The $120 Billion Cut

Nov. 1, 2006

Senior Air Force officials, addressing AFA’s Air & Space Conference in Washington, D.C., delivered a sobering message: The service must once again reinvent itself if it is to come through a new and unexpected round of funding reductions.

While those leaders said they will make the best of the situation, they suggested openly that Americans should instead be asked to spend more on their military, especially in light of the fact that there’s a war on.

“We face increasing financial challenges,” said the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, in his address to the September conference. Today’s military expenditures consume a “historically low” percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product, he went on, despite the fact that the Air Force has been “at war” continuously for 15 years.

The Air Force, Moseley asserted, is “struggling with unforeseen and unexpected demands on resources,” such as rising fuel costs, rising inflation and exchange rates, escalating health care costs, and being prevented by Congress from retiring old airplanes, which have a “staggering rising cost of ownership.”

Overall, this “erosion of buying power,” he noted, “leaves us potentially $20 billion shy of what we need … each year” of the new Fiscal 2008-13 Future Years Defense Program. In the course of those six years, the Air Force would cumulatively fall short some $120 billion, roughly the equivalent of a full year’s budget.

More Than the Marines

Meanwhile, the Air Force has not been relieved of any of its obligations to command air and space, nor to support the other services with close air support, mobility, and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance assets, or even to provide people to pick up the slack in filling Army jobs in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some 30,000 USAF personnel are deployed to the US Central Command theater—more than the Marine Corps.

In fact, most top USAF leaders at the conference pointed out that the massive effort the Air Force is making in the war and in other ways is simply not known, understood, or recognized—either elsewhere in government or by the public.

Noting that his service is beginning to cut a further 40,000 people from its uniformed and civilian ranks, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne said he can only cut the force “eight more times” at that rate before there is no more Air Force, which will be down to about 320,000 uniformed people within two years.

Those personnel cuts are being made in order to afford hardware: modernizing a force that features 44-year-old bombers and 23-year-old fighters.

“We believe it is our duty to make sure that if there is only one remaining airman, that he will have the best equipment to fight the nation’s fight,” Wynne told reporters at the conference.

However, “there comes a time when you have to say that you cannot pay your bills with personnel,” he continued. “At some point, … quantity has a quality all of its own. You cannot continue to cut the Air Force to pay bills [elsewhere]. You’re going to have to go, hat in hand, to Congress and basically tell them that we are now down to it, that there’s a strategic imperative to make sure that the Air Force has the best equipment.”

He added that “I think the Congress will pay whatever it takes, and the American [taxpayers] will also pay whatever it takes, if they feel threatened and if they feel like this is the right thing to do.”

At this year’s conference, USAF leaders for the first time were willing to discuss, at least broadly, the just-completed six-year spending forecast and upcoming budget. At previous conferences, such discussions were taboo, but this year senior USAF leaders seemed to want to get the word out early that the service is up against the wall, financially.

The Quadrennial Defense Review, completed early this year, was supposed to lay out a definitive posture for the military services that they could count on in future years, in order to promote stability of funding for projects and forces. However, in August, the services were informed that they would all have to find a further $2 billion a year in cuts over the next six years.

Wynne, in an earlier session with reporters, said that since personnel, programs, and infrastructure can hardly be cut more—and readiness is off limits because of the ongoing war—then the funds will have to come from efficiencies. (See “Washington Watch: Wynne, Place, or Show,” p. 10.) At the conference, senior leaders explained what these efficiencies would be.

Smart Operations 21

Spanning the effort is a program called Air Force Smart Operations 21, which is scrutinizing the service’s processes and organizations to find even more economical ways of operating. The program is “the guiding principle behind our quest to reduce waste and maximize efficiencies,” Wynne said in his keynote speech. Wherever possible, the goal will be to find and eliminate redundancies, use the Total Force—active duty, Guard, and Reserve, civilian and contractor—to maximum effect and rely on innovation and emerging technologies to bear the load.

Gen. Ronald E. Keys, head of Air Combat Command, explained to reporters that AFSO 21 is geared toward finding out “what the right things are to do” and to “stop doing the things that you might like to do, but aren’t essential.” The reduction of 40,000 people, Keys said, is causing some “turbulence” in the service, and the leadership is counting on AFSO 21 to bring the number of people down “in a way that we don’t break the force.”

The Air Force is intent on reducing and broadening the number of its specialty fields, Moseley said, down from 263 today to a ballpark goal of 100. This will make it easier to ensure that every airman is in the rotation pool for deployments overseas, toward making the service completely “expeditionary.”

A big chunk of the new streamlining initiative, Wynne said, will be in shifting functions to cyberspace. These functions will range from basic administrative processes all the way up to, and including, attack.

“General Moseley and I recently signed a letter calling for the development of a ‘Cyberspace Command,'” Wynne said. “In the near future, we hope to have the necessary resources and personnel in place to truly capitalize on this emerging domain.” He said more than 30,000 airmen are already engaged in cyberspace operations, “so we are eager to find the better ways to organize and the better ways to train.” The new command will be the first step in “bringing discipline” to the domain, which has such broad effects.

In Space, Too, Emphasis on Situation Awareness

It’s time for the Air Force to go back to “paying attention” to the space capabilities of other countries to the degree that it did during the Cold War, Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, head of Air Force Space Command, told AFA conference attendees.

“The space part of the Cold War was every bit as hot as any other,” Chilton said in a panel discussion. The US watched carefully every move of the Soviet Union in space, especially when that nation explored anti-satellite capabilities, Chilton noted.

“When the Soviet Union went away in the early ’90s the focus shifted off of that,” he continued. “Those programs dried up, … and I would argue, appropriately so.” However, since then, “we see an ever-increasing amount of capability by a lot of other countries around the world. And that, in my mind, puts us at … a critical point in history, another turning point.” It’s time to “take a step backwards to the late ’80s and refocus our effort on paying attention to what’s going on up in space.”

Toward that end, Chilton said, he is emphasizing space situational awareness systems, especially given that the US is now so utterly dependent on its space assets to provide navigation, communications, weather data, reachback capabilities, and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance.

His command needs to “be able to figure out who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, what’s up there, has it maneuvered, did they split off a micro-satellite, what’s their intent.” This information needs to be obtained, correlated, and pushed to air operations centers so that combatant commanders have the whole picture, Chilton said.

In a press conference, he expanded on his remarks, saying that, besides tracking systems, radars, and optical devices that comprise space situational awareness, he’ll be investing in “how we display information” for combatant commanders, so they can have space information at their fingertips.

Chilton also endorsed a new model for acquiring systems, shifting from an attempt to make huge leaps with every new system to focusing on incremental improvements that offer low risk and greater likelihood of success. That doesn’t mean AFSPC won’t “reach” for new capabilities, but the “block approach, … I think, [is] a great way to go.”

In coming to terms with the overall reduction in full-time personnel, Chilton told reporters that AFSPC’s share was about 10 percent of its force. However, he said he got relief from top leaders in making a notional 25 percent reduction in contractors, since the space mission is unique in that contractors perform “a good percentage” of the work the command does, operationally.

The Air Force should split the cost of the Space Radar with the Intelligence Community, 50-50, Chilton said, since both will use it.

“There will be a debate and, I think, a healthy discussion this fall” about the need for the Space Radar and how it should be developed, funded, and what it should do. Chilton said he’s had no feedback on the Air Force’s pitch to only fund half the program, but at the time of the conference, there was “no deal” that USAF would get relief from the whole bill.

“Cyberspace provides the capability to conduct combat on a global scale, simultaneously on a virtually infinite number of fronts,” Wynne observed. Cyber-attacks offer a chance to hit enemies without using bombs, consuming fuel, or placing aircrews in danger, potentially without “the risk of collateral damage.”

“This domain offers many unique opportunities and highlights a new and inviolate principle,” Wynne declared. “Without cyber dominance, operations in all the other domains are in fact placed at risk.”

Keys, in a press conference, said USAF has “a fairly capable cyber-warfare ability right now.” The concern, he said, was to make sure both the operational systems and the practitioners of what he called “the black arts” are properly supported, with proper career progression, training ranges, and an integrated command structure.

“Do we have a rationalized way to train, equip, operationalize cyberspace?” Keys asked. Cyberspace training ranges, USAF officials reported, are closed, simulated versions of the Internet, populated with mock entities like eBay and Google, where USAF operators can practice defending against hacking attacks and also practice penetrating other systems.

Greater Dependence

Another way to get more fighting power out of the same—or fewer—dollars is to emphasize interdependent operations with the other services and with allies, Wynne said. In the future, international partnering will be “the norm” and interdependence “will define how we fight.” Services and allies alike will be linked in networks, where “every sensor will be a shooter, and every shooter will be a sensor, linked across all domains.” This will require that the services depend on each other to get some things done, and it will require “mutual respect for each other’s capabilities. … We depend on others to succeed—and they on us.”

It will be the Air Force’s job, he said, to “set the strategic and tactical conditions that will assure victory.” It will do so by continuing to offer control of the air and space, ISR, and cyberspace. However, the joint, interdependent model is “the next step of the evolutionary process,” Wynne asserted.

In order to fulfill its part of the task, Wynne said it’s essential to build out the F-22 and F-35 fleets.

“It is imperative that we continue to locate, identify, and be able to target our enemies anywhere on the globe at a moment’s notice,” against “the proliferation of fourth-plus generation aircraft” and modern air defense systems that can block access to the places the US must go, Wynne asserted.

“We cannot even consider ceding air dominance to any other nation,” he insisted.

Moreover, the F-22 and F-35, by virtue of their network-centric features, will feed the global information grid with real-time information about the battlefield that will make all participants more effective. The F-35, because it will also be used by allies, will have a multiplier effect in joint and coalition warfare, he said. The two aircraft will “provide air dominance … for decades to come.”

The F-35, Moseley said, is a key USAF program, and the service is not backing off its requirement for 1,763 of the fighters. Besides filling out USAF squadrons with new aircraft to replace aging F-16s, Moseley said the F-35 will be the “gold standard” of fighters and warned that if the US doesn’t offer allies such an airplane, they have “opportunities” to buy advanced fighters elsewhere.

He also told reporters in a press conference that he has rejected any consideration of buying more F-15s or F-16s, even of advanced types, if there are delays in the F-35. If the Joint Strike Fighter is slowed, the stated plan is to buy more F-22s. “There’s no incentive to go back and look at a fourth generation system, while we have a fifth generation line open,” he maintained.

Congress’ Death Grip

Wynne and the rest of the leadership also voiced their hope that Congress will relax its objections to the retirement of many old aircraft, the upkeep of which is ravaging operations and maintenance accounts.

He claimed some success already, saying, “As it stands now, we can retire about two-thirds of what we requested for Fiscal Year ’07.” However, “we … are still not where we want to be. … We must do better.” Airmen, he said, “deserve the best equipment we can possibly provide them,” and the costs of maintaining old equipment past the point where it is cost-effective to do so is squandering a chance to buy or modernize the force.

Congress added 10 C-17s to the Air Force’s budget request for 2007, three more than were listed on USAF’s “unfunded priorities” list. Wynne said he sees the move as “a very positive first step” in recognizing the need to recapitalize. However, he later told reporters that, given his druthers, he would have applied the money to buying aerial tankers.

Yet another area where the Air Force hopes to streamline and obtain the same capability with less funds and personnel is unmanned aerial vehicles.

“We are very pleased that the UAV is really becoming a very popular asset,” Wynne said in a press conference. “Now, it’s a question of quantity having a quality all its own,” meaning that expanding squadrons of UAVs will soon provide an even greater payoff.

Air Force and industry officials described future operations in which small teams of operators will monitor multiple UAVs simultaneously. They also said the simpler versions of UAVs offer low-cost eyes over the battlefield compared with manned aircraft. UAVs can also be widely distributed to broaden overall awareness of what’s going on in the battlespace.

Moseley said the Air Force will continue to buy both MQ-1 Predators and the more powerful MQ-9 Reaper, which can carry more ordnance and stay aloft longer. The basic Predators have a big role to play in fleshing out Air National Guard UAV squadrons, in training, and in expanding the use and understanding of the system, he said. He’s also looking forward to deploying Predator “some place besides Central Command.” He said he expects to send UAVs to Europe and Korea in the near future. He also noted that USAF is working out arrangements with the Federal Aviation Administration to allow UAVs to operate in civil airspace, so they can help out in natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Not Hollow

For the future, service leaders touted several big new-start programs. Chief among these is the long-range strike platform, which the QDR specified must be ready for initial service by 2018. Keys reported that he was told to put “a hell of a lot of money in my budget” for the LRS system. Keys added, “This is not a hollow program.”

Still, the task isn’t easy. “In order to make 2018, you pretty much have to use the far end of the technology you already have your hands on,” Keys observed. A follow-on system in the 2030-40 period, he said, will use hypersonics, directed energy, and other advanced technologies.

However, Keys stressed that any new system will have to earn its way into his force—and not by making incremental improvements. Right now, he said, with today’s bomber force, ACC can provide the joint force commander with a loitering system that can hit a target within just a few minutes. A hypersonic system might be able to better that by two or three minutes, but at great development and procurement cost—and fleeting targets might still get away.

“Am I willing to pay ‘X’ billions of dollars for a hypersonic weapon that doesn’t solve my problem?” Keys said.

His point was that USAF will have to apply acid tests to any new system and only buy what is absolutely needed if the force is to remain viable.

“I’m at a point when I can barely pay for meat and potatoes, and dessert may not be on the table.”

However, Wynne said hypersonics and all such futuristic hardware are areas where “I want the Air Force to lean forward … to keep us well in front of all the technologies in the world.”

The new Air Force aerial tanker should get under way soon; Wynne reported that he expects to award a contract for the system—one airframe type—next summer. Although he didn’t completely rule out a two-supplier tanker program, and “we are fully committed to an open and fair competition,” the Air Force would rather not set up more than one new logistics train to support the mission area; it already has “three different tankers out there today.”

The tanker, Moseley said, is “a high priority,” if not the highest. The tanker represents “a single-point failure for everything you do—global strike, global ISR, air bridges, global mobility.”

Space programs, Wynne reported, “are on track for a bright future.” The Air Force has restructured its method of acquiring space systems into four “interactive” stages, Wynne noted. They are “science, technology, systems development, and systems production.” Under the new scheme, mature technologies will be emphasized, rather than “overly ambitious” solutions to ISR requirements. He hopes to “field capabilities sooner” than has been the case in the last decade.

Space systems will be augmented by air-breathing systems such as airships and UAVs, Wynne said, to achieve integration “between space and ground, space and cyberspace and beyond, when we need it.”

In the Air Force, Moseley outlined, “we’re shaping ourselves into a fundamentally different service than we have in the past. Over the next 10 years, we’ll have 10 percent fewer fighters [and] about five percent fewer airlift platforms.” However, “we will have 20 percent more combat rescue, 30 percent more long-range strike, 10 percent more tankers, five percent more new trainers, considerably more SOF,” or special operations forces, “and nearly 20 percent more ISR platforms, to include 100 percent more new unmanned aerial vehicles.”

He concluded his remarks by asserting that “I believe this Air Force of ours is better now than we have ever been; it’s more capable of responding more quickly to a wider range of threats; it’s more lethal than it’s ever been.”

The Air Force, he said, has “become something truly amazing. … We have balanced new horizons ahead of us.”