Washington Watch

Jan. 1, 2006

A Quadrennial Defense Review concept which threatened to dramatically restructure and weaken the Air Force seems to have been beaten down—at least for now.

Pentagon officials say that the notion called for taking virtually all fighter aviation from the Air Force and giving it to a consolidated Navy-Marine Corps air arm, leaving USAF with responsibility for all the “heavies”—bombers, airlifters, tankers, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft—and space systems. The idea was called, by some, “the big-airplane Air Force.”

The concept was not part of the original terms of reference ground rules for the QDR but was introduced last summer by lieutenants of acting Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England. (See “On Rumsfeld’s ‘Terms,’?”June 2005, p. 50.) The idea was justified as one of many “what-if” scenarios, intended to stimulate thinking on ways to eliminate service redundancies. It was seen by its proponents as a natural follow-up to England’s earlier consolidation of Navy and Marine Corps fighter forces.

There were no proponents of the concept within the Air Force, service officials said. The Marine Corps thought the idea had merit, though. Throughout the QDR, the Marine Corps has had its eye on funds intended for the F/A-22 program, said defense officials.

“They want that money right now—preferably yesterday—to expand the Corps in the near term,” a Pentagon official said in early November. Once in possession of the fighter account, the Marine Corps could kill the F/A-22, shift all fighters to close air support, and use the savings for other purposes. However, “they have been frustrated in that effort so far,” he added.

Nevertheless, the concept was still considered active as late as mid-November, on the eve of final deliberations on the defense budgetary actions driven by QDR results.

In the wake of the top-level QDR budget drill, however, the “big-airplane” concept seemed to have been dropped because it would not provide any significant near-term savings for the war effort and would provoke ferocious controversy on Capitol Hill. Such a fundamental change would require the acquiescence of at least four Congressional committees—two in each chamber. Moreover, it would likely spur months of hearings and community interventions not unlike those that attended the recent Base Realignment and Closure process.

The shift also would take some time to execute, and its full effect would not be felt for several years. By then, operations in Iraq presumably would be over or declining, but problems with North Korea, Iran, and China could be on the rise.

Pentagon officials said there was no companion discussion of merging Navy and Marine Corps fighters into the Air Force or putting them under USAF control.

Season of Heavy Lifting

The Pentagon began releasing a slew of long-awaited military lift analyses in November. The first one out was from a task force of the Defense Science Board. It found that the US should keep open the option of buying more C-17s, start replacing its aerial tanker fleet, and develop a short takeoff C-130 replacement as soon as possible.

The DSB task force, which started working last February, also said the Defense Department should make bigger investments in its en route infrastructure, do more floating pre-positioning, and get busy developing a high-speed surface vessel that can deploy heavy forces far more rapidly than is now possible.

Speedy deployment of heavy forces will be “critical” in future wars, the panel found, and rapid power projection will be essential to fulfilling the US military strategy of being able to fight in two major contingencies at once. The 15-member group was chaired by retired Army Gen. William G.T. Tuttle Jr. and included former Pentagon acquisition chief Paul G. Kaminski and former USAF Chief of Staff retired Gen. Larry D. Welch.

The DSB unit reported out just a few weeks shy of the expected release of the Mobility Capabilities Study, conducted by the Joint Staff, and the Tanker Analysis of Alternatives, run by Rand.

The Joint Staff study found that airlift assets on hand are “adequate” to the needs of the US military.

Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered a little preview of the MCS findings on Nov. 15, when he told reporters at the Pentagon that the current fleet of C-5s, C-17s, and C-130s is “very substantial” and that “if we maintain those fleets and the programs that we currently have funded throughout our future year defense plan, … we have a very capable and adequate airlift fleet.”

He called the MCS “comprehensive” but added that “some of these systems, including the C-17s, are still in play right now,” meaning that final decisions about whether to continue buying the aircraft had not, by mid-November, been resolved.

Boeing has said that the C-17 line will soon begin shutting down if more of the airlifters are not ordered in the upcoming Fiscal 2007 budget. (See “Washington Watch: The Cost of Being Late,” November 2005, p. 14.)

The new chief of US Transportation Command, Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, echoed Giambastiani’s remarks on Nov. 30, when he told reporters at a logistics conference that, with regard to the existing airlift fleet of C-5s, C-17s, C-130s, and commercial augments, “overall, we have about the right capacity.”

Another tip as to the findings of the MCS came from Michael W. Wynne, the new Secretary of the Air Force, who told Bloomberg.com in a November interview that the next aerial tanker will likely be a combination tanker-airlifter, switching roles as needed, depending on the requirements of any particular contingency. The aircraft also will serve as a communications node and relay in the sky, given that it will typically fly in just the right place to facilitate communications among combat and support platforms and ground-based command centers.

Pentagon and industry officials said the Rand study was expected to enumerate a range of options available for replacement of the KC-135 fleet—and their costs—but not recommend a specific plan of action. It also was expected to be a relatively thin document, since the manufacturing, cost, and pricing data within it is proprietary to Boeing and Airbus—the two principal potential competitors to supply the aircraft—and is not releasable.

Our Survey Says …

The DSB mobility panel said the speed of deployment in the past “has not been as critical to campaign success and the achievement of US national security objectives as it is today,” and the Defense Department will need to figure out how to move large and heavy material at a much faster rate.

Toward that end, the task force put the highest priority on “investments now in intermediate staging bases; more and improved force and sustainment pre-positioning; and high-speed, intratheater vessels capable of austere port access.” These improvements could “add significant new capabilities” to enable the movement of sizable land forces, the panel found.

Such spending should be “complemented by incremental investments in aerial tankers and possibly in strategic airlift,” it added.

While the panel took briefings on souped-up C-17s and blended-wing body advanced strategic transports, it felt that big advances would be needed in many areas to make those concepts a reality within a reasonable time frame. The Pentagon should keep its options open to buy more than 180 C-17s, but with extended range, the task force said. Such an aircraft could relieve the pressure on the aerial refueling fleet.

The task force discounted the idea of huge, lighter-than-air transports, dryly noting that their “survivability … in a hostile environment is open to question.” It recommended that the C-5 fleet be given a planned avionics modernization and re-engining and reliability improvements. Although these won’t add any new capability, the panel said, they will allow the C-5s to fly “for the next 30 to 35 years.”

Noting that “at present, three US passenger carriers are in bankruptcy,” the task force said the Defense Department should do more to ensure business for participants in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, calling CRAF “a cost-effective addition to the organic [airlift] fleet.” Providing a reliable stream of business would help ensure that the CRAF is available “at the onset of a crisis.”

The infrastructure improvements should include adopting some of the “sea-basing” concepts put forward by the Navy that call for massive at-sea logistics support for forces engaged ashore. Those ideas include supersize offshore floating platforms able to accommodate aircraft such as a C-130. Such a sea-based capability should be able to accommodate either a Marine expeditionary brigade or a medium Army brigade.

The panel wants DOD to “support the Air Force’s AMC-X program to develop a supershort takeoff and landing aircraft” that will replace the C-130 and “become a primary connector for sea-base operations.” It should be able to operate from a carrier-sized vessel “without an island,” the term for the superstructure that rises above the flight deck. While advances will be needed on many fronts, the DSB panel found “no technological showstoppers” to such an aircraft.

“Given the military mobility value of such a capability, the effort should be worth the price,” the group said.

Vertical or short takeoff and vertical landing aircraft also will become more important in the future, the panel found. In an apparent nod to aircraft such as the V-22 tilt-rotor, it wants the Pentagon to aggressively develop new helicopters or STOVL aircraft “to increase unrefueled range, payload, and reliability.”

“As part of its modernization effort, the department should undertake a vigorous R&D program to evaluate the feasibility of fielding a 25-ton vertical-lift capability with an unrefueled range of 250 to 500 nautical miles to enable more options for operational maneuver,” the report added.

The panel also wants the Pentagon to develop an “affordable high-speed vessel” for transporting heavy armor and other heavy gear and to give US Transportation Command total process authority over deployments.

Save C-17, Says Senate

The Senate in November sent a resounding message to the Pentagon: You should think hard about buying at least another 42 C-17 airlifters.

That was the gist of an amendment to the defense spending bill passed by the Senate in November.

The bipartisan amendment to the defense authorization bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), urged the Air Force to raise the C-17 inventory to 222 aircraft, a figure promoted by the former head of Air Mobility Command and US Transportation Command, retired Gen. John W. Handy. The amendment passed, 89-to-eight. However, the amendment was nonbinding and wouldn’t oblige the Defense Department to buy any more of the airlifters, nor did it authorize additional funds for the buy. It did, however, encourage the Air Force to negotiate another multiyear buy of the aircraft.

The Los Angeles Times quoted Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as saying the amendment “comes at a critical time, expressing the desires of Congress.” However, the House defense spending bill did not contain such an amendment, and it went onto the list of issues to resolve in conference.

Boeing has said that it must have money in the next defense budget to continue producing C-17s, or the long-lead suppliers on the aircraft will begin shutting down production, as they are now completing the manufacture of parts for the 180th aircraft. Extending production to 222 aircraft would keep the line open until 2012.

Co-Defense Sphere

A US-Japan joint military operations center is one of the many new initiatives coming out of a deal in October in which the two countries dramatically overhauled and strengthened their long-standing mutual defense agreements. The moves seem geared to countering a buildup of Chinese military power in the region.

The new arrangements also call for the departure of 7,000 marines from Okinawa, permission for the US to station a nuclear aircraft carrier in Japan, joint use of Kadena Air Base, and closer coordination on issues ranging from missile defense to unmanned aircraft.

The US-Japan military relationship is “evolving to remain strong and relevant,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters at a news conference following meetings with top Japanese foreign and defense ministers in Japan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also took part in the talks.

The new joint operations center will be located at Yokota Air Base and is intended to “ensure constant connectivity, coordination, and interoperability among US forces in Japan” and the Japanese self-defense forces, according to a joint communiqué from the two countries.

Japan’s existing Air Defense Command at Fuchu will move to Yokota. The joint setup should improve missile defense, early warning, and the sharing of sensor data obtained from both US and Japanese reconnaissance and surveillance platforms. The two countries agreed to share such data much more broadly than they have done in the past. They also agreed to do more intensive joint planning for contingencies that may arise in the region and increase the number and size of exercises they conduct together, both in Japan and elsewhere.

Language in the communiqué points to Japan taking over a greater responsibility for defending and monitoring the region around the Japanese islands. Japan agreed to improve its missile defenses, aided by the deployment of a US X-band radar system and Patriot missiles on its soil, and to develop more capabilities against possible invasion of some if its remote islands.

The Marine garrison on Okinawa has been a continuing point of tension in the US-Japanese relationship. A seedy district has developed around the base, and there have been high-profile incidents of misconduct by US troops stationed there. The US agreed to reduce the number of marines on the island from 18,000 to 11,000 over the next six years. The departing marines will move to facilities on Guam, and the activities of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa will relocate north to Camp Schwab. Further reductions are to be studied.

The two countries will jointly operate from Kadena Air Base, also on Okinawa. Kadena hosts E-3 AWACS, F-15C, and HH-60 rescue helicopter operations. Pentagon officials said the base may soon see Japanese F-15Js and 767 AWACS aircraft operating from the installation as well.

Not part of the communiqué, but announced shortly after its release was that the US will be permitted to homeport a nuclear-powered, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in Japan. Previously, Japan would only permit conventionally powered carriers, given national sensitivities about nuclear power. The agreement also calls for the relocation of the Navy carrier air wing from Atsugi air base to Iwakuni air station, to deal with encroachment issues. More Japan Air Self-Defense Force bases will be available for US aircraft use, and the US will permit JASDF units to train at its ranges in Guam.

Japanese Defense Minister Yoshinori Ono said the broad new arrangements represent a “fresh start” and a “new era” in US-Japan mutual defense.