A B-2 Spirit takes on fuel from a KC-135 over Anderson AFB, Guam. The B-2 fleet is tiny—20 in all—and the bomber force needs a boost to carry out the goals of the National Defense Strategy. Photo: A1C Jazmin Smith
THE UNCERTAINTY FACTOR
Defense-watchers are anxiously awaiting the answers to two big questions when the Trump administration presents the Fiscal 2020 budget request: “How much?” and “How much?”
The first “How much?” is, of course, the budget top line: the grand total requested to fund the military services and Department of Energy nuclear weapon activities. At first, the services were promised $733 billion to continue restoring readiness and recapitalizing force structure to be able to fight a high-end war against peer adversaries. Then, the President told the Pentagon to brace for a potentially lower budget. The Defense Department dutifully began building two budgets; one at the $733 billion level, and another at around $700 billion—which is less than the enacted Fiscal 2019 budget.
Then, the President tweeted that last year’s enacted level of $716 billion was “crazy”—meaning too high—and that the US didn’t want to enter into an arms race with China. Then, he met with Republican members of Congress who explained to him why the higher levels are needed for military modernization.
He promptly said he would support a $750 billion defense budget.
This is exactly the kind of uncertainty that gives the US military fits. For years, the services have begged Congress to restore some predictability to the defense budget. Even if the appropriated amount is less than what’s needed, the service chiefs have said, a number they can count on is better than yo-yo ups and downs, the destructive effects of sequester, and endless continuing resolutions that make managing programs a nightmare. A dozen reviews of defense acquisition in the past 20 years have singled out funding predictability as the single most important thing anyone can do to help the American military be more efficient and effective with the dollars it gets.
The second “How much?” concerns what it will take to fulfill the National Defense Strategy requirements. The NDS was unveiled one year ago to generally favorable reviews, saying for the first time in decades that, yes, the US is again engaged in a Cold War (the NDS terms it “great power competition”), not only with Russia but also China, and must restore its ability to wage a “high-end” fight. Although the struggle against “violent extremists” is still in the mix, it’s now a lower priority than being able to fight a great power war against an enemy that has much of the same kind of high-end gear the US has. The NDS recognizes that, after an atypical historical period of nearly three decades in which there was just one world superpower—the US—there are again challengers that must be deterred and possibly fought.
GOOD LUCK GETTING AN ANSWER
What defense watchers found lacking in the NDS, however, was a specific prescription for the types and numbers of forces needed to deter and, if necessary, defeat an enemy (or enemies) of the size and capability of China and Russia. The strategy did not specify numbers of ships, fighter squadrons, bomber squadrons, airlifters, tanks, troops, etc.—the nitty-gritty of “How much?”
Members of Congress and the denizens of Washington think-tanks clamor for numbers, because they provide something that is easy to measure, debate, and trade off. It’s worth noting that when the NDS was released, the person most responsible for pulling it together, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, USAF Gen. Paul J. Selva, called “force-sizing constructs” a trap and an obsolete way of thinking.
The history of force-sizing shows “that’s failed us,” Selva told defense writers a year ago. One Quadrennial Defense Review after another established force sizes, he said, but “limited thinking.” The numbers, he argued, became a way for the services to keep score on who was up and who was down in perceived importance. It didn’t advance national defense.
The NDS aims instead for “dynamic force employment,” Selva explained. It recognizes that the world is not static and that threats are not monolithic; today’s force structure can become obsolete overnight. The key is to establish desired end states and work backward to establish the means necessary to achieve them. Those goals will have monikers such as “assured force projection” rather than “anti-access/area denial,” a term Selva virtually banned because it describes a hurdle to overcome rather than an outcome.
The second “How much” question is therefore unlikely to be answered with the Fiscal 2020 defense budget, as Selva once again supervised the intellectual basis for the request.
The Air Force, however, took a stab at the second “How much?” answer in September, when it unveiled “The Air Force We Need” numbers. USAF said it needs about 25 percent more operational squadrons than it has now, for a total of 386, setting specific required levels of every capability it operates, from tankers to spyplanes. Service leaders such as USAF Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson acknowledged late last year, though, that those numbers remain in flux and will be influenced by “new operating concepts” that may allow the service to tweak its requested new levels of fighters, bombers, tankers, ISR squadrons, and the like.
To get to “more,” though, USAF will have to ask for more money in Fiscal 2020, and for specific things. So, while the budget may not offer a definitive answer to “How much?” it will inevitably offer more specific hints.
STICKER SHOCK AND AWE
Getting to the Air Force the service thinks it needs—with a more youthful average equipment age and the latest capabilities—will come with a dauntingly high price in the coming decades, the Congressional Budget Office reported in December.
The bipartisan CBO, in a report titled “The Cost of Replacing Today’s Air Force Fleet,” forecast that retiring USAF’s old iron and replacing it with state-of-the-art aircraft will demand “$15 billion a year in the 2020s,” followed by “$23 billion a year in the 2030s,” before settling back to $15 billion a year in the 2040s.
As the CBO pointed out, these figures are well beyond historical, inflation-adjusted spending. Between 1980 and 2017, USAF was appropriated, on average, “about $12 billion per year” in 2018 dollars for recapitalization.In gross numbers, the replacement bill comes out to $530 billion over three decades, 47 percent more than the historical spending of $360 billion, in apples-to-apples dollars. To carry out such a modernization, therefore, would require significant substantial spending increases.
The CBO recognized that some aircraft may be retired and not replaced, and that more capable aircraft may replace multiple older airplanes because they’re more reliable (and can fly more missions) and can accomplish multiple missions simultaneously. But the CBO also noted that some new classes of hardware may appear—think remotely piloted aircraft such as RQ-4 Global Hawks and MQ-9 Reapers—that don’t “directly replace any existing systems.”
A long-range projection “is nevertheless useful” because it can help the Air Force, Congress, and the Pentagon in “setting appropriate budgets for procuring new aircraft,” the CBO said. More importantly, “It can also identify key future issues—when too many programs might need procurement appropriations at the same time … or when retained aircraft are growing too old” and give decision-makers enough time to address them.
The CBO forecast that USAF spending on new airplanes would have to peak at about $26 billion in 2033. In that year, the service will be buying F-35 fighters, B-21 bombers, and a new Penetrating Counter-Air (PCA) successor/complement to the F-22 fighter. “Costs of procuring new aircraft would not fall below $20 billion until 2039 and would remain above typical historical levels past 2045,” the agency said.
Historically, USAF spending on new airplanes peaked at $29 billion in 1986 (using 2018 dollars), when the service was buying hundreds of new F-15 and F-16 fighters, B-1 bombers, and C-5B transports.
THE SIX PRICIEST
The CBO figures that 35 types of new aircraft will be needed, but “six programs make up more than 85 percent” of the overall cost: The F-35A, the PCA aircraft, the KC-46 tanker, B-21 bomber, “a C-17 replacement cargo aircraft,” and the C-130J tactical airlifter. Of these, the F-35 fleet will cost the most, because of volume. The PCA, however would become “the most expensive [aircraft] until the late 2040s,” potentially costing $300 million apiece—more than three times the cost of an F-35.
The PCA remains an undefined program, however; the Air Force is not even sure the PCA will be a single platform. It could instead be a “family of systems” that will enhance and complement the F-22 and F-35. USAF took this approach in abandoning the E-8 Joint STARS replacement. Nevertheless, the CBO guesses the PCA will be at least one new airframe.
Even if the PCA is taken out of the mix, aircraft purchases would still hit $20 billion a year in 2033, the CBO forecast, saying the new super stealth jet alone would cost $6 billion a year. The report’s authors suggested that an F-22/F-35 hybrid—with the F-22’s aerodynamic capabilities but the F-35’s more advanced avionics, as recently pitched to Japan—might cost less than the PCA without resorting to “a new advanced fighter aircraft.”
To smooth out the spikes in aircraft recapitalization spending, USAF might stretch out some aircraft service lives, but that approach isn’t free, the CBO noted. Beside the fact that service life extension programs [SLEP] “can be expensive,” getting parts for old jets isn’t easy or cheap, and even a refurbished fleet “may not provide as many available and mission-capable aircraft” as a new fleet.
The CBO noted that USAF is studying SLEPs for the F-15, F-16, and A-10, but hasn’t yet decided whether to apply them, or in what quantities if it does. The CBO projects that all the 1980s jets will have to be retired not later than “the early to mid-2040s,” and keeping the last ones even that long will require life extension work. The CBO forecast of new aircraft purchases doesn’t include the cost of SLEPs.
The report’s authors noted that USAF could buy new versions of legacy airplanes, noting this would likely be cheaper than buying all-new systems and may produce more mission-capable aircraft. The drawback would be that the jets would lack the survivability of fifth generation airplanes such as the F-22, F-35, and PCA. Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein—and his last three predecessors—have all rejected buying “new-old” airplanes. The CBO said USAF could “delay a new system” and let the fleet shrink in the meantime, but that would fly in the face of the National Defense Strategy, which mandates a larger force to cope with high-end peer competitors.
Yet another possible approach suggested by the CBO was to “accelerate” purchase of new aircraft, or accept a mix of modern and “new-old” aircraft.“Maintaining two different types of aircraft would be more costly than maintaining a single fleet, however,” the CBO pointed out, “because the Air Force would need to keep two different maintenance operations in place.”
The CBO noted that the bomber fleet averages 42 years old; the fighter fleet averages 26.4 years (even counting recent purchases of F-35A fighters); the airlift fleet is 24.7 years old; and the tanker fleet averages 53.7 years, with the oldest jet having served 60 years. Reconnaissance aircraft—ranging from nearly new remotely piloted MQ-9s to 53-year-old WC-135s—are the youngest overall, at an average of 14 years old. Trainer aircraft clock in at an average of 30.3 years of age, while helicopters and MV-22 tilt-rotors average 19.9 years.