Washington Watch

Jan. 1, 2011

Airpower for Best Effect

The application of airpower in Afghanistan has been largely discrete and precise, but the enemy has skillfully exploited those rare occasions where it has not been, and blunted a key aspect of American power, said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz.

Speaking with defense reporters Nov. 23, Schwartz asserted that USAF understands the intent of Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of US forces in Afghanistan.

“That is to apply airpower for best effect while minimizing the potential for collateral damage and civilian casualties,” Schwartz said.

“While I’m not suggesting we’re perfect, I think it’s important to recognize” that of the civilian casualties reported, “80 percent or more … are produced by enemy action.” Only about eight percent of Afghanistan’s civilian casualties are “produced by air-to-ground munitions. So it gives you a sense of scale,” the Chief said.

Asked why he thinks air-inflicted civilian casualties get the most attention, Schwartz said, “The adversary is extremely skillful, recognizes the advantage that we have in that respect, and is doing all he can to limit that capability through suggestions that somehow we’re indiscriminate.” The outcry, which also frequently arises after air strikes kill legitimate military targets, often results in demands to limit the use of airpower. That can constrain a key US advantage, Schwartz said.

“I’m not asking you to accept my assertions of what the facts are,” he added. “Look at the human rights data. Look at other sources of credible information. I think it will confirm it for you.”

The Air Force, Schwartz said, is applying “the most precise application of force, I would argue, in history. We understand what the unique aspects of this fight are about.”

F-35 Prospects

Schwartz said the test performance of the F-35A—the conventional takeoff version to be used by the Air Force—is “best of the lot” when compared with the Marine Corps F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing model and F-35C carrier version. He has confidence it will yield what the Air Force wants from the fighter.

“It is ahead on test points; it’s ahead on flying hours,” Schwartz said of the F-35A in November. “Software stability has been good. … We’ve experienced no failures or surprises with respect to the A model structure. That part of the program looks pretty good.” However, there have been “some issues with respect to timing on software development, and we don’t have complete understanding yet of whether or not that will affect the IOC,” or initial operational capability, which for the Air Force is slated for April 2016.

He declined to offer any insight into a Defense Acquisition Board review of the F-35 held in late November, but admitted he is “concerned on schedule, primarily. A little less, to date, on technical matters.”

The Next Fighter

In November, the Air Force started the process of seeking a next generation fighter to replace the F-22, with the publication of a request for information that went out to industry.

Schwartz said the eventual resulting aircraft will arrive in the 2030 timeframe or later, so it has progressed “little beyond conceptual.” The process has started because “we need to think ahead, we need to be thinking in these terms,” but a program of record is still a long way off.

Although it has been somewhat cumbersome to manage the F-35 as a three-service project, Schwartz said it is probable the next generation Air Force fighter will at least in some ways be a cooperative effort with the Navy.

“Collaboration between the Navy and the Air Force on air kinds of platforms and capabilities is absolutely the thing we should be doing,” Schwartz asserted. He noted that the two services have agreed to share training and logistics support for the Global Hawk aircraft both will use.

“I think there is lots of opportunity here for both of us to do smart things that will make us more capable, not less, and make better use of resources along the way.”

Don’t Ask

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called on Congress in late November to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rules that have governed homosexuals serving in the US military for the last 17 years, saying it “can be done and should be done without posing a serious risk to military readiness.” He wanted the lame-duck Congress to change the law before the end of the year.

Legislation in the House of Representatives, which Gates endorsed, would allow homosexuals to serve in the military without having to conceal their sexual orientation. Under DADT, homosexuals can be separated from the military if they reveal their orientation, but commanders are not permitted to investigate their status.

Gates based his recommendation on the findings of various working groups and a survey of troops to determine how disruptive the change would be. He announced his advice at a Pentagon press conference.

Although he insisted that the survey was not a referendum—the military, Gates noted emphatically, is not a democracy—”more than two-thirds” of the “tens of thousands” who answered the survey “do not object to gays and lesbians serving openly in uniform.”

However, Gates noted that the combat arms specialties—which are predominantly male—have a “higher level of discontent” with the idea than the rest of the military population.

In later testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the subject, Gates allowed that the survey found that if DADT were repealed more than 260,000 troops said they might leave the service, but he didn’t believe that would happen.

In Britain and Canada, he said, similar surveys found similar results, but after the change was enacted, the number of people who left was “far smaller” than previously indicated.

In his Pentagon announcement, Gates said he believes existing laws and regulations can handle most of the issues—such as “sexual conduct, fraternization, billeting arrangements, marital or survivor benefits”—that might attend a change in the law.

He urged quick action by Congress to adopt the new legislation because a failure to do so could have sharply negative consequences. “I believe this is a matter of some urgency because, as we have seen in the past year, the federal courts are increasingly becoming involved in this issue,” Gates noted. There is a “very real possibility that this change would be imposed immediately by judicial fiat—by far the most disruptive and damaging scenario I can imagine, and one of the most hazardous to military morale, readiness, and battlefield performance.”

By contrast, Gates said, legislation would allow the change to be accomplished as “a number of steps” are met, providing time critical to conduct the training and education essential to making the policy shift work. The military needs time to make “thorough preparation” with “an abundance of care” to see it done in a logical and orderly way.

Gates admitted that the majority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is “less sanguine” about the potential effect on readiness than he is.

The Chiefs Weigh In

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz told the SASC that he doesn’t agree with the Pentagon studies indicating “the short-term risk to military effectiveness is low” from repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He is worried about “military effectiveness in Afghanistan” and the wisdom of piling yet one more headache on field commanders whose troops are in close-quarters combat.

If the legislation overturning DADT is to pass, Schwartz asked that it not be implemented until 2012 so the service could have time to prepare airmen with “training and education” programs.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael G. Mullen, speaking at the Pentagon, said the surveys of the troops and the findings of the working groups indicated three things.

First, he said, “leadership [will] be the single most important factor” in making the repeal work. Second, “we’ve heard loud and clear that our troops also expect us to maintain high standards of conduct and professionalism. … We treat people with dignity and respect in the armed forces, or we don’t last long. No special cases, no special treatment, … and hold ourselves … to impeccably high standards.”

Lastly, “however low the overall risk of repeal may be with respect to readiness, cohesion, and retention, it is not without its challenges,” Mullen said, and the best way for the military to deal with those is “having it within our power and our prerogative to manage the implementation process ourselves.”

Diverted Savings

The $100 billion in overhead savings demanded from the services by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last year was supposed to be plowed back into hardware, but now it looks like at least some of that money may be diverted to deficit reduction, creating a net cut in defense procurement.

The warning came at a Credit Suisse and Aviation Week investor’s conference held in New York in early December. There, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright said it’s “just logical” that “as the pressure comes on the budget,” the amount of savings diverted from the Pentagon to overall federal deficit reduction will occur at “a greater rate.”

The harvest of funds was to be cumulative over five years, and the big incentive for the services to slash overhead was that they could keep the savings and apply them to force structure, which has been hit with the double whammy of combat losses and reduced procurement funding over the last decade.

Cartwright said that, at least at first, “I don’t think it will be in the large portions,” but he couldn’t say whether the Office of Management and Budget would target specific programs or the Pentagon’s whole budget at “a macro level.”

There are “realities out there” with respect to the burgeoning federal budget deficit that mean the Pentagon’s budget will inevitably take a hit, Cartwright said.

One of the most tempting targets is the F-35 fighter, to be built in three variants: one each for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. In late autumn, a variety of think tanks, panels, and commissions nominated the F-35 for cuts, mainly because it has the largest price tag of any single defense program. The Joint Strike Fighter has also seen the cost growth and schedule delays typical of combat aircraft development programs.

At the conference, Pentagon acquisition, technology and logistics chief Ashton B. Carter said there are no in-house plans to cut the F-35 buy, however.

“We want the number of planes. We just don’t want them for the costs we’re getting,” Carter said. He noted the 2002 baseline price of an F-35 at program completion has risen from $50 million a copy to $92 million. Because “there isn’t going to be, ever, more money” for the F-35, Carter said the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin simply must find ways to stop cost growth and “reverse it.” He also said that preserving the F-35’s low cost was essential to keeping foreign partners committed to the program.

Carter allowed that all three variants have “issues.” He did say, though, that increased scrutiny of the F-35 in the last year has resulted in the best high-level understanding the program has ever had.