We Can’t Afford to Lose the Technological Edge

Feb. 1, 1982

(This is the concluding report on the AFA symposium. Part I of the report appeared in the January ’82 issue of AIR FORCE Magazine.)

A loose grouping of defense critics bent on turning the clock back in military technology to simpler, cheaper weapons that can be acquired in large numbers was a prominent topic of AFA’s national symposium. “The New Imperatives of US Aerospace Power,” held November 12-13, 1981, in Los Angeles, Calif.

Gen. Wilbur L. Creech, the Commander of the Tactical Air Command, warned that these reformers “would not only grant the quantitative edge to the enemy but the qualitative edge as well. They would turn the clock back to cheap and simple systems.” Charges by these critics that the Air Force has an unrelenting bias toward high technology systems are unfounded, he said, stressing that “we want nothing that is more sophisticated than it need be to get the job done.” He cited the A-10, “a fine weapon system for the close air support mission for which it was designed,” as an example of the Air Force’s commitment to a balanced force.

Brig. Gen. Robert A. Rosenberg, USAF’s Assistant Chief of Staff for Studies and Analyses, pointed out that the “self-proclaimed reformers” fight technological progress and categorically favor quantity over quality. He made a clear distinction in labeling this unique group who abuse and misuse analysis when he said: “The Air Force leadership fully supports the goals of the Congress and the American people whose legitimate efforts seek reform in the defense establishment to enhance our national security in an affordable way.” On the other hand, the arguments that the reformers make rest largely on analytical legerdemain and have been around “since the first cavemen commissioned a cost-benefit analysis for proposed improvements of the Mk-1, mod zero club,” he said.

The basic fallacy of the quality vs. quantity argument is that the Air Force should fly day, clear-weather aircraft only—“nice simple fighters”—while the Soviets use all-weather, night-capable aircraft. The reformers, General Rosenberg suggested, have not learned the historic lesson that “armies move forward under darkness and bad weather.” The reformers cement their case for simplicity with the contention that the Air Force’s allegedly congenital addiction to technological complexity “provides us less capability for more money,” General Rosenberg explained.

In order to make this point, these defense critics fabricate data suggesting that USAF’s advanced aircraft are marred by unacceptably low readiness and that the cost of tactical aircraft is headed out of sight. The reality of the situation, the Air Force’s chief analyst pointed out, is that “if you had to go up against modern Soviet fighters with lots of low-cost fighters, we would end up with lots of low-quality planes getting killed.”

General Creech pointed out that the Soviet Union is producing annually about 1,300 fighters and “they are first-rate systems. … So the quality edge has been slipping away. The edge in some areas is razor-thin, and in other it’s completely gone. All of their current production fighters are technologically sophisticated.” Three of the four fighter types rolling off Soviet production lines have swing wings, and all incorporate “increasingly sophisticated avionics,” according to the TAC Commander.

Other Soviet technological advances are manifest by operational deployment of precision-guided munitions and development of a number of new fighters. The US, by contrast, General Creech pointed out, is not developing a single new fighter. The Soviets, he suggested, are not impeded by Luddite qualms and, instead, follow Lenin’s dictum that “one must either master modern technology or be crushed.”

Why “Low Cost” Costs More

The low-cost aircraft option is also a charade in any economic sense when measured in operational as well as initial acquisition costs, according to General Rosenberg: “Since low-cost planes mean less capable planes, you need more of them. In turn, you need more pilots, more maintenance people, more bases, more chowhalls, more training, more fuel, more spares, more munitions, and so on. When you put it all together, the ‘low-cost’ approach costs more in the long term.”

The mix of US fighter aircraft in terms of high performance and more modest systems is bounded by the threat and by cost-effectiveness, the Air Force’s chief analyst told the AFA meeting: “As to the threat, you must be able to satisfy minimum requirements. … If the enemy has a beyond-visual capability, you should too—or you may never get into visual range. If you get into a dogfight, I agree you want a plane that can outfly the enemy, but you don’t want to take a chance on getting blown out of the sky before you see him, and you don’t want him to be able to avoid you because he can find you when you can’t find him.”

The cost-effectiveness claims made by the Luddites in behalf of low-cost, low-performance is based on another canard, General Rosenberg suggested. “We found that if you replaced F-15s with an equal cost force of day/VFR fighters, the overall capacity actually declined, even thou you could buy four day fighters for the cost of an F-15.” He underscored the difference quality makes by citing USAF’s experiences of destroying the Thahn Hoa bridge in Vietnam during the Southeast Asian war. US aircraft flew 873 sorties, dropping unguided bombs. The US lost eleven planes and failed to destroy this strategic bridge. “When we got laser bombs,” General Rosenberg explained, “eight F-4s with two bombs each destroyed the bridge in one mission with no losses.”

The reformers’ tendency of “touting the glories of simple low-cost aircraft and condemning the technology of our modern aircraft” is tantamount to promoting a force structure that “would sacrifice more of our planes in combat and it would cost us more to boot,” according to General Rosenberg. At the same time, USAF’s best planes are not needed for all missions: “The bottom line is that a high-low mix of weapons is the most cost-effective approach to countering a spectrum of threats, and you can’t forego the high end of the mix because the enemy will advantage of your weakness and attack where you leave an opening.”

The critics’ skewed analysis forgets that USAF’s F-15 constitute less than one-fifth of the service’s fighter force, a ratio that General Rosenberg pointed out is not “unreasonably high for an around-the-clock capability for air defense and for an ability to mount offensive operations without waiting for daylight or good weather.”

Another factor taking the wind out of the reformers’ sails is that the Air Force has demonstrated that its “two most sophisticated planes, the all-weather, ‘complex’ F-111s and F-15s can exceed planned sortie rates when the proper logistics are available. During exercises, the F-15 has flown over three sorties per day for two weeks, and the F-111 has doubled its [programmed] wartime rate,” according to General Rosenberg.

Today’s Harsh Realities

One of the horror stories the reformers dwell on in their presentation to the Defense Department, other elements of the executive branch, and Congress is that the F-16 has experienced an “uncontrolled” cost growth of fifty percent in only two years. Their argument is that this hike reflects an unplanned increase in complexity and that this complexity will actually lower effectiveness. Both contentions are specious, General Rosenberg told the AFA meeting, and confuse conditions prevalent at the time of the program’s inception in 1972 with the harsh realities of today, induced by massive growth in Soviet technology.

In 1972, he explained, “the threat was MiG-19s and MiG-21s, but by the time of the F-16 production decision we were worried about the MiG-23, or Flogger. And, since Soviet avionics and munitions have progressed over time, the Flogger will have the first shot opportunity in an engagement with F-16s.” Further, the 1972 concept defined the low die of a high-low mix for a prototype flyoff stressing air-to-air capability in the form of aerodynamic performance in a close-in visual turning engagement.

The ultimate production design, by contrast, was based on USAF’s force structure requirements for the 1980s, which mandated additional dimensions for the F-16. A key consideration, General Rosenberg said, was that the “F-4 fleet, with its air-to-ground capability, had been aged by the Vietnam War and needed replacement. The F-16 was found to be a suitable airframe for the job, and its role was thus expanded from the low end of the air-to-air mix to include a significant air-to-ground mission. As with almost all systems, we will continue to improve the F-16, but we will do it based on analysis and reasoned judgment—not a blind pursuit of technology.”

The pivot of the reformers’ argument on behalf of the “simple and cheap” approach, General Rosenberg charged, is the contention that “we as a country won’t support substantial defense increases, so we should acquiesce to their low-cost approach to war. They don’t seem to recognize that we will spend more when the country agrees on the need, such as in wartime. Nor do they think that the current upturn in defense spending is anything more than an aberration. Unfortunately, if their gospel is accepted, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The crucial question is this, General Rosenberg said: “Should we accept the fiscal fatalism of the [critics] and opt for the quantity approach to war? Personally, I believe you will get the same results we got at the Thahn Hoa bridge in Vietnam—ineffective forces and an inability to do the job. I also know how the Russians would like us to answer that question.”

Tactical Imperatives

US loss of strategic nuclear superiority and the prospect of shaky, uncertain parity with the Soviets puts added strains on the other two elements of this country’s deterrent capability—theater nuclear and conventional forces—according to General Creech. In the past in the NATO arena, he said, “we had tactical nuclear superiority. That is no longer the case. Our one-time edge has gone away and now the other side enjoys superiority to the tune of about two to one in most measurable areas such as throw-weight, number of weapons, and delivery systems.” Even with the advent of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in 1983—assuming resolution of the political problems in Europe that threaten their deployment—“there are no serious prospects for us to again attain superiority and, indeed, the long-range outlook is for us to be at a qualitative and quantitative disadvantage. That, in turn, puts additional strain on the third element—conventional deterrence,” according to the TAC Commander.

In the field of conventional warfare capabilities, “strategic mobility” is likely to remain the central criterion throughout this decade, he predicted. The reason is that because of the strategy of forward defense and rearward basing practiced by the US—and after a fashion by the USSR—only “a small fraction of the forces available to each side are actually located in forward locations—and the remainder of these forces must be brought forward.”

Explaining that forces not available to the combined air-land, maritime battle at the point of contact are “essentially irrelevant,” he said, “we will need to move out in days—not weeks or months—and, once the fighting starts, we may well measure success, for replenishment and resupply, in terms of hours rather than days.” Stressing that US strategic mobility must be at least as efficient as the Soviets’, General Creech pointed out that the USSR “enjoys the geographic advantage of being seven times closer to West Germany, for example, and eight times closer to the Arabian Gulf” than the US.

The second major challenge confronting US conventional forces in the years ahead is enhanced tactical mobility, because modern battlefields represent a “dynamic environment. We must be able to go shallow or go deep, as well as have good lateral mobility and the ability to switch from role to role with our aircraft,” according to General Creech. Lastly, conventional forces in the future will have to be able to “fight around the clock. The side that can best fight at night has the best chance of carrying the battle.”

The Soviet Union, according to the TAC Commander, is focusing combat training and equipment on fighting at night within a concept of “continuous combat.” The advantage of continuous combat is that it gets the most out of available weapon systems by boosting sortie rates and firepower, General Creech pointed out. Among the pluses accruing to this country’s tactical airpower from the ability to operate at night is a “sanctuary … where our technological edge can be put to work.” US fighters or bombers penetrating at night at low altitude are beyond the reach of Soviet interceptors lacking look-down, shoot-down capabilities. Even though the Soviets are developing this capability, the bulk of this aircraft will lack look-down, shoot-down features for years to come, he suggested.

Electronic Battle

Another growth sector for conventional warfare is the “electronic battle. … The side that does best in the electronic battle will probably do the best in the overall battle—and it may well decide the battle. Certainly, if one side or the other does very poorly in the electronic battle, it has little hope of winning the overall conflict. We are paying lots of attention to electronic warfare, for example, in the development of the Compass Call jamming system that exploits the [Soviet Union’s] heavy dependence on command and control. Other examples are the EF-111, the Precision Location Strike System (PLSS), and the other electronic warfare systems that we are hoping to field.”

Terming EW systems highly critical, he said that PLSS, by pinpointing ground threats, is to the electronic battle as AWACS is to the air battle. “We must know where they are so we can destroy some, disrupt many, and avoid the rest until we can take of them.” Information generated by PLSS will flow directly to the Army’s artillery units in the battle. As the Soviets bring their SAMs forward, General Creech said, they thus will become targets for both the Army and the Air Force.

The F-4G Wild Weasel was singled out by General Creech as one of USAF’s primary EW systems that “will be around for years to come.” TAC, he said, plans to upgrade the F-4G by adding the digital avionics ARN-101 system. Eventually, a Wild Weasel derivative of the F-15 or F-16 might supplant the F-4G.

One of the Air Force’s serious setbacks in the current budget cycle was denial of funds for the development of an advanced tactical fighter. Gen. Robert T. Marsh, the Commander of the Air Force Systems Command, told the AFA meeting, “while we are very disappointed that we lost these funds this year, we plan to fight hard next year to recoup. We believe we can improve our F-15s and F-16s over the near-term—between 1985 and 1990—but in the 1990s we will need an advanced tactical fighter.” General Creech concurred, saying, “we should have a new tactical fighter under development now.” The characteristics of such an aircraft are not certain at this time, but might include supersonic cruise capability and forward-swept wings. If the principal role of the Air Force’s next tactical fighter is seen as being in the area of close air support or deep, second echelon interdiction, “we probably won’t need any esoterica in technical approach or materials; if the mission is air superiority, on the other hand, we will need advanced technologies,” General Creech said.

Runway interdiction, especially the development and deployment of munitions tailored to this task, is an area of increasing importance, according to General Creech. The JP-233 Low-Altitude Airfield Attack System under joint development with Britain—initially deemed a promising candidate for this mission—was scuttled by Congress. The result is a void that, as yet, has not been filled. As the TAC Commander put it, “JP-233 is buried, and the mourners have left the cemetery—but they are still mourning. We do need runway defeat munitions.” Congress killed the program because of “very significant cost growth” and on grounds that JP-233 “requires direct overflight of highly defended enemy airfields when in fact this mission can be performed at significant standoff ranges by the Medium Range Air-to-Surface Missile (MRASM).” As a result, the Air Force is looking for alternatives. Over the short term, these include a French design, involving a retarded bomb; over the long term, there is the prospect of completely new runway defeat munitions coupled either to MRASM or, in a complementary fashion, to aircraft, according to General Creech.

The Airlift Imperatives

This country’s ability to project force, “by itself, could provide a significant element of deterrence to Soviet military adventurism and, concurrently … bolster friendly governments that might be subjected to political and military pressure,” Gen. James R. Allen, commander in Chief of the Military Airlift Command, told the AFA meeting. Ironically, the US is in “an unbalanced posture in which our mobility forces are inadequate to meet the deployment needs of our combat forces.” As a recent congressionally mandated mobility study concluded, there is a clear-cut need for a 20,000,000-ton-mile-per-day increase in overall military airlift capacity of which at least half should be in the so-called outsize category, meaning the ability to accommodate such large and heavy items as the infantry fighting vehicle, self-propelled howitzers, and attack helicopters, the MAC Chief reported.

The demand for yet more outsize cargo capacity will swell because, by 1986, the airlift requirements of each mechanized Army division are expected to increase in total weight by about twenty percent and by about sixty percent in outsize equipment.

The Air Force’s solution to the problem, General Allen told the AFA meeting, is a new airlifter, the C-17 (formerly known as the CX), which if “purchased in adequate numbers … could eliminate the current airlift shortage.” Describing the aircraft as being capable of rapid intertheater delivery of troops and all types of cargo directly to forward bases in the deployment theater, the MAC Chief said the C-17 will operate from small, austere airfields and runways as short as 3,000 feet, thus qualifying for both inter- as well as intratheater airlift operations. (Congress dealt the program a severe setback by eliminating funding this year.) As Secretary of the Air Force Verne Orr told the symposium, USAF’s decision concerning the C-17 may come to naught. The Defense Department is to decide in a binding fashion which of three approaches offers the most effective solution to the airlift shortfall: the acquisition of modified C-5s; modification of wide-body commercial airlifters; or development of the C-17.

The Logistics Challenge

From the viewpoint of the Air Force Logistics Command, the imperative of this decade is to breathe “new life and ability into old and tired weapons. … Whether we are strengthening the wings of a transport to extend its lifespan, or modifying a thirty-year-old bomber to retain its deterrent credibility, AFLC will do what needs to be done,” Gen. James P. Mullins, the AFLC Commander, told the AFA meeting.

Another key challenge facing AFLC, General Mullins said, is modernization of its facilities to improve efficiency and lower cost. By plowing about $364 million into depot plant modernization in the 1970s, the command has already realized savings in excess of $1.2 billion. The command is pursuing modernization of its facilities through its “LIFT” program, which stands for Logistics Improvement of Facilities and Technology, and puts primary emphasis on technology. Under LIFT, he said, the command is “taking technology right out of the textbooks [and] moving it to the industrial floors of our nation’s defenses where it will provide our using commands with better products … and where it will provide these products faster.”

Capstone of the symposium was Secretary Orr’s speech dedicated to the people of the Air Force. “We can have the best planes and the most accurate missiles that the world has ever seen,” he said, “but if we don’t have the dedicated, competent personnel to man them, to see what they are in a good state of repair, and to see that the necessary parts are available when needed, then we will not have an effective Air Force.”

AFA’s next national symposium in Los Angeles will be held October 21-22, 1982.