Critical Times For Air & Space Power

Nov. 1, 2005

One factor that distinguishes the US military from the militaries of other nations is America’s dominance of air and space. It is a capability provided primarily by the United States Air Force. Yet even as the Air Force nears the 60th anniversary of its birth as a separate and independent service, the very future of that air and space dominance is uncertain. Several challenges and trends give cause for concern.

Air Force modernization and recapitalization is urgently needed and long overdue. In fact, the “acquisition holiday” of the 1990s—a period characterized by lean-to-nonexistent weapon procurement—has persisted into the present day. The average ages of the Air Force fighter, tanker, and bomber fleets are at all-time highs. Projected buys of new systems such as the F/A-22 and F-35 continue to shrink. The ICBM fleet is aged, too, and needs updating.

Across the Air Force, dollars needed for modernization, recapitalization, and transformation are being squeezed by the cost of the nation’s global war on terrorism. This is happening even as the US military is becoming more and more expeditionary and thus more dependent on USAF’s “Global Reach/Global Power” capabilities, which will require more airlift and tanker capacity.

Additional dollars will also be needed to help pay for relief operations in connection with Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, including repairing the extensive damage done to Keesler Air Force Base. Estimates to rebuild and repair Keesler’s training facilities, medical center, and base housing could well exceed $500 million. This will add additional pressure to an already tight Air Force budget.

With budgets in turmoil, a newly formed Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment panel is looking into the overall weapons procurement process in response to Congressional concerns about program execution, cost overruns, and schedule delays. The panel is examining how to streamline and add clarity to the procurement process, yet not create unnecessary layers of oversight. The defense community will also welcome answers on how to sustain adequate long-term procurement funding.

Too Few Dollars

Despite the high stakes in the global war on terrorism, this nation is spending less to fight it than it did to prosecute World War II, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War. Also, the current practice of supplemental budgeting, which does not cover the full cost that the war imposes on the force, too often leaves the services searching for ways to trim spending in some key places to cover the shortages in others. In this scenario, Science and Technology (S&T) programs are squeezed, too, as investments in future warfighting capabilities take a backseat to current demands.

By historical standards, the burden of defense spending on the nation’s economy is light—about four percent of GDP. The frequent use of supplemental requests is fiscally irresponsible, especially in light of the fact that the global war on terrorism will continue for some time. The services cannot themselves fund these new requirements. The choice is clear—either we make a greater commitment to fighting the war or expect to achieve a less than optimal outcome.

When it comes to uniformed people, there is equal cause for concern. USAF has an authorized active duty end strength of 359,000. For several years, in order to fight the war on terrorism more effectively, the service, with Pentagon permission, stayed well above that level. In this year, however, the service drew down to the planned lower level, meaning that, though the war goes on, there will be fewer active duty airmen to fight it.

As Air Force manpower stabilizes at a lower level, it is also being reshaped to achieve a more balanced mix of skills and experience. Combine downsizing and rebalancing with the inherent uncertainty of recruiting and retention, and the difficulty in maintaining adequate force levels in the future increases.

Personnel Challenge

In addition to working through force management issues, the Air Force has been dealing with a leadership challenge. The service has lost several key civilian and uniformed leaders without receiving timely replacements. A number of positions have gone vacant for months, as the service awaited Presidential nominations and Senate confirmations. We are beginning to see progress in the filling of these key leadership positions, and we urge continued focus on this issue. Despite these shortfalls, the Air Force has excellent leadership and great people who are performing superbly in a very challenging environment.

Compared to the very high operations tempo in the early months of the war, the pace of Air Force activity has stabilized somewhat, though not across the board. Many airmen—deployed and Stateside—are working long hours. An increased reliance on Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units has caused extended call-ups in both components. As the Air Force and DOD look to implement the next round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) recommendations, the service must increase the synergy of its components if it is to deliver its full combat capability.

A major Air Force success story has been the close cooperation and integration of the active force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve into an unparalleled warfighting capability. The Air Force needs to continue to address the roles, responsibilities, and synergies of all three components, with each taking on emerging new missions such as intelligence, space, command and control, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASes), and cyber-warfare. Recognition of the vital roles of the active force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve is necessary if the Air Force is to get through the budget crisis ahead while producing maximum combat power.

The US aerospace industry has been in a crisis of its own for some time and it continues to decline. Since 2000, the industry nationally has lost more than 100,000 jobs. Also, the number of airframe manufacturers producing Air Force combat aircraft is now down to two. Mergers and consolidation in the defense industry are the result of a combination of factors, including increased costs, fewer acquisition contracts, foreign competition, and government policies.

While the number of airframe manufacturers has declined, the space industry is facing the dual challenge of fierce competition and overcapacity. In the air and space industries alike, it will be a challenge to find enough homegrown engineers, scientists, and other technically skilled workers to replace that large part of an aged workforce which is rapidly nearing retirement.

The Air Force Association believes that, taken together, these challenges could threaten the continuation of our dominance in air and space. Our Air Force must have a sufficient budget, an active leadership (civilian and military), and the right people, equipment, facilities, and training to execute its mission. We also believe we must foster a strong defense industrial base with sound federal policies and sufficient defense acquisition programs.

The Global War on Terrorism

Today, some 2.3 million brave uniformed Americans—1.4 million on active duty and another 861,000 in the Guard and Reserve—are engaged in the global war on terrorism. They are joined by approximately 650,000 Department of Defense civilians and many additional thousands of defense industry contractors who, together, conduct and support military operations on three major fronts—Afghanistan, Iraq, and the homeland.

Airmen, soldiers, sailors, marines, and coast guardsmen will do whatever we ask of them to defend the cause of freedom. Increasingly, they deploy far away from home into extreme environments and face combat conditions. In doing so they put their lives on the line, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice for the nation.

AFA unequivocally supports the men and women of the US Armed Forces who collectively perform above and beyond the call of duty. As they go about performing their duties, we are mindful that the goal of defeating worldwide terrorism is not solely a military effort. We call for a greater national commitment in resources and public support and better integration of the political, economic, and informational instruments of power in order to eliminate this threat.

Military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are making a difference and for the better. As part of a powerful joint team, airmen helped break the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom. Air and space power also played a key role in overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s corrupt regime in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

In Afghanistan, a fledgling and democratically elected government is making visible strides toward self-governance. Although major combat operations have ended, the country remains a dangerous place. A significant presence of US Special Forces and coalition forces, backed by air and space power, will be needed for some time. These forces must assist in internal security and nation building while continuing to conduct counterinsurgency operations.

AFA believes that we must stay focused on hunting down the remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda that helped plan and carry out the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It is in the US national interest that Afghanistan not revert to its former status as a safe haven for international terrorists. It is also imperative that we impress upon the new Afghan government that illegal drug trafficking is not in its interest or ours.

Iraq is presently the central front of the global war on terrorism. Long after the defeat and capture of Saddam Hussein, a violent insurgency seeks to keep the country in turmoil. US and coalition forces now conduct offensive operations while simultaneously reacting to roadside bombings and suicide attacks. Insurgents have targeted military and non-military personnel, including Iraqi citizens, most of whom are committed to pursuing democracy and rebuilding the country. The continuing violence has slowed reconstruction and taken a toll on US forces.

Two-and-a-half years into the war, the United States has suffered the loss of more than 1,900 service members and civilians killed, plus more than 14,000 wounded, many very seriously. While victory in Iraq will not be easy or cheap, it is imperative that the United States and its coalition partners see this fight through to victory so that these sacrifices will not have been in vain.

The insurgency in Iraq is complex and constantly changing. When US forces attack, the enemy disperses, adapts, and reconstitutes forces to exploit new tactics. The enemy also has many identities—sometimes foreign jihadis, at other times Sunni/Baathist factions, Shiite extremists, or Iraqi nationalists opposed to the presence of foreign forces.

Airmen and Counterinsurgency

Whatever the situation on the ground in Iraq, a joint force of approximately 135,000 US military personnel continues to adapt and fight well. Each enemy threat requires a response of precise and appropriate force. It is a tough task, but air and space power is making a difference. For example, the Air Force has taken the initiative to use airlift to move cargo and thereby reduce the reliance of coalition forces on dangerous ground convoy operations.

Approximately 30,000 airmen are now deployed to forward operating bases in support of military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a 12-month period, the Air Force flew more than a quarter of a million sorties supporting missions of close air support, airlift, air refueling, aeromedical evacuation, and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance. Battlefield airmen are providing tactical air control to help direct bombs and bullets at terrorists with sharpening accuracy. These airmen engage in the full spectrum of missions, from C4ISR to close air support to training Iraqi security forces.

In addition to battlefield airmen, the Air Force is filling for the Army more than 1,900 combat positions in 16 different combat support skills. For example, airmen now serve as vehicle operators running convoys throughout Iraq. It is a nontraditional mission for the Air Force, one that it has not performed since the Vietnam War days. Whatever the role or mission, airmen have proved that they are up to the task. AFA salutes these airmen in nontraditional roles.

Space Capabilities

Day in and day out, Air Force operators based in Nevada remotely pilot Unmanned Aircraft Systems over Iraq and Afghanistan, while space professionals here at home keep constant watch over the global battlespace.

In the 21st century, space capabilities are truly joint in nature because they serve all warfighters. Space provides for precise navigation and timing, missile warning, surveillance, space control, weather tracking, and communications. In fact, space assets are essential to all military operations and to the nation. Airmen and soldiers in the field require critical information to do their jobs and to stay ahead of the enemy.

Military space requirements and the need for larger bandwidth are projected to increase exponentially in the future. More bandwidth means more information and greater capacity to serve the intelligence community and warfighters. Consequently, new systems such as the Space Radar, Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), and the Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) must be acquired. New communication developments include laser communications, which hold considerable promise as a breakthrough technology. As a key part of TSAT, laser communications will allow DOD to vastly increase its bandwidth.

Global Commitments

As if prosecuting the global war on terrorism were not enough, thousands of dedicated airmen are deployed elsewhere in the world in response to US global commitments. More than 42,000 Air Force personnel based in Japan, South Korea, Guam, and other sites and throughout the Pacific are providing on-call combat capability to joint warfighters.

Pacific Air Forces serves to counter the threat posed by North Korea and a rapidly modernizing Chinese military. At the same time, these airmen are called upon to respond to crises. They helped deliver more than 120 tons of relief supplies to Sri Lanka and other nations devastated by the recent Indian Ocean tsunami.

On the other side of the world, more than 35,000 airmen and civilians are on duty as part of America’s long-standing North Atlantic Treaty Organization commitments. US Air Forces in Europe is as busy as ever, contrary to some predictions following the end of the Cold War. Airmen have flown more than 27,000 sorties helping to enforce the peace accords in the Balkans. In support of the global war on terrorism, they are also pulling duty on the flight lines at airfields in former Soviet bloc nations.

Stateside, Air Force personnel responded when Hurricane Katrina devastated America’s Gulf Coast. Active duty, Guard, and Reserve airmen rapidly deployed to assist with this national tragedy—by mid-September 2005, they had conducted more than 5,000 rescues, treated over 6,000 patients, and evacuated more than 27,000 people to safety.

Joint commanders know the Air Force can be counted on across the full spectrum of missions, from combat to humanitarian operations. Because the Air Force makes the whole force better, AFA believes that a strong national commitment is necessary in order to sustain these capabilities.

Air Sovereignty and Homeland Defense

On the home front, Guard, Reserve, and active duty pilots continue to fly air defense missions in Operation Noble Eagle. Fulfilling the air sovereignty mission now requires the efforts of 10,000 airmen. On any given day, they support 40 to 50 fighters, a dozen tankers, and Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft that take off, refuel, and land at bases across the US.

While Americans go about their daily lives, airmen patrol above our cities, seaports, and critical infrastructure. It is all part of a larger effort, led by the Department of Homeland Security but involving all the services, the intelligence community, other government agencies, and local law enforcement.

AFA believes that improving homeland security across the board is absolutely necessary. Specifically, the Administration and Congress must work together to fully fund the cost of the air defense mission in the Air Force budget. Additionally, we urge the President and Congress to continue to follow through with national intelligence reform to make the military mission of homeland defense more manageable. Finally, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, we must make our disaster response more agile and ensure we have the proper equipment necessary to support these missions.

The Unmet Challenge

These are especially critical times for our nation because of irrevocable decisions that will be made during the coming year. Some years ago, DOD developed a framework which, if used properly, would produce a reasonable balance of attention to both current risk and future risk. AFA believes that we must make the necessary investments today to win the global war on terrorism. At the same time, we must not allow excessive focus on near-term operational risk to mortgage the future capability of the joint force. Air and space dominance cannot be taken for granted.

In keeping with our mission, we, the members of the Air Force Association, will work actively and aggressively to educate the public about defense, advocate air and space power development, and support the total United States Air Force.

Though the American presence is small and discreet, all signs are that US forces are in the Sahara to stay. Senior American officers seem resigned to the need to operate there for the indefinite future.

The rationale is summed up clearly by Lt. Gen. Wallace C. Gregson Jr., commander of Marine Corps forces in the Pacific, which support the Marine-led JTF in Djibouti.

“Trouble comes from ungoverned places,” notes Gregson. “[The] 9/11 [attacks] showed us how a guy sitting in a cave with access to worldwide transportation and worldwide financial networks could take out the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in a single morning. It used to take nations to do that much killing.”