Managing a Drawdown … and a War

Nov. 1, 2011

Deep budget cuts are coming that will reshape the Air Force into a significantly smaller service. The force will still be able to carry out its core missions, but with less capacity to conduct multiple big operations in close succession, USAF leaders said in September. The Air Force leadership promised to prevent the downsized force from becoming “hollow” and pledged to fight for a few modernization programs key to the Air Force’s long-term utility.

Speaking at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference in National Harbor, Md., officials said big changes are coming to the service even if only planned spending levels are enacted. Should there be an impasse over deficit reduction in Congress, far more profound and destructive cuts will be inevitable.

In his keynote speech, Secretary Michael B. Donley said, “We will need to accept greater risk in some areas, terminate some lower priority programs, streamline others, continue driving efficiency in our operations, and make some tough choices about the core tenets of our national security strategy.”

Maj. Scott McLaren ferries an Air Force variant F-35 from Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Tex., facility to Edwards AFB, Calif. (Lockheed Martin photo)

He later told reporters there is also “pressure on the current size of the Air Force.” The current end strength of 332,000, he said, will be “very difficult to hold … going forward.”

Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz told reporters that even though the US is winding down its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, “we’re not going back to pre-9/11 force structures, and nowhere close to it.”

But despite frequent claims of booming budgets, funding for core Air Force missions has actually declined substantially from Cold War peaks. Air Force Undersecretary Erin C. Conaton noted that budget variations have not affected the services equally, and USAF has seen significant reductions.

RAND Corp., she said, reviewed the Pentagon’s budgets since 1948 and found that “while funding for the entire Department of Defense is about 30 percent higher than at the 1985 Cold War peak [not adjusted for inflation], this historic high has not translated equally across the services. The Army is 63 percent above its 1985 level; the Navy is down four percent,” Conaton said, but the “Blue” Air Force—not including pass-through funding to other agencies—”is down 20 percent.”

Both Donley and Schwartz said a hurried strategic review that began during the summer’s debt limit crisis is still under way, but has so far identified no core mission the Air Force can simply cease to perform. Therefore, the two have been searching for an approach that would balance personnel, force structure, readiness, and modernization. They said they have opted for a force that can still do all the important missions, but not with the same capacity or speed.

“We [must] prepare ourselves, at whatever size we are, to be able to effectively deter aggression” or threats to the national interest, Schwartz said. However, he stressed the new force, “at least at the levels I have seen, will be able to continue to do that.”

The funds simply won’t permit a scaled-down version of “business as usual,” though.

Among the trade-offs, Donley said in his speech, are “how fast you can respond” to certain contingencies, how many operations the Air Force will be able to conduct at once, and how much time the service will need to reset between operations.

“What we are talking about here is capacity,” Schwartz said in a press conference. To cover the basic requirements, that means “probably being less able to be in multiple places simultaneously. So, simultaneity will be more of a challenge for us, as well as our ability to do things in rapid succession.”

Donley identified the programs or mission areas that USAF has sought to “safeguard” as the F-35 fighter, the KC-46 aerial tanker, the nuclear triad, a new penetrating bomber, certain space capabilities, support to special operations forces, and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance projects.

An artist’s concept of a future bomber approaching a tanker for refueling. (Illustration by Erik Simonsen)

The F-35 Must Succeed

The Air Force submitted its budget plans to top defense leaders for review in mid-September, so Schwartz and Donley were unable to answer any specific questions about where cuts will be made, given that the plans had not yet been made final.

However, by identifying the programs they would labor to preserve, the two leaders by omission may have identified programs that will not be protected. Noteworthy among the ones not mentioned were the T-X trainer the Air Force wants as a T-38 replacement and the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform, a project to replace Vietnam-era UH-1 helicopters. Donley said a new Presidential support aircraft—a replacement for Air Force One—is among a number that are considered modernization “challenges.”

Donley insisted that USAF must “avoid a hollow force. If it is too small, we could unintentionally drive some mission areas and career fields to unsustainably low levels, lose the flexibility to accommodate new or evolving missions, or risk our ability to sustain expeditionary operations.”

The F-35, Donley said, “must succeed,” and Schwartz insisted, “There is no alternative” to the fighter.

Schwartz hinted to reporters in a press conference that the overall F-35 buy might come down, saying it will be acquired “at some appropriate level.” However, he noted that the F-35A model, which the Air Force is buying, is progressing well and has achieved “a reasonable amount” of “maturity” to enter series production. It is, he said in his speech, “the lowest-cost, lowest-risk variant” of the three being built for the US armed forces.

There will be continued pressure on Lockheed Martin to keep costs in line and on the Air Force to manage the program well, Schwartz noted, but he rated it as a top modernization priority.

Because there have been delays in buying the F-35, Schwartz confirmed that there will be structural and capability enhancements to the existing fleet of fighters. However, he weighed in against buying any new fourth generation fighters, noting that they “lack modern stealth technology and integrated avionics and will become increasingly less capable and useful against burgeoning adversary anti-access and area-denial strategies.”

The F-35, he asserted, must be put into steady production as soon as possible, though not “at any cost.” He expects it will overcome its difficulties and become a stellar performer.

Success in getting the KC-46 on contract without a protest is clear evidence that the Air Force has achieved “a notable restoration of effective control and oversight” of the acquisition process, Schwartz asserted, saying the Air Force can be trusted to fulfill major programs effectively.

However, “amidst prolonged budgetary pressures, future development efforts will have to be less ambitious,” he told attendees. “We cannot assume the kind of risk that past acquisition strategies have incorporated in their development plans.” Programs that tend to suffer cost increases and schedule delays are typically those that enter development before they’re mature enough to do so. As a result, the Air Force will rely for the near future on technologies that are low-risk, and only as cutting-edge as absolutely necessary.

In this Boeing photo illustration, a KC-46 refuels an F-15. Aerial refueling is a mission area that USAF has sought to “safeguard” from Pentagon budget upheavals.

“We must … be ruthlessly honest and disciplined when operational requirements allow for more modest and less-exquisite, higher-confidence production programs,” he said. The Air Force “cannot afford to advance unproven technologies” from the science and technology world into programs “when no genuine operational requirements demand it.” The Air Force must “discern between what we truly require and what we merely desire.”

In the ISR field, Schwartz said there are “multiple good ideas” for new sensors and collection techniques, but there won’t be money enough to pursue all, or even most, of them.

“We are going to have to narrow down and distill that inventory of good ideas to the things we really want to pursue,” he told reporters.

However, he hinted that USAF’s marching orders to field 65 orbits of remotely piloted aircraft by 2013 could go “higher as mandated.”

Schwartz and Donley said a new penetrating bomber is one of the top needs of the service. Schwartz said the aircraft is necessary to fill in behind today’s already-old bombers so that the ability to strike targets worldwide will be preserved without a break.

The procurement picture has caused concern in industry, and a reporter asked Schwartz if the Air Force might pay certain companies to keep design teams together during the expected long spells between new programs. “I don’t see that in the cards,” he replied, although USAF’s new bomber program will keep combat aircraft design talent alive in the near future.

Nevertheless, Schwartz called the industrial situation a “strategic concern.” He said the Pentagon and Congress “have to keep in mind what are those segments of the industry which are truly precious” and not easily reconstituted “if you allow them to attrit.”

Fred Downey of the Aerospace Industries Association, in a panel on the health of the industry, said the country must adopt an industrial policy to ensure critical capabilities do not atrophy.

“We’re not well-postured” for the reductions facing the armed services, Downey said. “We have to … know where we’re going, what forces we want, and how we want to implement that.”

Obligations to Those Who Serve

An industrial policy would be welcome if only to get in sync the imbalanced cycles of defense procurement, according to Neil G. Kacena of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. Kacena said weapon systems now have a life of as much as 81 years, but the procurement process takes 18 years and technology turnover happens about every 18 months. Meanwhile, he said, “national strategy … has been changing every one-to-eight years.”

Donley: We will accept greater risk. (Photos by Chuck Fazio)

Donley said, “Everything needs to be on the table” in budget deliberations yet to come, but he insisted the USAF leadership will “not break faith” with airmen and their families. Schwartz suggested changes are coming to the Pentagon’s retirement system, noting that personnel costs have risen 65 percent since 1985, “even though active duty end strength has fallen by 45 percent.” The situation, he said, is “not sustainable.” He suggested that “something contributory and more portable” will take the place of the current retirement system.

“Our obligation to those who serve is to ensure that the compensation and benefits they earn are sustainable for the Air Force over the long haul,” Donley asserted.

So what are the unprotected budget areas?

The T-X may be one program that can be safely deferred.

Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., head of Air Education and Training Command, said he is confident the T-38 can be flown safely “into the foreseeable future” without any restraints on its flight profile.

“We are not running out of structural life” on the T-38, Rice told reporters.

He said his command will also save money by doing more with simulation, though he resists the idea of reducing flying hours much more than they have already been cut.

Donley told the audience, “We must maintain the nuclear triad.” As the US nuclear arsenal gets smaller, he said, “and the number and diversity of nuclear-armed powers increases, the flexibility inherent in our nuclear triad becomes even more important.” He did not say if the size of the nuclear bomber or missile forces will be reduced, however.

The Air Force will try to mitigate the risk of being smaller and having less capacity by developing more interdependent partnerships with the other services—such as with the Navy under the AirSea Battle construct—and with other nations’ air arms, Schwartz said.

NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr., for example, told reporters he will allow the armed services to have a say in requirements for NASA’s new rocket, but will not ask them for development money. By increasing the number of users, Bolden said, the rocket will be built in greater numbers, and that will lower its cost.

Conaton said USAF’s civilian workforce will be hard hit by the new austerity thrust.

The Pentagon’s decision in 2010 “to limit growth in the civilian workforce beyond [Fiscal] 2010 levels” means Air Force plans to add 21,500 people by 2017 were truncated. “Growth was limited to approximately 4,000,” Conaton said. The expanded civilian workforce was meant to restore acquisition expertise and free up more uniformed people for field missions.

Space programs are coming in for their share of austerity, Conaton said, and she noted a number of initiatives—such as “should-cost” contract negotiations—that will help reduce the cost of space and satellite programs, which consume about 20 percent of the Air Force’s budget.

Gen. William M. Fraser III—in September between the jobs of Air Combat Command chief and head of US Transportation Command—said the Air Force must now be more blunt about missions it cannot carry out.

Schwartz: “There is no alternative” to the F-35. (Photos by Chuck Fazio)

“We’ve got to learn to start saying, ‘No. Enough’s enough,’ ” Fraser said. If the Air Force cannot learn to be honest in saying there are some missions it simply is not equipped to do, “we’ll break the force,” Fraser asserted. The service can mitigate such situations by partnering with industry to learn more efficient “best practices” that can economize on manpower and expenses, he said.

Another area where the Air Force can save some money is in the realm of cooperative engagements with other countries, US Air Forces in Europe chief Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said.

“We can take a hard look at” activities that fall under building partnership capacity, Welsh said. “We do an awful lot of work in that area. … I think we do too much, so I think that’s a place we can reduce.” He said the Air Force engages in too many activities with emerging air forces and “not enough with near-peer” air arms. However, Welsh said that training and missile defense are areas that should be off-limits to cuts, and he also pitched for continued funding of forward presence, in the form of overseas bases.

Speaking with reporters, Schwartz summed up that the Air Force “will be smaller, but it’s going to be a high-quality, superb, well-trained, highly motivated, and able” service.

He took a moment near the end of the conference to reassure the audience that, despite the gloomy forecast of reduced force structure and program austerity, “this is not a time to despair.”

“We’re still going to be a $100 billion Air Force, and we can do a hell of a lot with that.”

The Value—and Cost—Of an All-Volunteer Force

Enlisted airmen across the country want to know how the dire fiscal environment is going to affect their retirement and other military benefits, said CMSAF James A. Roy at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference, Sept. 21. While senior leaders maintain that everything truly is on the table as they look to cut billions of dollars from the Pentagon’s budget, they also say they don’t want to break faith with the all-volunteer force.

That likely means grandfathering benefits received by today’s airmen, while changing benefits for future airmen.

“In the tenure that I’ve been in our Air Force, the personnel costs have risen over 65 percent while the end strength continues to come down well over 45 percent,” said Roy. “There’s something different there, something going on, and it’s something we need to address.”

Virtually every member sitting on a command chief’s panel conducted at the conference agreed that the bleak budgetary forecast is the biggest challenge faced by their command; however, they urged airmen to trust in their leadership to get them through the turbulence.

“This is not the first time that the Air Force has faced difficult times. It’s probably not going to be the last time,” said CMSgt. Pat Battenberg, command chief for the Air Force District of Washington. “We can’t use the mantra do less with less. We know that’s not true. I think if you revert back to good leadership, … we’ll make the right decisions at the right times and we’ll get through this situation just like we’ve gotten through every other situation.”

Looming budget cuts also will mean changes to force structure. For example, Air Force leaders will examine a new air and space expeditionary force, known as AEF Next, at the upcoming Corona senior leaders session. AEF Next will push airmen into airpower teams, said Roy. If approved, the new plan will mean airmen, their leadership, their unit, and equipment will deploy together as one comprehensive package rather than as individuals.

The goal is to ensure the most experienced personnel remain assigned to units preparing to deploy and that the Air Force will be better equipped to support global combatant commanders, said Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz during his address at the conference.

“We also will ensure that these teams are appropriately sized across 28 specific air, space, and cyber capabilities,” said Schwartz. “The ultimate goal with this proposal is to ensure predictability for more coherent aggregations of Air Force combat capability,” less dependence on “serindipity in the formation of expeditionary units once they are deployed, consistency with Global Force Management and Adaptive Planning Guidance, and accountability for proper support of combatant command requirements.”

Roy said, “There’s a lot of goodness” in the concept, which will help airmen “fight like you train [and] train like you fight.” He added that he expects the Air Force to release the details soon.

Though the budget is a concern for Air Force Special Operations Command, the exceptionally high operational tempo remains the command’s toughest challenge.

“There’s no relief in sight” for the high operating tempo, said CMSgt. William W. Turner, AFSOC command chief. “Regardless of what’s happening in Iraq, Afghanistan is a big fight that we’re going to continue to confront, and there are other places around the globe, too, that need our attention.”

The key, he said, is getting “more trained airmen on the battlefield,” to relieve the pressure on air commandos. Many have been operating on a one-to-one dwell ratio for almost 10 years, meaning they spend at least as much time deployed as they do at their home stations.

Roy said the Air Force is trying to fix low-density, high-demand career fields, such as battlefield airmen and explosive ordnance disposal, by retraining noncommissioned officers and recruiting new airmen into those fields.

“I will tell you, if you look at the fatalities across our Air Force, the highest [number] of them are within the EOD career field,” said Roy. To remedy that, the Air Force plans to extend the EOD preliminary course from six days to 20 days and move it to Sheppard AFB, Tex., giving airmen more training time before they start working alongside the Air Force’s joint partners at Eglin AFB, Fla.

The service also is pre-assessing potential EOD airmen before they get to training as well as conducting emotional assessments to see how well they work under pressure, he added.

Bottom line: This is “the most combat-hardened force we’ve ever had,” said Roy. The majority of airmen enlisted after Sept. 11, 2011, and have spent years deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

As those forces start to draw down, “the challenge for us as leaders, and I think in the United States Air Force today, is how [to] keep drawing those innovative, young airmen to us,” Roy concluded—”and then how do we keep them?”

—Amy McCullough