Washington Watch

Feb. 1, 2006

Accommodating the QDR

The Air Force has lost its battle to get 381 F-22A Raptors from the Bush Administration and will have to drop 40,000 personnel by 2011 to afford its overall procurement program. These are among the principal budgetary effects of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, set for public disclosure this month.

In their first joint press conference, new Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and the new Chief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, said in mid-December that they will live with the Administration’s imposed cap of 183 F-22As—renamed from F/A-22s—by extending the service lives of other fighters and depending more on advanced unmanned systems. However, they feel they won an important victory by persuading the Pentagon to extend the F-22A production line two years, until F-35 production is under way.

The personnel cuts will be absorbed as much as possible through reduced accessions and normal attrition, they said, adding that some of the cuts were coming anyway, due to the reduced support needs of the service’s modern systems.

The Air Force also will no longer fight to win a larger airlift fleet, because it believes that the cargo aircraft of today, supplemented by some new aerial tankers and a substantial C-5 upgrade, will be adequate to the tasks ahead, Moseley and Wynne asserted.

The two top USAF leaders spoke to reporters shortly after the conclusion of QDR deliberations and the issuance of program budget directives regarding affected programs.

“We’re going to have to take into account that the Air Force that we had planned on a few years ago may not come to fruition,” Wynne said, “but I will tell you, that has been a fact of life in the Department of Defense for some time now.”

Clipping the Raptor

The QDR will allow funding for about 179 F-22As, but Moseley said that freezing the design at its present configuration will reduce costs, allowing USAF to get an additional four airplanes due to the savings.

Most importantly, though, the restructuring of the program will extend production from 2008 to at least 2010, a step Wynne described as critical.

“I think it’s a national imperative that we continue to have a fifth generation fighter line warm until we get a second fifth generation fighter line,” Wynne asserted. He defined a “fifth generation fighter” as one combining modern attributes such as stealth, speed, and modern avionics.

He said that it appeared that the message about keeping a modern stealth fighter production line going had gotten through to senior Pentagon leadership. While it was not at that point a final decision, Wynne said he expected the F-22A production rate “will diminish so as to allow an extension.”

Air Force officials had suggested previously that the production rate would drop from 24 a year to 20, versus a maximum efficient rate of 32. The reduction in rate would stretch production by two years. Not coincidentally, the move also pushes decisions on the final number of F-22A to be built into another presidential administration. The Bush Administration has consistently blocked the Air Force’s efforts to build what the service has maintained is the minimum fleet size needed: 381 aircraft. Service leaders said privately that the extension offers a chance to make the F-22’s case with a new administration.

Moseley told reporters after the press conference that the F-22’s cost will go up, but he thinks the flyaway price of the aircraft can be held under $150 million a copy. It is now about $130 million a copy.

With 183 aircraft, Moseley said he can “field seven squadrons.” With them, “we can get at the theater tasking and we can respond to that tasking.” He added that the seven squadrons are “full-up, combat-coded” aircraft and don’t include training units.

However, it would take changes in the size of squadrons to get seven combat-coded units out of the 183 aircraft. At 24 airplanes each, seven squadrons would add up to 168 aircraft, leaving just 15 in training, test, and servicing. The Air Force has been touting 60 as the minimum number of aircraft needed to conduct training with the Raptor. Moseley did not speak to the discrepancy.

The Unmanned Option

Obliquely addressing USAF’s acceptance of the smaller F-22 buy, Moseley noted that “another part of this … that we didn’t have 10 years ago is the J-UCAS and the UCAVs and the ability to get into some really interesting unmanned systems.”

Unmanned combat aircraft are adaptable and flexible, having risen to every challenge so far, Moseley asserted.

“We know how to do unmanned vehicles in combat,” he said, adding that technology advances in the unmanned arena create “another set of opportunities that were unforeseen 10 years ago.” He suggested that such aircraft could affect the mix of combat aircraft in the future. They were “not in that equation a few years ago.”

Such a perspective on unmanned systems is consistent with the views expressed in a recent Pentagon report suggesting that drones capable of dogfighting as well as a human being could be available in 15 years or so. (See “Will We Have an Unmanned Armada?” November 2005, p. 54.)

Moseley also explained that the Air Force is reverting to the designation F-22A to underscore the fact that the configuration is being held steady and that future improvements are being kept in development for the time being. He also said the “F” designator is in keeping with Air Force heritage; the service has no history of using the “F/A” nomenclature the Navy adopted for the F/A-18 Hornet.

Former Air Force Secretary James G. Roche designated the Raptor the F/A-22 in 2002 to emphasize its attack capabilities. The move was aimed at some in the Pentagon leadership who believed the aircraft was limited to dogfighting, instead of the multimission tasks actually envisioned.

The redesignation also is meant as a signal “to the program manager” and anyone who would keep adding missions and requirements to the F-22, Wynne said.

The Air Force wants to “tamp down any enthusiasm for change,” he noted.

“We want to make sure that we have an airplane that we can reproduce. It is the finest fighter, and it has exceeded our expectations in test, and right now what we want to do is just repeat it over and over. … So we are holding configuration relatively constant, except for safety changes.”

Moseley noted that the F-22’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities are well advanced, and he said the fighter’s avionics make it “equally capable” as an RC-135 Rivet Joint or EC-130 Compass Call. It was the first time the scope of the Raptor’s ISR capabilities had been described in any way by a senior USAF official.

Initial operational capability of the F-22 was only a few days off when Moseley and Wynne spoke (see “Aerospace World: Raptor Declared Operational,” p. 20.), and Moseley admitted that the F-22 would likely not be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, where its capabilities are not really needed right now.

However, “the more urgent need is to get them into joint and combined exercises to be able to demonstrate [the F-22’s capabilities] to our joint partners, and to be able to exercise in a more robust manner to get the logistics base down.” Moseley anticipated a Pacific Theater deployment later this year.

Wynne said the QDR put the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program “through tremendous analysis, as it should have, because it is a very large, high dollar program.” He said that, again, the outcome was not final, but “it appears to me … that the Joint Strike Fighter program will stay intact.”

Bleeding Blue

The cut of 40,000 personnel will come out of the Air Force over the course of six years, Wynne said. “We’re talking … 6,700 to 6,800 a year,” which he described as “manageable.”

To the maximum extent possible, the cuts will be achieved through attrition and voluntary departure. If involuntary separations are needed, “we have a very … structured plan, and a good one, to try to minimize any disruption in people’s lives.”

The Air Force has begun to look at ways to reduce accessions such that no preventable shortages are created in any particular field years down the road, Moseley said.

He noted that 13 percent of officer specialties and 20 percent of enlisted specialties are “stressed,” meaning there are not enough people to go around in those career fields. His first priority, before involuntarily separating people, will be to give them a chance to cross-train into some of those undermanned areas.

Second, he wants to try to get separated people into the Guard and Reserve, and then he wants to offer “opportunities to move into Air Force civilian billets.”

The Air Force doesn’t want people it has trained and cultivated to “leave with a bad feeling in their heart,” Wynne interjected.

Moseley added that, if there’s no place for an involuntarily separated person in the range of Air Force careers, opportunities will be made to switch to a different service.

The cuts in manpower stem from “lessons learned,” Wynne said. The Air Force can “better manage” the “application of lean principles,” meaning doing more with fewer people, thanks to streamlined processes and new equipment that is less manpower intensive.

Normally, manpower goals for six years out would not be part of the budgeting process, he said. However, in conjunction with all the other QDR-driven changes, Wynne said he “wanted to establish firm goals” so commanders would keep sharpening their efforts to be more efficient.

“We believe that it is time for us to modernize into [less] manpower-intensive equipment,” Wynne noted. There will be a huge reduction in the people needed to repair an F-35 vs. an F-16, which he called “a pretty highly reliable airplane.” The reason, he said, will be because few actual repairs will be needed. Components that break will be pulled and sent back to the factory and a new one plugged in. Just as people can no longer fix their own cars, neither will flight-line technicians do much actual repairing of aircraft, he said.

Living With the Elderly

“We have an aging fleet,” Wynne observed. “We are … on the fourth step of a ‘12-step program,’ recognizing that we are going to have an aging fleet for the rest of our careers, if you will.”

He said that it would take an annual buy of 180 aircraft to keep the Air Force at its present inventory age, but the service is only buying 80 or so.

“There is no doubt that what we have to do is learn to live with an aging fleet,” which will require advances in understanding how you do maintenance “better and less expensively.”

The process of facing up to the advanced age of many Air Force systems has been “an eye opener,” Wynne said, noting that USAF has never retired an aircraft because of age before; always it has been because of obsolescence. He will have to establish criteria for retiring aircraft due to age.

The retention of older aircraft means “what we need to do is re-engine some,” Wynne said. “Fortunately, the Congress also sees it that same way, so we may get to re-engine aircraft like AWACS and perhaps some JSTARS along the way.”

Incorporating new engine technology could extend ranges and mission times. “This would change things fairly dramatically,” Wynne observed.

As for Mobility …

“We’ve accepted pretty much the output of the Mobility Capability Study,” Wynne said. As long as the Air Force gets a C-5 upgrade and a new aerial tanker—which will be a combination cargo carrier/tanker—then “we’re feeling not uncomfortable,” he asserted.

The MCS looked at every mobility asset and “scored it for the likelihood of usage,” he explained. For a broad range of contingencies, the bulk of equipment will travel by surface, and the people will go by air. Using the MCS logic, “it became really obvious that we had an overage, a margin” in airlift, Wynne said. By not curtailing the lift fleet, keeping the Civil Reserve Air Fleet healthy, and by adding the versatility of dual-use tanker, the US will have a “sufficient margin” in lift, he said.

Wynne said no firm numbers on how many of a notional new tanker will be needed.

“We’re still examining that,” Wynne said. The reason no decision has been made is “we’ve done some business case analysis that shows that re-engining [of KC-135s] will actually reduce the quantity of tankers that we [need].”

Of a new combi tanker, he said, “I’m convinced … it’s going to be more than 100, but I have a feeling it’s going to be far less than 500.”

That conclusion means the Air Force will stop buying C-17s after the 180th aircraft has been delivered. Wynne said this was not the same kind of issue as maintaining a fighter assembly line, however, and that there’s no need to keep the C-17 line going to preserve the option to buy more.

Boeing, the builder of the C-17, “is a company that actually has large airplanes in [its] inventory. They have the engineering talent” to design a new big airlifter if one is required, Wynne argued.

“It isn’t quite the same as … closing down a fighter line with no available engineering support.”

Moseley also noted that newer systems need less airlift support, and this helps drive down the need for cargo aircraft.

To deploy an F-15 squadron, “it’s about 15 C-17s. For an F-22, it’s going to end up being about seven. … The modernization of the inventory reduces the amount of airlift that you need,” he said.

The Army has been moving toward smaller vehicles and units in the last few years and has stated expressly that it is sizing itself to be movable by air. The Stryker vehicle, for example, was designed specifically to fit inside a C-130 tactical transport.

Wynne and Moseley said that’s all to the good, but the Army will still have to do most of its big deployments by surface. The Air Force, with the C-130 and the C-17, will retain enough airlift to do special missions, such as the transport of people and tanks to northern Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but such moves will be the exception, not the norm.

“You’re not going to launch 180 C-17s with one tank aboard,” Moseley asserted. “You will move what the Army needs. … In terms of moving heavy armor, … we can do that, but [airlift is] not the best way to do that.”

Moseley also said the Air Force is “partnering” with the Army on a new light cargo aircraft, roughly akin to the C-123 Provider of the Vietnam era, that will support far-flung troops well away from large airfields.

“We are looking at how we can help them,” Wynne said.

Moseley said it hasn’t been decided yet if the aircraft will be fixed-wing, a helicopter, or some hybrid such as a tilt-rotor.

He also said that while such an aircraft would be eminently useful in current operations, and in hurricane relief efforts last year, there’s no way to know if it will still be useful “20 years from now” after a long design and development cycle. “It might.”