan­gerous, in the coming defense bud­get crunch.

The Air Force insists that it does not and will not slight strategic C3 and that its accusers ignore its need to keep strategic C3 funding in bal­ance with funding for other strategic elements.

Increased Emphasis on Special Operations Forces

As part of its force-projection pri­orities, “Special Operations Forces are receiving increased emphasis,” the Air Force says, adding:

“Our programs to purchase more MC-130H Combat Talon us and AC-130 gunships, along with the conversion of additional CH/ HH-53s to Pave Low III (MH-53) configuration, are giant steps to­ward the Air Force goal to provide effective airlift and selective fire­power support for Army Special Forces, Army Rangers, and Naval Special Warfare Units.”

USAF regards the fixed-wing, tilt-rotor CV-22A aircraft as its chief long-range contribution to improv­ing the effectiveness of the SOF, one that “will greatly enhance and ex­pand Air Force SOF ability to re­spond to a crisis.”

The SOFs are regarded as impor­tant for engaging in Low-Intensity Conflict (LIC). This does not mean, however, that special operations and low-intensity conflicts are synony­mous. As USAF notes, LIC can in­volve forces much different from SOF and may even exclude SOF.

USAF defines Low-Intensity Conflict as “generally confined to a geographic area and. . . often char­acterized by constraints on weapon­ry and tactics.”

The growing importance that the Air Force and the Army give to their capabilities for waging such combat is exemplified by their recent estab­lishment of a joint center at Langley AFB, Va., for upgrading such capa­bilities.

That center merits much atten­tion in USAF’s depiction of its ma­jor issues, as do a number of other interservice programs that illustrate the increasing accent on jointness in the US military operations.

R&M 2000

Undergirding all USAF issues and priorities are those having to do with Air Force resources and their management and with the reliability and maintainability of systems.

Nowadays, USAF gives its R&M

priorities, programs, and issues at least their fair share of attention. As the cornerstone of its R&M 2000 Action Plan, it is demanding—no ifs, ands, or buts—improved R&M for its weapons in the field, in devel­opment, and on the drawing boards. Its contractors are rewarded if they heed this and are penalized if they do not.

R&M initiatives, now the ultimate responsibility of the Air Force Spe­cial Assistant for R&M at the Pen­tagon, “are taking hold,” the Air Force declares.

They had better continue to do so. The readiness and sustainability of Air Force systems depend on it, and so does USAF’s future ability to keep its costs in bounds as its main means of managing its tightening budgets.

Well-run acquisition programs are also crucial to USAF’s good management of resources. So it is no surprise that USAF continues to accentuate its acquisition strat­egies.

There is a bit of constructive irony in this. As USAF notes, pub­lic awareness of shortcomings in the acquisition system was heightened while defense spending was on the rise. The reforms that USAF insti­tuted to correct such shortcomings will serve it well in their contribu­tion to more efficient management, especially if defense spending, as expected, goes into decline.

Noting that “our acquisition pro­cess is pressed by heavy demands,” the Air Force nevertheless claims “significant progress with manage­ment reforms instituted since 1981.”

“The professionalism of the ac­quisition management community is an issue of major importance to the Air Force, to Congress, and to the American public,” the Air Force declares.

As part of the Defense Acquisi­tion Improvement Program, USAF has instituted improvements to con­trol costs, improve R&M, and en­hance competition at the prime-contract and subcontract levels.

The payoffs from such endeavors may well spell the difference as the Air Force, in the years immediately ahead, battles to keep its priorities straight and to implement them co­herently with programs caught in severe budgetary binds.

USAF Priorities

• Modernizing strategic forces.

• Improving readiness and sus­tainability.

• Increasing airlift capabilities.

• Modernizing and expanding tac­tical forces.

• Assuring access to space.

In these categories, the programs considered to be the most vital to improving USAF’s combat capabili­ty are:

Strategic Modernization



Advanced Technology Bomber



Advanced basing technologies

Readiness and Sustainability



Flying hours


Quantities of munitions



Special Operations Forces

Tactical Forces




Modern munitions

Advanced Tactical Fighter


Electronic warfare systems


Manned/unmanned launchers

Redundant capability

National Aerospace Plane