New budget realities don’t excuse the Air Force from dealing with emerging strategic threats and security challenges. Top USAF officials believe new strategies and partnerships will be needed if the service is to maintain the ability to fulfill its missions—albeit with a significantly higher degree of risk.
Col. David Nahom moves out his F-15 as a maintainer looks on at Kadena AB, Japan.(USAF photo by SSgt. Christopher Hummel)
“We’re now approaching the conclusion of our strategic review,” launched last summer when the debt-ceiling crisis put budgets under duress, said Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley, who spoke along with other top officials at the Air Force Association’s Global Warfare Symposium in Los Angeles in November. “We’ll shortly begin finalizing major program decisions that will be consistent with the revised strategy and will get the most out of available resources.”
One strategic effect of the cuts: The “active, Guard, and Reserve components will get smaller together” as the service’s budget compresses, and it will be more important than ever that the Total Force be “closely integrated. We’re already very good at this, but we must get even better,” Donley observed.
More than $450 billion in planned reductions could be topped by as much as $600 billion in sequestrations stemming from the failure of the congressional deficit-cutting “supercommittee.” As these budget cuts take hold, USAF leaders will fight to “preserve Air Force core missions and capabilities,” Donley said.
To achieve necessary savings—since “we know efficiencies alone will not be enough” to fit the new smaller budgets—”we’ll 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,” he explained.
In the midst of this downsizing, the service will labor to “protect” items such as “maintaining overseas forward presence,” the KC-46 tanker, the F-35 fighter, and the long-range strike family of weapons, “including the new bomber,” he said. The Air Force will work to “sustain” improvements made to intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance assets that have been made since 2001—specifically, the development of remotely piloted aircraft.
“We must maintain freedom of action in the space domain to protect critical technologies” in communication, navigation, weather, and ISR, Donley said, and continue modernizing “aging satellite constellations.” USAF contributions to US Special Operations Command will remain a priority, as will sustainment of the nuclear triad. The Air Force will also “further develop and sustain freedom of action in the cyber domain.”
Despite being smaller than it has been “in previous decades,” Donley said the Air Force of 2020 “nonetheless must remain ready” to fight on short notice. “There will be little margin for lengthy mobilizations.”
Donley elaborated on the triad issue, saying the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons abroad means “flexibility across the triad is … more important than ever.” The key issue, he said, is whether the “balance” of US nuclear forces—the mix of nuclear-armed bombers and intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles—will be maintained in traditional proportions.
Under discussion is “whether this is the right … model going forward,” Donley noted, but he maintained that the triad’s importance will only increase “as our nuclear forces potentially get smaller.”
F-22 Raptors look ghostly soaring over the Utah Test and Training Range during a weapons system evaluation program.(USAF photo)
He flatly asserted, “I’m pretty confident there will be a triad for some time to come.”
Industrial Base Under Stress
Donley was asked if the defense budget will continue to be divided in thirds among the three main branches of the armed forces. He predicted change may be coming because “I think there is much more appreciation … emerging for the value of those capabilities that enable global operations”—capabilities USAF uniquely provides.
The Air Force’s facility with global airlift, ISR, and long-range strike “are valued assets in the strategic environment that we’re likely to face,” Donley observed. “I think there is a growing understanding of the benefits of airpower going forward.”
However, he acknowledged that the Air Force’s industrial base is under severe stress.
“This is an important issue and it is getting more important as we consider the potential adjustments” to programs in the budget, Donley declared. Trying to simultaneously reduce spending, fight a hot war, and preserve the industrial base “hasn’t been tried before,” he said. Supply chains will become “much more fragile” and contractors will lack the flexibility and “rapid surge capabilities that we used to enjoy 30 or 40 years ago. So we have to be much more careful” about how budget decisions affect the industrial base, he warned.
Donley’s comments were forcefully seconded by Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Philip M. Breedlove. The Air Force is already woefully unable to surge production of munitions, Breedlove noted, and although there are—on paper—seven prime contractors that can make precision guided missiles and bombs for USAF, those seven companies depend on just three subcontractors for critical parts.
The situation “is our own doing,” Breedlove continued, as USAF has pressured contractors to reduce capacity, use fewer workers, cut overhead, and trim costs wherever possible.
Crew chief Amn. Kyle Joyner gives a thumbs up to the crew of a B-2 at Whiteman AFB, Mo. Despite looming cuts to the defense budget, the Air Force needs to protect its most vital assets.(USAF photo by SrA. Kenny Holston)
“An industrial capacity is not there,” he said. “We do not have an industry to produce munitions at the speed we need them.” Out of all his worries stemming from the budgetary pressure on the service, Breedlove said, “this scares me as much as anything.”
The munitions production capacity problem is only one symptom of the severe constraints that will be imposed on the military, and increased interdependence will be necessary because “we know there will be much more than $450 billion” in cuts to defense, he said.
The Air Force and Navy have been developing the AirSea Battle concept of operations to improve joint combat capabilities, eliminate mission and equipment gaps, and create efficiency by eliminating redundancy. He said the two services have been working on the concept for well over a year, but “by design,” the collaboration will not produce a “glossy document” available to the general public. Rather, Breedlove said, the ASB concept is highly classified, because the services have had to fully reveal to one another their most closely held secrets.
The mutual revelations have sometimes been disquieting, Breedlove said, producing reactions such as, “Oh my gosh, I thought you were doing that [mission or developing a capability] and you’re not.”
Ultimately, AirSea Battle “will put jointness on steroids,” he said, adding that it will soon be announced the Army will be involved in AirSea Battle. The Army’s inclusion is because the problem of tactical ballistic missiles is one of the toughest to overcome, and the Army will be “a huge part” of the solution. “We have to break the effects chain” of TBMs, he said, and the Army has a role to play in that work.
Breedlove also warned that the automatic sequestrations on the Air Force’s budget imposed by the failure of the deficit panel will be far worse than they seem at face value. The damage will fall hardest on modernization and readiness accounts, because only those types of cuts can hit the “hard target” reductions in the necessary time frame, he said. More reasoned, longer term approaches to budget reductions aren’t available because, under the law, “we have to find near-term dollars,” Breedlove said.
Launch team members at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., run preflight operations for a Minuteman III ICBM launch test. The nuclear triad will be preserved.(USAF photo by SrA. Andrew Lee)
“We can’t build a [budget] slope that ramps over seven or eight years,” he said. Further base closures, for example, which the Air Force desires and which could significantly help reduce costs, would “take years” to render savings.
The sequester means the Air Force has no choice but to “look at missions” and choose to stop doing some that need to be accomplished but for which there will be insufficient funds, people, or equipment.
“Assuming that operational requirements decrease as planned, this future Air Force will be capable of accomplishing many of the mission sets of today, but will do so at a significant level of risk and with less capacity to respond across multiple crises,” Breedlove said.
China Is First Class
With the sequestrations, “we can foresee an Air Force unable to repeat” the simultaneous operations in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and tsunami response in Japan—the so-called “March Madness” of last spring, he pointed out.
The recent operation in Libya, Breedlove asserted, proved the economy of airpower. The Libyan regime was unseated and defeated in a matter of months at a cost equivalent to “one week” of the overall Afghanistan campaign, “with no loss of life” on the allied side. Airpower, he said, will be the likely instrument of choice in similar cases where “the cost in blood or treasure is too high” to mount a ground-based campaign.
In other ways, though, Libya was “not a model for future operations.” To deal with adversaries possessing the latest anti-access, area-denial measures, concepts like AirSea Battle will be essential to prevail against modernized foes.
Alan Vick of RAND Corp. said the nation has grown comfortable with the “American way of war” as it has existed for the last 20 years, but that the model has recently become seriously outmoded and will have to change. Anti-access and area-denial technologies and techniques—ranging from advanced air defenses to longer ranged, more precise tactical ballistic missiles that can be retargeted in-flight—are having a “disruptive” effect on the paradigm, and the US will have to adapt.
The KC-46A tanker, seen here in a Boeing illustration, is still on the top of USAF’s priority list, and the Air Force will strive to protect the program from the budget cutters.(Boeing illustration)
“We’re going to have to develop some new strategies, some new operational concepts in order to maintain our ability to project power,” Vick asserted. “It won’t be easy,” he added.
Enemies will not only have more means to keep the US at bay, but through cyber warfare and the widespread availability of commercial reconnaissance satellites, will deprive the US of much of its ability to act with surprise, Vick said. It’s increasingly unlikely the US will be able to set up “within 100 miles” of an enemy and choose the time and place it will begin combat, as it has been able to do in the wars of the last two decades.
Modernized TBMs in particular “in the hands of the Chinese” are disruptive weapons that demand a rethink of US strategy, since they can strike at US land bases within 1,000 miles and can find and cripple aircraft carriers. This development alone will compel the US to be able to act at longer ranges.
“The Chinese missiles are first class,” Vick said. “They are very well-engineered. … They have GPS and INS [Global Positioning System and Inertial Navigation Systems]. They use remote sensing and over-the-horizon radars for cuing, for targeting.” Equipped with submunitions and terminally guided warheads, these weapons are “a very attractive and very efficient system” for China’s purposes.
While the US has tended to dismiss TBMs as backward, expensive, and limited, they are now a serious threat that must be dealt with. Vick said the Air Force will have to be far more involved in missile defense technology to counter them. “Over the last three years” it has done so, he said.
The TBM threat is not insurmountable though, Vick said.
“There are plenty of things we can do,” he noted. The missiles are nonreusable, so inventories will be depleted under prolonged use; their primary value is in pre-emptive attack; and to keep an air base from being repaired, multiple missile volleys are required.
Work-arounds include dispersing assets in many places; developing the means to operate air bases while under attack; missile defense; and finally, long-range strike: the ability to attack from outside the range of the TBMs. Hardened aircraft shelters won’t solve the problem but would deny an enemy “a free ride” in attacking air bases, Vick said.
However, the key is long-range strike, which is “vital” to counter A2AD and is “critically needed in the early phase of a conflict.”
Gen. Philip Breedlove, USAF vice chief of staff (with Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps), testifies before a Senate panel. Breedlove is concerned about the dwindling industrial base.(USAF photo by Jim Varhegyi)
Vick said that a RAND study last year strongly suggested the US maintain a penetrating bomber capability, rather than simply load up nonstealthy “arsenal planes” with cruise missiles that would attack only at standoff ranges.
RAND concluded that, with cruise missiles costing millions apiece, the US needs “that ability to deliver cheaper systems,” especially if a conflict lasts longer than 30 days. Besides expanding the possible target list, a penetrating bomber prevents the problem of an adversary simply waiting out the US, which it could do if it knew the cruise missile inventory and waited until the supply was exhausted, Vick noted.
Also touting the rising importance of airpower—specifically, the bomber—was retired Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., former head of 8th Air Force and now on the staff of George Mason University in Virginia.
Elder said bombers are becoming “incredibly important” to deal with anti-access problems and add options in all phases of combat. Having proved they are equally adept at the range of operations from deterrence and close air support to strategic attack and securing the post-conflict peace, the Air Force must maintain a healthy bomber force as a critical component of the national security toolkit, Elder said.
Bombers can be “toggled” on and off alert, each time speaking directly to an adversary, he said. Putting them on alert sends an unambiguous message that the US is getting serious about taking action in a crisis; taking them off alert can signal a reduction in tensions. Deploying bombers to key locations within range of an adversary’s interests can serve a similar “communications” function, he noted.
A ground-based missile interceptor launches from Vandenberg. Ballistic missiles are a serious threat, but not an unsurmountable one.(USAF photo by SrA. Andrew Satran)
“They can also deter adversaries [and] assure allies,” he observed. The availability of large, precise weapons such as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator on the B-2 bomber—which could deliver an effect short of a nuclear weapon but well beyond the power of most conventional munitions—expands the versatility of the bombers and makes their being readied for combat a more serious and credible threat, Elder noted. A nation might assume the US wouldn’t use a tactical nuclear weapon; it would have no such confidence about the US using a conventional weapon like the MOP with almost as much explosive effect but without the escalation of resorting to nuclear attack.
Moreover, in an era when every weapon must serve multiple purposes and generate effects beyond their numbers, Elder said bombers offer a bargain: Under strategic treaty rules, a bomber “counts as one” whether it bears one cruise missile or 20.
“For comparatively little cost, you can add a lot of nuclear capability to the inventory using bombers,” Elder noted.
The Air Force faces tough challenges, needing to modernize with extremely limited funds while facing rapidly advancing threats, Donley said, and he observed that it would “benefit no one to play down the hard choices that confront us.”
However, he and other speakers emphasized that the situation is not beyond the Air Force’s ability to find its way through.
I don’t want to “paint a picture that is so bleak” that airmen would think the nation is turning its back on them, Donley said. Vick said these challenges “are nothing [the US] can’t overcome.”
In the course of the drawdown, Donley insisted, senior leaders will “apply best military judgment and oppose reductions that would cause irreparable harm.”
“The Air Force will make certain that our future force is an extraordinarily capable force,” he said.