Washington Watch

Nov. 1, 2006

Wynne, Place, or Show

Faced with yet another round of funding cuts—this time, $12 billion over the next six fiscal years, inflicted on the service during the August long-term budgeting process—Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne indicated that USAF will just have to get more efficient, despite the fact that it has been on an efficiency and streamlining drive for more than 15 years.

Wynne, meeting with defense reporters in Washington, D.C., said in August that he’s got a diminishing number of pots from which to draw money. The big ones tend to be infrastructure, people, readiness, and programs.

However, the recent Base Realignment and Closure process—infrastructure—will actually end up costing the Air Force money, at least in the short term, because it’s expensive to close bases and move their assets elsewhere.

“It looks to us that it’s going to be a bill, rather than a savings,” Wynne reported. So, no help there.

As for readiness, “we’re at war,” Wynne said simply. “You cannot cut readiness.”

The Air Force is already trimming 40,000 full-time equivalent personnel from the service—uniformed and civilian—over the next three years, and Wynne said the bulk of those reductions will be crammed into the next fiscal year.

“I think we’ve done what you can do from the standpoint of personnel,” he said. The Air Force “really cannot continue to cut people. I think we are pretty tight where we are.”

He also noted that he was obliged to cut so many positions last year because health care and other benefits are taking an ever-larger chunk out of the Air Force budget. Such expenses represent “the place of my greatest acceleration in cost,” Wynne noted, and he made a plea for Congress not to make the job any harder.

“I’ve told my Congressional colleagues, things that they add to us—for example, reserve retirements or National Guard benefits or even retired benefits—look to them to be linear additions, but … because of the compounding nature” of health care and other benefit costs, “the additional benefits [are], to us, an acceleration, … and it comes back compounded in our budget.”

He also expressed exasperation with Congress’ unwillingness to allow USAF to retire old airplanes that are maintenance hogs providing little combat benefit to the force. (See “Under Lockdown,” September, p. 54.)

“We’re finding out that those [airplanes] are, unfortunately, prized possessions of some Congressional districts.” He said he’s made the rounds on Capitol Hill asking for “freedom to manage” the force in the most efficient manner available.

So, where to find the extra money? Wynne said the service will step up its efforts to be more efficient and streamlined. He said USAF is looking to see how much it can shift processes and activities to cyberspace and is thoroughly exploring “what that domain means to us.” He also said that the rank and file are being asked for any and all suggestions on tightening up further.

“You can make it more efficient,” he said. “Operations and maintenance … is largely driven by your cultural approach to how you do work. And we hope that we can start walking work out the door.” In other words, outsourcing.

Suggestions are also flowing in, he said. Air Force people are “very eager” to help. They “are a very responsive group.”

Avoiding the F-35 Death Spiral

The F-35 program is at a critical juncture, and tinkering with it now—cutting the number to be bought or slowing it down—would have grave consequences, Wynne said.

He specifically discounted the notion that the Air Force itself would propose reducing the F-35 buy, saying, “If we who have asked the Congress for stability” in funding of major programs “now shirk our duty to maintain stability in requirements, that would be a shame.”

Press reports had suggested that USAF was prepared to give up 72 F-35s—an entire wing—in budget discussions that took place in August.

Far from it. Wynne said the Air Force is keenly interested in “how fast can we get access to these airplanes.” He said he believes the corporate Air Force has bought in to the notion of keeping the F-35 program on schedule.

However, external threats are another matter. Wynne noted that “as programs get larger and larger, they look like better and better targets,” and the F-35 program is already expected to cost more than $250 billion.

USAF Brig. Gen. Charles R. Davis, recently selected to be the F-35 program director, told Reuters that reports of an Air Force cut in its F-35 buy were wrong, adding that such a move would defeat the service’s own need to keep the unit cost of the program low. The Air Force will be the largest buyer of F-35s, with a stated requirement for more than 1,700 of the aircraft.

Wynne argued that the F-35 “is actually working. … Everybody [acknowledges that it is] meeting its goals, it is meeting its timelines, it is meeting technology requirements.”

All such big-ticket programs represent a “triple handshake” between Congress, program managers, and industry, Wynne said, and represent a sort of “oath that says we are going to stick by you.”

If one of the partners “backs out, then the program enters the classic spiral,” in which rising costs force a cut in the production run, which raises unit costs, and so on, until the program is priced out of existence.

Wynne said Congress should be less critical of programs for going over budget and is “forgetting, conveniently,” that it was cuts from Congress that started the F-35 down the road to financial problems.

Still, there seemed to be some play in the rate at which the Air Force will acquire its F-35s. Wynne, noting that F-16s were bought in annual lots exceeding 180 aircraft a year, said he doubts the F-35 will get much above 100 per year. At that rate, it would take the Air Force more than 17 years to get all of the fighters it’s counting on.

Program officials have said that F-35 production is expected to exceed 200 aircraft per year, including those built for the Navy, Marine Corps, and foreign customers. (See “Struggling for Altitude,” September, p. 38.)

Wynne also expressed pessimism that more F-22s will be bought. He has argued fiercely for keeping the F-22 production line open, especially if there are delays—technical or political—in getting the F-35 line running. However, he said that, though “we continue to push the requirement, … we have been told, fairly straightforwardly, that everybody believes that 183 units is about what we can get.” He later added that he is a believer in “getting what you can get” and that USAF has fought off any attempts to add any extras onto the F-22 as it is now configured, focused on getting airplanes on the ramp.

However, Wynne indicated he would like to see the F-22’s radar be upgraded and to add connectivity to the aircraft that will allow all friendly forces to see what it sees.

RAND’s “Next” Air Force

The emergence of nuclear-armed enemies such as Iran and North Korea spells a sea change in how future wars will be fought, and the Air Force will have to adjust its priorities accordingly, says a new study.

Writing for RAND, analyst David A. Shlapak sees the likelihood of major combat operations against an aggressive “second- or third-rate combined arms force” as “disappearing.” The emergence of nuclear-armed nations in this category—such as North Korea and Iran—will require a different approach to warfare and some new technologies not yet available.

Nuclear-armed countries will be “much tougher” adversaries to beat, Shlapak wrote, “and their leaders will have more plausible theories of victory—or at least of avoiding defeat—than did Saddam Hussein in either 1990 or 2003.”

The analysis was one of 22 studies done to support the Air Force’s Quadrennial Defense Review proposals, according to RAND, which released the document in September.

The prospect of conflict with nations having a small arsenal of nuclear weapons will change the hierarchy of capabilities USAF needs to provide to the joint force, Shlapak asserted. Being able to locate and destroy such weapons, and defend against ballistic missile attack, will rise sharply in importance, he said. Deterring and preventing such situations will also be a priority, but deterrence against such nations is likely to be different than it was against the Soviet Union.

Shlapak argues that the Air Force will have to put the greatest emphasis on “finders”—the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance assets that provide detailed knowledge of a region and which “enable” all aspects of the joint force. The need for such systems, as well as the demand for ever-faster speed of collection, will “exceed anything in prior US experience.”

Next up would be “influencers”—training and assistance to friendly countries in order to quell regional problems before they start and to shape national perceptions of the US.

“Responders”—noncombat capabilities designed to assist other countries, exemplified by mobility forces, would be a third priority under Shlapak’s scheme. “Shooters”—those forces that actually bring force to bear—would have the last priority.

However, when force is needed, it will likely require swift action at long range, without the need for host nation support, so Shlapak suggests that intercontinental, high-speed strike assets will be a priority. He also found that long-loiter, high-firepower systems such as gunships will be important to support US support forces in other countries.

The long-range strike assets are key, Shlapak said, to dealing with no-notice, far-flung contingencies, such as if China decided to settle the Taiwan issue “in a matter of days instead of weeks or months.”

Forward overseas presence will continue to be important to US foreign policy, and Shlapak anticipates that counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and nation-assistance (CTNA) missions will be greater in number and longer term than any major combat operations USAF will be realistically obliged to undertake. For that reason, he suggests that “there may be a need to rebalance the land component of the joint force to conduct sustained CTNA operations more effectively and efficiently.”

Despite the essential role of keeping forward presence, the US may lose access to bases or support if an ally is threatened with a nuclear weapon. For that reason, the long-range strike system is considered even more crucial.

Besides ever-faster methods of spotting and tracking things that are smaller—down to the scale of a single person—the Air Force will need greater capability to rapidly defeat air defenses, quickly neutralize weapons of mass destruction, protect allies against mobile theater ballistic and cruise missiles, and provide greater training and lift capability to friendly nations, as well as fire support at need.

Shlapak suggested that the Air Force “de-emphasize” attacking massed armor, either halted or on the move; killing soft, fixed targets; fighting protracted air-to-air campaigns; or deterring massive nuclear attacks, and shift resources to the emerging and more likely missions.

“In sum, we suggest that the next Air Force might do well to have fewer fighters and more ‘gunships’ and fewer ‘shooters’ overall—but many more ‘finders.'”

Flying Hours Cut at ACC

Ballooning fuel costs are forcing Air Combat Command to make some sharp cuts in its flying hour program, hoping to keep its combat pilots proficient through the use of simulators and smarter training. Other fuel saving methods are being considered.

The moves are also expected to reduce USAF’s mishap rate and reduce the cost of maintaining an aging fleet.

An ACC spokeswoman confirmed in September that the command will reduce its flying hour budget by 10 percent every year from 2008 to 2013, which adds up to an annual reduction of $280 million from the flying hours account. She said that fuel accounts for 40 percent of ACC’s flying hour costs.

In Fiscal 2005, the command spent about $739 million on fuel, but by Sept. 19, nearing the end of Fiscal 2006, it had spent $1.12 billion. The average price of fuel in 2005 was $1.47 per gallon; in 2006, it averaged $2.22. In both years, the end-of-year price was substantially higher than it had been at budget time.

The run-up in fuel costs might have been disastrous for ACC this year, as the service spent nearly $400 million more on gas in Fiscal 2006 than it did in Fiscal 2005. In previous years, the Air Force has resorted to cutting flying hours, as well as nonessential programs, such as quality of life and building maintenance, to cover spikes in fuel costs.

However, the Air Force gave ACC a big bump up in fuel funding right after the 2005 budget process concluded, and Congressional supplemental spending bills covered the rest. As a result, no drastic cuts elsewhere in ACC were required as the fiscal year wound down. The ACC spokeswoman was not able to identify the accounts that had been reduced to provide ACC with a greater flying hour budget.

A typical fighter pilot in ACC gets about 14 flying hours a month, while bomber pilots get around eight hours a month. ACC said the reduction in flying hours spending next year will drop fighter pilots down to about 12.5 hours a month, and bomber pilots down to seven.

“Current flying hours are programmed at the minimum level to meet training requirements,” ACC said.

In Southwest Asia operations, pilots frequently get a higher number of flying hours, but “the vast majority of the extra hours has limited training value, as the time is spent transiting to and from the combat area or in orbits,” the spokeswoman noted. As hours are reduced, she said ACC will “prioritize our training for the missions we will most likely need to cover.”

High-fidelity training devices—simulators—will be used more frequently to make up the difference in flying hours. Simulator time doesn’t count the same way as live-fly hours do, but adds to proficiency. Pilots of the F-15C are already using simulators “to reduce live-fly training requirements,” and “similar initiatives are expected in other weapons systems once high-fidelity simulation is available,” the ACC spokeswoman said.

Air Force Secretary Wynne told reporters in September that if you reduce flight hours, you reduce accidents but only if the substitute simulator hours are highly realistic. He said he has been “pushing” ACC and Air Education and Training Command to “roll back on the number of flight hours,” because if you use the equipment less, you reduce the aging of the fleet, which now stands at about 24 years average age for fighters. That, in turn, will reduce the cost of operations and support. Wynne said that as the use of simulator time has increased, USAF hasn’t seen “a greater rate per hour” of accidents.

The ACC spokeswoman said the Air Force is “doing a complete review of its flying training requirements to see where efficiencies can be realized.”

The Air Force is also experimenting with alternative sources of fuel, so that fuel shortages or price spikes don’t prevent it from meeting its obligations. (See “New and Improved Yet Not Quite Perfect Fuels” in “Tomorrow’s Combat Advantages,” August, p. 51.)