A Heads-Up From Whit Peters

Nov. 1, 2000

Thanks to the Presidential campaign, readiness has gotten lots of attention in recent months. That is fine with F. Whitten Peters, President Clinton’s last Secretary of the Air Force.

Anyone who cares about defense of the US should welcome debate on the state of its military, Peters said in an address to the Air Force Association’s National Convention. The trick, Peters warned, is to avoid polarizing the debate along partisan lines.

Peters’s remark clearly referred to charges by Texas Gov. George W. Bush that readiness had slipped badly in the Clinton years–a charge with which many, though not all, analysts agree.

In Peters’s own estimation, however, today’s Air Force is prepared to fly, fight, and win against any foe. Men and women of the Air Force proved it last year in Kosovo, he said, just as they continue to prove it every day over Iraq.

“So, if you ask me today whether the Air Force is ready, I can answer unequivocally, Yes,” Peters declared Sept. 13.

He went on, “There may be those who, armed with reams of data, will disagree with this assessment, but I don’t think you will find Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein among them.”

That said, Peters conceded the future holds vexing problems which the next Secretary of the Air Force cannot avoid.

Of all the problems that will land on the desk of the next Secretary, none is more pressing than “recapitalization.” Current trends in personnel and maintenance costs may be squeezing the service’s ability to pay for modernization and replacement of its equipment at the very moment such steps have become critical.

Peters pointed out that personnel costs are increasing at a rate of 1.5 percent a year, in real terms. This year, growth will be even greater. Meanwhile, operations and maintenance spending is already at a historic high as a percentage of the defense budget, and it, too, is growing at a rate of 1.3 percent a year in real terms.

Moreover, the Clinton Administration’s switch to Tricare, the Pentagon’s managed care health program, gave the military a onetime savings, but now the program is subject to the same medical inflation rate as the civilian sector.

The overall budget is not inexhaustibly elastic. Every dollar spent on maintenance is a dollar not spent on the F-22, or the Joint Strike Fighter, or some other new weapon system or badly needed piece of equipment.

“In this case, we’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul,” warned Peters. “We’re robbing Peter to pay Peter.”

Airlift Shortfalls

Strategic airlift remains a difficult area. The service will not become less expeditionary–indeed, the opposite is more than likely to be true. Yet the Air Force cannot meet current wartime lift requirements without accepting risk–and future requirements are growing.

“We do not today have an executable plan to meet those growing needs,” said Peters.

The C-17 production line is fully funded only through 2002. Service leaders say they are working on a plan whereby commercial C-17 sales could keep the line open and lower the airplane’s price, but that plan is still far from reality. The Senate is looking at an industrial fund for strategic airlift, but that plan is no closer to fruition.

“This is a high-priority problem that needs a solution,” said Peters.

Simply maintaining today’s force of strategic weapons poses a difficult predicament.

Consistent with the terms of the START II treaty, the Air Force has envisioned replacing aging Minuteman warheads with more modern warheads removed from decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs. However, delay in implementation of the strategic arms accord has kept such a switch in abeyance. Current law prohibits Air Force reduction of its nuclear forces to Start II levels, meaning it cannot currently replace Minuteman warheads. And they are getting to be terribly expensive to keep up.

“The cost to extend the service life of the existing Minuteman warheads is roughly equal to the gross domestic product of Texas,” said Peters. “We need a bipartisan policy and legislative solution to this problem.”

The next Air Force Secretary will also find that military space has become so important to America’s national security that some people believe space forces and issues should be handled by a separate service.

Indeed, a Congressionally mandated commission has been investigating such alternatives and is due to report its findings early next year.

USAF’s Space Effort

Peters finds this notion troubling and hard to fathom. Today, he pointed out, the Air Force provides 90 percent of the nation’s military space budget and employs 95 percent of the people who do military space work.

Peters further pointed out that space is the only part of the USAF budget that kept growing during the lean years of the 1990s. This year, sustainment and modernization of space and missile forces will account for 31 percent of the Air Force’s budget authority, he noted. And in five years, 55 percent of the service’s science and technology budget will be devoted to the space mission.

Warned Peters: “To drive an artificial wedge between air and space today will almost certainly ensure that we exploit neither to its fullest in the future.”

In the general category of military space, the specific issue of satellite communications remains a problem. Each of the armed services–not just the Air Force–has begun to assume that fast, reliable data transfer will provide the means to achieve information and decision dominance in the future. However, the “pipelines” that support this transfer-namely military Satellite Communications systems-may not be large enough to support the effort, said Peters, nor will commercial systems be available to take up the slack.

“As we field SATCOM-intensive systems like Global Hawk and the unmanned combat aerial vehicle, our existing transmission capabilities will be sorely tested,” observed the Secretary. “And even if these systems don’t saturate our capacity, [the communications demands of] the ‘digital Army’ surely will.”

The Air Force also needs a better approach to its earthbound Information Technology systems, said its civilian chief. The service has far too many different servers and networks and personal computer systems and such. The Air Force network community needs to consolidate.

Moreover, explained Peters, many commercial Information Technology systems are based on the assumption that bandwidth is both cheap and readily available–something that is not always true in the Air Force’s overseas locations.

“In the IT arena, we are moving fast, but we haven’t really begun the journey,” said Peters.

The service’s physical plant, on the other hand, suffers from an excess of capacity. As Peters tells it, too many bases translate into too many buildings poorly maintained.

“I know, as you do, that we need at least one more round of base closures, perhaps more,” said Peters. “We simply have too many buildings, too many heating plants, and too many runways [for a force of the current size]. It is like working in a room from which the air is being slowly pumped. At first you may not even notice it, but sooner or later the lack of oxygen makes you woozy and it eventually kills you. This drain of resources by unneeded infrastructure is slowly asphyxiating us, making it impossible for us to do what we need to do on the bases we need to keep.”

Congress, however, has put the subject of base realignment and closure off-limits at least until 2002.

The Essence of Readiness

At the AFA convention, Peters used much of his address to deal with the question of readiness. He claimed the issue cannot be solely defined by statistics. In fact, said the service’s top civilian, he could, by making selective use of data that flows over his desk, “prove” either of two contradictory propositions-that the Air Force is ready or that it is not ready.

According to Peters, any meaningful discussion about readiness should go behind the numbers and start with some difficult questions: Ready for what? At what cost? And with what degree of risk

“When you do that, you’ll find an Air Force that is strong and ready to respond to the missions it is likely to be asked to carry out,” said Peters. “It is now and will continue to be the world’s premier aerospace force. Dig still deeper and you’ll find an Air Force that has shed its Cold War organization and is evolving to face the kind of threats that will dominate the new century. The undeniable truth is this: We are prepared today to fight and win against any enemy anywhere on the face of the globe.”

Inevitably, any discussion of the state of the Air Force returns to the question of spending and proper levels of Pentagon budgets. Peters went to some lengths to provide context for how and why the DoD budget got to today’s low point, which compares to the post-Vietnam and post-Korean War retrenchments.

“To understand where we are today,” he said, “I think you have to understand how we got here. As you all recall, shortly after Desert Storm, our Soviet foes practically melted before our eyes, like the wicked witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ This left us with a historic opportunity to reclaim some of the enormous budgets that fueled our defenses during the Cold War.

“The so-called peace dividend was born. President Bush, President Clinton, and successive Congresses–Democratic and Republican–all approved steep declines in defense spending in an effort to cut the massive budget deficits that were plaguing the country a mere decade ago.”

(Defense analysts can and do question Peters’s version of events. For one thing, the Soviet Union imploded in December 1991 and, by that time, DoD already had suffered through six straight years of declining budgets and was into its seventh. The Soviet collapse did accelerate the budget decline, but the record is clear that Congress forced Bush to accept defense cuts that went far deeper, far more quickly, than he wished. Finally, President Clinton significantly cut Bush’s defense program. Example: Bush’s “base force” concept called for maintaining a fleet of 26 Air Force fighter wings. The Clinton Administration lowered that number to 20 wings.)

Down by 40 Percent

Overall, the budgets for DoD and for the Air Force have dropped by about 40 percent from their Cold War height in 1985. This has had a deep and lasting effect. Active duty personnel were being offered early retirement as late as 1997, when Peters was confirmed as undersecretary of the Air Force.

The cuts were the right thing to do, but they created real turmoil, Peters told AFA. By making the reductions with voluntary retirements and discharges, the service ended up with serious personnel imbalances.

“Today in the Air Force, … we still have broken career fields [ranging] from security forces, to crew chiefs, to public affairs and pilots,” said Peters.

In the early years of the decade, pilot production was halved, to 550 new pilots per year. Because the services thought the force drawdown would provide an enormous windfall of spare parts and components, purchase of these items was scaled back dramatically. The service converted to two-level maintenance and closed two of its five big maintenance depots.

“Again, these were the right things to do conceptually, but viewed with 20/20 hindsight, there were many slips in execution,” said Peters.

Take depot closures. Such a closure requires a major effort, involving the transfer not just of hundreds of jobs but also of heavy industrial equipment and whole production lines. Indeed, the Air Force is still hundreds of people short at two depots.

“The most serious aircraft readiness problems we had last year were caused not by lack of funds but by our inability to move depot production lines on schedule,” said Peters.

While all of this was going on, the service was called upon to fly and fight over northern Iraq, southern Iraq, Bosnia, and Serbia, as well as support numerous humanitarian operations.

By the time Peters moved into the Air Force civilian hierarchy, concern was focused on three key issues: the faltering retention of skilled enlisted personnel, pilot shortages, and declining mission capable rates.

Money has gone some ways toward fixing all these problems. The Defense Department budget path has flattened out in the last few years and even turned up a bit. Service personnel received their biggest pay raise in 20 years. Retirement benefits have been returned to former levels. Bonuses of all sorts have been increased. The Air Force forged the Expeditionary Aerospace Force concept to help deal with its operations tempo problem.

Pilot Production Is Up

Pilot production has been ramped back up to about 1,100 pilots per year. This latter accomplishment was not easy. It required years to train new instructor pilots, put more training aircraft on the flight lines, and figure out how to use Guard and Reserve units to augment active duty trainers.

Some pilot training changes are still in progress. “For example, we have just opened undergraduate pilot training at Moody AFB [in Georgia], but students won’t actually start training there for about another year,” said Peters. “Before we can declare victory, we need to field the T-38C and the first units of the T-6 [Joint Primary Aircraft Training System] aircraft.”

The expenditure of an extra $2 billion for parts and repairs has helped on the mission capable front. Cannibalization rates have gone back down. Back-ordered spare parts are down by 50 percent since last year. The number of engines for which the service lacks war reserves has dropped from 11 to six. “Of the remaining six, most have never been and will never be at war-readiness levels, because we have accepted some risk,” said Peters.

Money cannot solve all these readiness problems, however–or, at least, not right away.

No matter how big the stores of spare parts, it takes trained airmen to install them, and the Air Force is experiencing a shortage of five-level maintenance workers.

“Money is not the issue; the issue is it takes time to build experience,” said Peters.

It is true that by some measures Air Force readiness is lower than it was at the end of the Cold War. In May 1991, the service’s aggregate aircraft mission capable rate was about 83 percent. Today, that figure has fallen to 73 percent, roughly the same as the rate that USAF had in the mid-1980s.

Such statistics are not always reflective of the true state of affairs. Even before budget increases began flowing last year, the Air Force managed to boost the mission capable rate of aircraft directly supporting operations in Kosovo to 90 percent or better.

As Peters sees it, the choices that lie before the next Air Force leadership will be stark.

The US could accept reduced readiness levels. It could adjust its national military strategy to one that calls for something less than the ability to fight two nearly simultaneous Major Theater Wars. It could reduce its global commitments. Or it could choose to pay more for its defense.

“We have already started down this road [of raising national defense expenditures], but I submit that we will need to do more,” said Peters. “In the end, this is an American decision, and it is also an unavoidable decision. Even if we do not make an explicit choice, we will have chosen by default to pay more for national defense while receiving less.”

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Pharmacy Benefit,” appeared in the September 2000 issue.