Washington Watch

March 1, 2012

2013 Air Force: Smaller but “Superb”

The Air Force wants to shed nearly 10,000 airmen and an additional 300 aircraft over the next five years, the bulk of which would go in the next year or two. The drawdown, telegraphed by service leaders for months and announced formally in February, was spurred by the convergence of federal budget cuts, the end of the war in Iraq, the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, and a new defense strategy.

According to a white paper released ahead of the Fiscal 2013 budget, USAF said that after next year—assuming the approval of Congress—it will be “the smallest force since our inception in 1947.” However, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley said the smaller force will still be “superb” and capable of handling any threat.

Top Air Force leaders said they don’t think they’ll have to separate anyone involuntarily, and pay cuts are not in the cards, though slower growth in compensation is seen as a must. Leadership also hopes Congress will agree to another two rounds of base closures, because USAF already has too few assets to spread around the bases it has, and it is shrinking further. Since 2001 USAF’s aircraft inventory has already come down by more than 500 aircraft, but in the last round of base realignment and closure, no USAF bases were actually closed.

The white paper explained the force structure changes in detail. In the paper, the Air Force said it chose which capabilities to cut as a result of the new strategic guidance “to size our forces for one large-scale combined arms campaign with sufficient combat power to also deny a second adversary, without conducting a large-scale, prolonged stability operation.” In other words, if Congress goes along with the requested program, the US military will have enough capability to win one war and frustrate an aggressor in another, but without the capacity to simultaneously sustain an extended counterinsurgency campaign like Iraq or Afghanistan.

“Our decision for the Air Force was that … the best … course of action for us is to become smaller in order to protect a high-quality and ready force that will continue to modernize and grow more capable in the future,” Donley said at a Pentagon press conference.

Some areas protected from cuts were the bomber force—including a new bomber program—as well as remotely piloted aircraft and cyber capabilities, Donley said, because these address essential USAF missions and those most likely to be needed in the coming decade. Reductions of both aircraft and personnel fell hardest on the fighter and mobility communities, which will lose 123 and 133 aircraft, respectively. The intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance fleet will be reduced by 30 aircraft.

For the most part, personnel positions to be eliminated will be those directly involved with the aircraft to be retired, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz explained. The active duty will be cut by 3,900 airmen; the Air National Guard by 5,100; and the Air Force Reserve by 900.

The three elements of the Air Force will work more closely together, Donley said, and the number of associate units among them “will go up from about a hundred to 115. And we expect that number to grow higher” beyond Fiscal 2014, he said.

“Just about every state will be affected” by the changes, Donley added.

In making choices about which aircraft to cut, the Air Force set two guidelines, he said: The aircraft retained should, as much as possible, be multirole platforms capable of doing a number of missions, and whole fleets of a given type should be divested—again, if possible—to eliminate the logistics train that goes with them.

Six squadrons of fighters will be retired, as well as one fighter training squadron, leaving 54 fighter squadrons. The bulk of those retired will be A-10s, mainly because of the multirole emphasis and the fact that the Army and Marine Corps will also shrink substantially. Not as many A-10s are expected to be needed in the future to give ground troops close air support, so 102 Warthogs will head to the boneyard.

There are “still going to be 246 A-10s in the inventory,” Schwartz stressed at the Pentagon press conference, adding that F-16s, F-15Es, AC-130s, and even bombers remaining in service can all do some aspect of the CAS mission.

The remaining fighters to be retired come from among the oldest F-16s in the inventory, Schwartz said. However, the Air Force is committed to performing a service-life extension and avionics upgrade on 350 F-16s that will be retained. This is necessary because buys of the F-35 will be slowed in the coming few years, in order to reduce concurrency between the last stages of development and production.

The buy objective of 1,763 F-35s has not changed, Donley said in a speech, sponsored by the Air Force Association, that accompanied release of the white paper, adding—with vehemence—that any change to the ultimate number “is not something we have to consider until the 2020s.” He vigorously rejected the notion that the Air Force would buy any more new F-16s to supplement squadron strength until the F-35s begin to roll off the assembly line at a high rate.

The Mobility Chopping Block

In airlift, the Air Force wants to go below the minimum T-tail inventory of 300 strategic airlifters imposed by Congress last year. USAF would like to get to a 275-aircraft fleet of 223 C-17s and 52 C-5Ms, the latter of which will have been re-engined and received other modifications. The 27 remaining C-5As would be retired.

Similarly, the Air Force wants to get rid of 65 of its oldest C-130s, leaving a fleet of 318, and forego the full-up Avionics Modernization Program on those Hercs that haven’t yet received the upgrade. There are less costly ways to get these aircraft the most essential improvements without doing AMP on them, Schwartz said.

In keeping with the guidelines to eliminate whole types of aircraft, USAF would divest itself of all 38 C-27Js. Their mission—which would have been performed by the Air National Guard—can be performed by C-130s instead. The C-27J represented a “niche” capability no longer needed or affordable with the wind down of operations in Southwest Asia, Donley asserted, and the C-130 has shown that it can do the job.

Twenty KC-135s will also be retired in Fiscal 2013, according to the white paper.

Long-term cost and performance issues with the remotely piloted Global Hawk Block 30 have led USAF to terminate the program and opt to continue operating the manned U-2 instead, Schwartz said. Although “we like the persistence” offered by the RPA, the Block 30 wasn’t going to match the U-2’s capability and wouldn’t have been cheaper to operate, Donley said.

However, the Air Force will press on with the Block 40 model of Global Hawk, which will have a ground-mapping radar function.

Rounding out the ISR reductions, USAF will retire 11 RC-26 aircraft and “total” one E-8 JSTARS aircraft damaged in an accident and deemed not economically repairable. The MC-12 Liberty will still bed down at Beale AFB, Calif., but the mission will transfer to the Air National Guard.

However, the Air Force will continue to work toward 65 “orbits” of midsize RPAs, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, and will retain the ability to surge to 85 orbits.

In each fleet of aircraft that remains in service, Donley said USAF will work to make them of “common configurations,” to increase their mission flexibility and reduce the complexity of training and maintenance. Older C-17s will receive extended-range fuel tanks like those on later models, for example.

What Hard Choices Look Like

Some new programs disappeared from the Fiscal 2013 budget. According to the white paper, “we discontinued or deferred programs that are simply beyond our reach in the current fiscal environment.”

These include the Common Vertical Lift Support Program, the Light Mobility Aircraft, and the Light Attack and Armed Reconnaissance aircraft. The helicopter was to replace Vietnam-era UH-1s, while the LMA and LAAR were meant to help partner with nascent air forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The Air Force also canceled the new Defense Weather Satellite System, and Donley said a less complex program is eyed for the future.

The flying hour program will be revised to account for greater use of high-fidelity simulators, Donley said.

In his AFA speech, Donley said the Air Force “must not … hollow” out its force because potential adversaries have learned that it doesn’t pay to allow the US “six months to get ready” for a military campaign. The future, he said, is likely to see scenarios more like last year’s Libya campaign, which went from notional to operational in a matter of days. There simply won’t be time for a big buildup of forces in future conflicts, demanding ready forces, Donley said.

Insatiable Demand for Efficiency

Although the Air Force made an all-out effort to find efficiencies and reduce overhead last year—culminating in a $33 billion reduction over the coming five years—the new budget will contain an additional $3.4 billion of forced productivity, mostly from changes in information technology and how USAF spends its money, Donley said.

Of efficiencies, he told the AFA audience, “there’s not much juice left to squeeze from that lemon.”

Donley also told reporters the science and technology accounts, as a share of the overall budget, would be left intact, though there might be some shuffling of priorities within them. As part of a DOD edict to hedge against surprises in world events, Donley said USAF is protecting its “seed corn.”

However, the Air Force said it is assuming “manageable risks” by only funding its weapon system and facility maintenance accounts at about 80 percent each.

The Army Lands on AirSea Battle

The new AirSea Battle concept, emphasizing air and naval forces to counter the anti-access, area-denial (A2AD) problem with China, Iran, and other potential adversaries has been seemingly superseded by a new Pentagon white paper to include all the services.

The Joint Operational Access Concept, unveiled in January, seeks to deal with the A2AD problem by leveraging “cross-domain synergy.”

The paper, introduced by Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, said synergy means “complementary, vice merely additive, employment of capabilities in different domains such that each enhances the effectiveness and compensates for the vulnerabilities of the others.”

The paper takes pains to recognize how specifically the Army would be involved in combating A2AD. That service has been seemingly left out of AirSea Battle, which has been touted as the template for the most likely operations of the coming decade.

Of particular interest is a “risks” section seemingly offered as a rebuttal of AirSea Battle and the broader JOAC itself. The big risks of adopting the concept are a failure “to achieve the synergy” necessary to make the concept work and the potential failure of the services to develop reliable and well-rehearsed methods to coordinate their actions.

The Army hand was visible in several identified risks.

The joint concept’s emphasis “on cross-domain combat power could be misread by resource allocators to suggest significantly less need for organic self-sufficiency,” according to the risk section.

Other noted risks suggest the operations proposed would be of “debilitating complexity”; that reliance on deep attack may be “unrealistic”; and that the concept “could be logistically unsupportable” or unsupportable under austere defense budgets.

The JOAC’s authors also wonder if the deep attack functions necessary for long-range success from standoff range may be politically hard to justify and whether they might heighten the risk of nuclear war.