‘Skyrocketing’ Support Costs Threaten Air Force Modernization

The Air Force’s weapon sustainment costs are rising fast and threaten to poach funds from developing new systems if the service can’t “figure out a way” to retire old hardware, Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said May 12.

“We’ve let our fleets get old,” Nahom said at a McAleese and Associates virtual conference. “About 44 percent of the Air Force fleet is now flying beyond its design service life.” The “so what” of that figure is that the cost of weapon sustainment and support (WSS) is “skyrocketing,” Nahom said.

“In the next couple of years, we’re projecting our WSS costs to go up at over twice inflation,” he said, “creating enormous problems.”  The Air Force is also struggling to manage seven different fighter fleets—Nahom counted the F-15C, F-15E, and F-15EX as three separate platforms, along with the A-10, F-16, F-22, and F-35—something that “no other air force” has attempted to do, he said. The service needs to retire some legacy hardware to make room for cutting-edge systems, he said.

The difficult trades will be in deciding how much to invest in high-end capabilities for a high-end fight, Nahom said, “but at the same time, you have to be in a lot of places,” such as performing homeland defense and low-end theaters. “We have to figure out how to do that affordably.”

“We’ve never been more in demand,” Nahom said of combatant commander demands for Air Force systems, and while “that’s a good thing—it’s good to be in demand—it’s also challenging, because if you’re going to recapitalize, and shift resources to … high-end warfare, you’re going to have to find some lulls in current operations to do it.”

The Air Force has to adjust from “the post-9/11 COIN [counterinsurgency] focus” to peer competition, he said. There are “opportunities” to be found in “incredible new technologies,” and congressional authorities are creating new ways “to get at” these technologies, which the USAF “can take advantage of,” he said. 

With the “realization” of the new threat comes “a realization that we’ve got to figure out how to take risk,” Nahom added. There’s too much preoccupation with the immediate risk and not enough on preparing for the future, he said.

The new national security strategy “tells us to, quote, meet the challenges from a position of strength … and shift out of unneeded legacy platforms to cutting-edge capabilities, which is exactly where we see things as the Air Force.”

He said the service is focusing on what the nation “absolutely needs the Air Force to do,” such as control and exploit the air domain, so it can control the air “at a time and place of our choosing,” deliver strikes “anywhere, anytime, and at a moment’s notice,” and move people and equipment rapidly in a crisis. Focusing on these “unique” core needs will allow the USAF to discover “the things we no longer need to do,” he said.

“The way we accomplished those tasks in the last 10-15 years is not the way we’re going to need to accomplish them in the 10-15 years ahead of us,” Nahom noted. The seven fighter fleets have to be “condensed down to something manageable,” he said.

Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. did not include the F-22 on the short list of four fighter fleets that will be part of the future force, and a service spokesperson later confirmed that, long-term, the Raptor will retire to be succeeded by the NGAD.

Likewise, the three-bomber fleet of today—B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s—will have to transition to a four-bomber fleet, including the B-21, before it necks down to a two-bomber force of just the B-52 and B-21. That will be tricky to do because “we have to walk away from the B-1 and B-2, … but we can’t do it right away,” Nahom said. It will certainly involve retiring more B-1s to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, he said, to invest the savings into the remaining aircraft and the B-21.

He reiterated that the service must shift from being platform-oriented to results-oriented, focusing not on “MQ-9s or Global Hawk” but on the intelligence product, agnostic of what platform generates it.

In preparation for the 2023 program objective memoranda, Nahom said his shop recently concluded a “deep dive” into the kill chain. It looked at where the service is along the sequence from intelligence preparation of the battlefield to the “find, fix, target, track, engage, assess” sequence. And, it looked for the best places to invest, Nahom reported. In the 2023 Program Objective Memorandum, “I think you’re going to see us moving some things around, because these are things we’re going to have to get at right away … We have to change our investment.” He did not offer specifics.

The ’23 POM will also be “where you’ll see the real trades in this risk discussion” the Air Force has been having internally, Nahom said.

The Air Force will also be looking at new concepts of basing—the agile combat employment model—to operate from locations that may not have a runway, and it will be conducting logistics “differently,” Nahom said. Other neglected priorities include the “operational test and training infrastructure, … ranges of the future, adversary air, and virtual environments.” The Air Force also has some “infrastructure concerns; our real property is getting old, and we have to make sure we get that right.”

The Air Force is struggling with management of personnel transitioning from old weapon systems to new ones. There’s so little margin built into the process that people are practically expected to stop working on an F-16 one day and start on an F-35 the next, or go straight from a KC-135 to a KC-46. “We have found a good balance this year,” but the “no overlap” transitions are becoming an ever-more vexing problem, Nahom said.

The F-35’s cost per flying hour and cost per tail per year is an ongoing challenge, Nahom said, because the Air Force, at the outset of the program “thought we could operate it for less” than the actuals being turned in. No one has any complaints about the performance of the jets; surveys of pilots who came to the F-35 from the F-16, F-15, and A-10, asked what they would take to battle, all preferred the F-35, he said.

“It’s a great airplane. … We need to make it greater” in terms of its sustainment cost and reliability, Nahom said. The Block 3s now coming off the line are “good airplanes,” he said, and even though the Air Force prefers the capability that will be in the Block 4 version, “we will not stop buying” the Block 3s. “We will convert those” to Block 4s, he said, adding that the long-term threat requires the Block 4’s capabilities.