The Future Is on the Line

Nov. 1, 2007

Today USAF is confronting problems on a scale rarely, if ever, seen since it was officially established on Sept. 18, 1947. The depth of concern about this state of affairs was evident in somber addresses and presentations of senior service leaders who appeared at the Air Force Association’s annual Air & Space Conference Sept. 24-26 in Washington, D.C.

In these presentations, one top Air Force official after another called unusually strong attention to a list of roadblocks threatening the service’s future health. They go well beyond the fact that USAF has been in a shooting war for 17 years.

First, they noted, the Air Force can’t seem to keep vital aircraft modernization on track for more than a few months at a time. The service is bedeviled not only by a funds shortage but also by snarls of legal red tape generated by industry protests and legal challenges. Meanwhile, the average age of aircraft—at present, 24 years—continues to rise.

Equally troubling is Congress’ continuing refusal to let USAF manage its own aircraft inventory in a way suited to getting the most capability for the least expense. Lawmakers have for years banned retirement of hundreds of old and cantankerous aircraft. Such moves have protected jobs in home districts, but maintenance costs have soared.

The Army and Marine Corps are set to grow substantially, creating new demands on USAF which are as yet unspecified but are sure to be great. Even so, the Air Force is having trouble reclaiming more than 5,000 airmen diverted from their “core” Air Force tasks to “ground force taskings” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

On the political front, Air Force leaders say, the benefits of airpower are largely “assumed” by Washington policy-makers, who seem to lack all conviction about the need periodically to renew this national resource.

Short. Very Short.

Compounding all of these problems is a chronic lack of funding needed to equip the force with modern aircraft and other weapons, recruit and retain high-quality airmen, and train and supply these forces to a high degree of readiness. Officials said the Air Force program is short by $20 billion a year. The Air Force’s recent plan—that is, cut thousands of troops to free up money for equipment—has come a cropper. Savings have largely vanished into higher fuel costs and other expenses.

Speakers at the AFA conference insisted that the service possesses a plan to meet its future needs. However, these leaders were unanimous on one key point: Many of the threats of future Air Force health are beyond the service’s powers to control or even influence. If the service is going to prepare itself for the future, it will need outside help—and soon.

This point was hammered home by Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne. Observers, Wynne noted, need look no further than the Global War on Terror to see how airpower can be taken for granted. He pointed out that, in Iraq and Afghanistan, forces on the ground are taking the bulk of the casualties and consequently gaining the lion’s share of national attention, but the nation should ponder for a moment what the war might be like without air dominance.

“If you wonder why not being attacked from the air is important, … you can ask the Taliban,” said Wynne. “They know what happens when you lose control of the air.”

Wynne was referring to the devastating late 2001 air effort that decimated regular Taliban forces in Afghanistan in just a few weeks.

Bluntly put, the war would be much uglier—and deadlier—without the Air Force. Air strikes can precisely destroy targets without putting soldiers at risk. Hundreds of lives are being saved by airlifting supplies so that trucks are not exposed to improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But there is something the Air Force is doing “potentially even more important” to the war than delivering bombs. USAF is preventing the enemy from massing, Wynne said.

“I guarantee you that if airpower were not there, it would be an entirely different war.” Instead of taking on groups of 10 or 20 enemies that employ hit-and-run tactics, land forces would instead be battling groups numbering hundreds or thousands. With the Air Force controlling the skies, however, large enemy formations would be quickly spotted and wiped out.

With air dominance, a “fair fight” on the ground only comes about through poor planning, Wynne said. “It means the air operations center was not alerted, and it probably means airpower was not called in in a timely fashion.”

The Air Force needs to defend this advantage, but its modernization plans take years to develop. The War on Terror is not being fought with the F-22 or the F-35, noted Gen. Ronald E. Keys, then commander of Air Combat Command—it is being fought with the F-15s and F-16s USAF invested in some 30 years ago.

Similar investment is needed now to meet the threats the nation will meet in future decades.

“The argument always devolves into, ‘Should you have P-51s or should you have F-22s.’ That’s the wrong argument,” said Keys.

“You need the right tools,” added Moseley.

Every airman should be able to go into combat with the assumption that his aircraft will be able to dominate the enemy “in short order,” said Wynne. “I’m saying in the most direct way I can: Invest today or we risk not being able to dominate the air or the ground in the decades to come.”

Ready or Not

Moseley offered a recent event to illustrate what happens when recapitalization lags. An Air Force Special Operations Command Pave Low helicopter was destroyed in a hard landing in Florida Sept. 7. Two airmen received non-life-threatening injuries.

Six MH-53s have been lost to accidents, and the rest average 11,000 flying hours—an enormous number for a helicopter as large and heavily used as the Pave Low. There is a good chance that “the last MH-53 sortie will actually be flown in combat,” which Moseley said would be “a fitting final mission.”

The much-delayed CV-22 Osprey will be assuming parts of the mission currently performed by the MH-53. But the CV-22 is not yet operational, partly because so few are available. Therefore, Moseley said, USAF is considering deploying CV-22s to the war zone before they are technically considered operational.

The Air Force is actually fortunate in the case of the MH-53—a successor aircraft is in the pipeline and the service is free to retire the elderly airframes. This is not the case with much of USAF’s inventory, as a variety of Congressional restrictions force the service to keep hundreds of C-130s, B-52s, C-5s, and other aircraft in the active fleet. This is an enormous financial drain and forces the sustainment of aircraft that perform missions the Air Force feels can be better performed by newer systems.

“I fear that the MH-53 story … will only repeat itself with increasing frequency as this inventory continues to age,” said Moseley. Old aircraft are “harder and more expensive to maintain” and they are “significantly less combat-capable” than the new systems, he said.

“Give us the freedom to manage our inventory and lift the restrictions on retirements,” Moseley said in a meeting with reporters. This is but one place in which the service is looking to reduce or adjust its spending.

The service is also getting hammered by fuel prices. Each $10 increase in the cost of a barrel of oil drains the Air Force’s topline by $665 million. Air Force Materiel Command is leading a hard push toward alternative fuels for this reason.

AFMC has “had some success using process improvements to increase aircraft availability, so the next target is cost savings,” said Gen. Bruce Carlson, AFMC commander.

“We’ve simply got to find a way to bring down cost, so we can contribute to the huge aircraft and weapons system recapitalization problem we have in the Air Force,” Carlson said.

The Air Force needs to balance capacity and capability, said Lt. Gen. Raymond E. Johns Jr., USAF’s deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs, (A8) on the Air Staff. For example, a given amount of money could buy a fleet of F-86s or a single F-22.

The F-86s would offer a lot of capacity, but little relevant capability. That is of “very little use,” Johns said. Alternately, one F-22 would offer “phenomenal capability, but no capacity.”

A combination is needed, which is why the Air Force is pursuing both the Raptor and the lower cost F-35—which will still offer capabilities not present in today’s legacy fighters.

USAF has actually cut flying hours to pay operations bills, and the cuts appear to have gone too far. “It turns out that over a period of time, we’ve … degraded some aircrews’ ability to drop live weapons,” said Johns.

The Air Force needs to get those flying hours back up in 2009 and 2010 because there is a “wow factor” the first time a pilot feels a live weapon come off the rail, he said. In the real world, “we don’t have time for a ‘wow factor.'”

Severe Disconnects

The Air Force is looking for creative ways to save money partly because the much-touted plan to cut 40,000 airmen as a way to free up funds for modernization has largely been a bust. In fact, depending upon how the ongoing expansion of the Army and Marine Corps plays out, USAF may need to raise its end strength once again. It may need to include hundreds or thousands more airmen with ground force units.

Thousands of airmen are also tied up performing in-lieu-of taskings for the ground components—jobs such as interrogator and combat convoy driver that do not have Air Force equivalents. This created its own strains.

“About 18 months ago, … we became aware of some severe disconnects with the way the in-lieu-of training was happening,” said Gen. William R. Looney III, head of Air Education and Training Command.

The Air Force needed a better grip on what its airmen were being tasked to do, where they were headed, and whether they were getting the proper training. The predeployment and assignment problems have largely been fixed, Looney said, but USAF is now working under the general assumption that “’in-lieu-of’ tasking is not going to go away.”

Total Force

The Air Force’s reserve components seem to have emerged from their recently turbulent days in solid shape. They are actively supporting combat operations worldwide, recruiting and retention numbers are near targets, and the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command are moving full force into new, enduring mission sets.

ANG chief Lt. Gen. Craig R. McKinley illustrated how the Air Guard will be transforming in the upcoming years. In 2006, 44 percent of the ANG was dedicated to flying, 40 percent to expeditionary combat support missions, and six percent was in new Total Force Integration missions—such as unmanned aerial vehicle operations.

By 2025, the ratios will shift as the Guard continues to reorganize and retire old fighter aircraft. The projection is that 36 percent of the Air Guardsmen will be flying, with 33 percent in ECS missions, and 18 percent performing new TFI operations by then.

The command is falling about one percent short of its end strength goals, but McKinley seemed less than concerned. The target is 107,000 Air Guardsmen, and the component had 105,892 airmen on its rolls. The Guard will not lower its standards just to fill out a few more positions, McKinley said.

In the Air Force Reserve, the command has been an active part of the War on Terror for years, and is no longer a strategic reserve.

Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, AFRC chief, said 61 percent of Reservists have mobilized for the War on Terror. For example, one fighter squadron deployed four times in six years—a frequency Bradley described as “reasonable.”

Recruiting and retention are solid in AFRC, said Bradley. The command does not feel that its airmen are getting burned out. “Volunteerism” remains high, and Bradley said he is likely to lose more personnel because of Base Realignment and Closure actions than because of dissatisfaction resulting from overwork.

The service is an average of $20 billion a year short of its funding requirements, and cannot afford to cut any more airmen. Johns said the Air Force will be unable to meet its Quadrennial Defense Review-mandated goal of organizing around 86 combat wing equivalents without a cash infusion, beginning with $9 billion in Fiscal 2009, increasing to about $28 billion in the out-years. Current budgets will leave the service with 78 combat wing equivalents, he said—eight short of the projected requirements.

The service’s modernization programs have been on rocky ground. A look at USAF’s top five modernization priorities shows the struggles the service is in.

At the top of the list is the need for the next generation KC-X tanker, a program that has been delayed for years after a variety of snafus and controversies. Now, said Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, the new head of Air Mobility Command, an easy-to-imagine scenario could result in the Air Force flying Eisenhower-era KC-135s until 2082. All it would take is an industry protest and a reduced buy, ordered by Congress. The service expects to pick the winner of the KC-X competition early next year.

Second on USAF’s priority list is the next generation combat search and rescue helicopter, CSAR-X. The service awarded this program to Boeing’s HH-47 a year ago, but the other competitors contested the decision, and USAF has reluctantly decided to reopen the competition. In the meantime, the old HH-60s currently called on to recover downed airmen inch closer to a forced retirement.

Space systems recapitalization is third on USAF’s priority list. Here the programs do appear to be coming along as planned, though the recent Chinese anti-satellite shot has shown that space assets are more vulnerable than ever before.

Fourth on USAF’s list is the F-35 fighter, which will likely become a target for Congressional, Defense Department, and Air Force cost-cutters once the program ramps up and annual acquisition costs begin to increase.

Finally comes the “2018 bomber,” which Carlson said will probably have to be fielded through a block approach if the aggressive in-service target date is going to be met. Keys said the full-up version of this bomber will likely be “the C model.”

The Future of C-17s

The modernization difficulties don’t end there, however. In late September, the Joint Cargo Aircraft program was still held up in protest after the initial contract was awarded to the C-27J team, led by L-3 Communications. The protest was later resolved in L-3’s favor.

Strategic lift is in a quandary as well, after the Air Force declared that the C-5’s Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program had gone way over budget. Cost estimates have ranged from $8.8 billion to $17 billion for the 111-aircraft RERP, which is supposed to deliver a 10 percent increase in reliability.

Wynne noted in a meeting with reporters that if the higher cost estimates turn out to be correct, C-5 RERP would have the same net result as buying 11 very expensive new airlifters.

The uncertainty also affects the C-17 line, which is still in production, but perhaps not for much longer. The Air Force has a validated need for 292 strategic airlifters—either C-17 Globemaster IIIs or modernized C-5s.

USAF has expressed an interest in retiring 30 of the oldest Galaxys and buying a like number of C-17s, but is currently barred from retiring the C-5s and does not want to spend money on Globemasters that could be spent on new tankers. By press time, the future mobility strategy was far from clear.

The way ahead for military space has become clear, however, thanks to China’s recent ASAT test that destroyed a decommissioned Chinese satellite. This action, which Gen. Kevin P. Chilton described as “irresponsible,” also provided some clarity for Air Force space priorities.

Even more than air superiority, the ability to dominate space is “not guaranteed,” said Wynne. “It is not a birthright.” He said, “If they destroyed one of theirs, they can probably destroy one of ours.”

The test was a “wake up call” announcing that America’s military space systems are not safe, Chilton said, adding: “Now we know clearly where we need to invest our dollars.” What is needed is better space situational awareness. “The last thing we need is [to deal with] more debris up there.”

The Air Force has no shortage of newly contested domains. Cyberspace is another. “The new American way of war has become virtually dependent upon cyberspace,” Wynne observed. “Virtually all of our information and reconnaissance communications flow through this domain,” as do the links for aircraft and precision weapons guidance.

The provisional Cyber Command will defend this domain. “The age of cyber warfare is here,” said Wynne. The Air Force’s cyber troops need “a warrior look,” he added, because “our opponents are already committed” to war in the electronic domain.

Cyber Operations Real and Now

Wynne announced at the conference that Maj. Gen. William T. Lord would lead the provisional Cyber Command at Barksdale AFB, La. (The permanent home for the command was still to be determined.)

Lord, who has spent much of his career as a military communications systems officer, has been serving as director of Air Force cyberspace transformation and strategy at the Pentagon.

Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., commander of 8th Air Force, said cyber operations are not an abstraction; they are a real part of Air Force operations today. He said current cyber missions include countering remotely controlled IEDs in Iraq; conducting electronic warfare from air and ground platforms; defeating terrorists’ use of the Global Positioning System and satellite communications; and preventing radar and navigational jamming.

“We are being attacked in the cyber domain all the time,” Elder said. “This is not something we will do next year or the year after that. This is stuff we’re doing now.”

One by-product of 17 years at war is that there are now airmen who were lieutenants when Operation Desert Shield began in 1990 and who are now “arriving at the end of a 20-year career, never having been in a service that was not at war,” Wynne said. With no end to the war in sight, the Air Force faces a tough road ahead in its effort to posture itself for the next 17 years.