The Air Force’s planned lease and buy of 100 Boeing 767 aerial refueling aircraft will remain on hold until next month at least—and probably beyond that—according to the Defense Department, the Air Force, and the company.
The Pentagon had expected to start executing the tanker deal late last year, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld put it on hold following the revelation by Boeing of improprieties in the way a company official approached and then hired a senior Air Force civilian employee. That employee had been involved with the project. (See “Tanker Twilight Zone, ” February, p. 46.)
Several studies are seeking to determine the technical merits of USAF’s position that its KC-135Es are in urgent need of replacement.
In February, Rumsfeld ordered the Defense Science Board to report by May on the health of the KC-135E. The DSB is to determine whether to repair or replace the E models, the oldest tankers in USAF’s fleet. Rumsfeld also directed the board to forecast the US military’s need for aerial refueling capabilities.
USAF’s Fleet Viability Board is conducting an in-depth evaluation of aging issues for its entire fleet of some 500 KC-135s, not just the E model. However, that study is not due until September.
In last fall’s Fiscal 2004 supplemental defense appropriations, Congress directed the service to prepare an analysis of alternatives on future tanker needs. Completion of the AOA is expected to take 18 months.
In February, the Air Force released a Rand study that determined the KC-135Es increasingly will need repairs and, consequently, will be less available for service through this decade. Rand analysts concluded that it would cost more each year to fix up old KC-135Es than it would to buy and operate new KC-767s.
Meanwhile, Boeing announced in February that it would slow work on the USAF 767 tanker program until the issue is resolved. This would reduce company out-of-pocket costs from $30 million a month to about $5 million a month. The first designated USAF 767 airframe—a so-called “green” 767 that will not have the necessary aerial refueling modifications—will be completed next month. A company official said it would be set aside until Boeing receives further instructions from the Air Force.
Other Tanker Prospects
Some observers have speculated that USAF could look to other aircraft, even other Boeing aircraft, in the event that the company is forced to close its 767 line before a deal can be struck. One possible alternative is the soon-to-be-launched Boeing 7E7 commercial jet. Some have suggested simultaneous development of a military tanker version would be possible. That is what was done with the 707-derived KC-135.
However, a senior Boeing official said the 7E7 would be ill-suited for tanker duty.
“The E in 7E7 stands for efficiency,” he said. The efficiency comes from the use of “very lightweight materials” to achieve long range.
The 7E7 will have too much flex in its wings and fuselage to be a good tanker, the Boeing official said. “For a tanker, you want a really rigid, sturdy platform, like the 767.”
Boeing is working on another approach, called the blended wing body, that resembles a fattened B-2 stealth bomber. It is “a very compelling technology,” said George K. Muellner, Boeing’s senior vice president for Air Force business. He believes it would make an excellent aerial refueling platform.
A BWB-style tanker could have two permanent flying booms, doubling the number of Air Force aircraft that can be refueled at once, Muellner said, adding that it would be a highly efficient tanker with plenty of room for cargo.
Boeing right now is working on a subscale prototype. However, it would be 2015 at the earliest before the company could produce a full-size blended wing body tanker.
Air Force Secretary James G. Roche, in February, told the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., that the service supports conducting the various tanker reviews.
However, he pointed out that the Air Force had long planned to include a KC-X program in its Fiscal 2006 budget request. A potential tanker lease arrangement gained momentum when the service had to increase use of the fleet for the Global War on Terror and thereby accelerated its maintenance woes.
“We felt this was a risk that ought to be addressed earlier,” said Roche.
In early March, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force vice chief of staff, told lawmakers that the Air Force has a “fleet of tankers that is not viable.” He maintained that the plan to go with a 767 modified for aerial refueling is “valid.”
He said that, when he served as the air boss for combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, he would not deploy the KC-135Es because they were too old.
“We need a new tanker,” said Moseley. “We cannot operate these 707s [the present day KC-135s] at the level that we have in the past. ”
Moseley went on to refute some proposals put forth by critics of the 767 lease/buy deal. He said, “Re-engining old 707s gives us a re-engined 50-year-old Eisenhower-era tanker—not viable from my perspective.”
On the question of looking at some airframe other than a 767-class airplane, he said that a larger aircraft would sink “through the asphalt in the desert,” while one with a longer wingspan would be “too big because we can’t park enough to do Navy, Marine, coalition, and Air Force assets.” A smaller aircraft, he said, would not “carry the load for us.”
At least one influential lawmaker, Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed a desire to get on with replacing tankers. He told Moseley at the March hearing, “We’re going to try to help you.”
Hunter wants to separate the need for the tankers from the “rest of this mess and move ahead and acquire them.”
Death of Comanche
Bitter experience with helicopters in Iraq and an overall shortage of cash to modernize its aviation forces compelled the Army on Feb. 23 to kill its RAH-66 Comanche scout/attack helicopter.
The Comanche program had been in the works for more than a dozen years and had consumed nearly $7 billion. Current Army leaders judged that they could get more “bang for the buck” if the Army invested instead in a general upgrade of the rest of their aircraft. The Comanche would have siphoned off 40 percent of the Army’s aviation procurement funding over the next seven years.
Despite its leading-edge electronics and stealthiness, the aircraft was judged too vulnerable to small-arms fire, anti-aircraft artillery, and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles.
Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, Army Chief of Staff, told Pentagon reporters, “To have Comanche survivable and to do the kinds of things we’d have to do in the current threat environment, we have to add things to Comanche, which takes away from its primary stealth capability and also requires an investment of several billion dollars.”
Army leaders also deemed Comanche less relevant to future battlefields because the Army now relies more on the capabilities of other services.
“The operational environment has changed,” said Lt. Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army deputy chief of staff for operations.
“We’ve … seen, in the war in Afghanistan, in the war in Iraq, a greater preponderance in synergy between our ground maneuver forces and our aviation forces,” Cody went on. He added, “We have now new types of capabilities to deal with the radar threat environment that, 13 or 14 years ago, we did not have in the joint force. And so that has changed.”
The Army planned to buy 650 Comanches at a cost of more than $39 billion. Only two flying prototypes had been built.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget recently targeted the helicopter program—along with the Air Force’s F/A-22 and the Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarine—for review of its “transformational” qualities. However, Schoomaker said the termination was solely the Army’s doing.
A six-month in-house study that led to the Comanche’s demise was spurred in part by heavy losses of helicopters in Iraq to small-arms fire. Army leaders said that, at the time of the Comanche announcement, nine helicopters had been shot down in Iraq. Those nine shootdowns accounted for 32 deaths.
Army officials said the Iraq war experience led them to realize the Comanches would need armor plating and stronger materials—changes that would affect the carefully shaped surfaces of the aircraft and force a redesign of the airplane.
Instead of buying 121 Comanches over the next seven years, the Army will purchase about 400 helicopters of existing types—UH-60 Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks. It will upgrade about 800 in the current inventory. The latest version of the Apache attack helicopter will use most of the Comanche’s avionics. It will have “all of the capabilities that we would have built into the Comanche with the exception of one, and that’s the low observability,” said Les Brownlee, acting Secretary of the Army.
The Army also expects to use the money it saves from the Comanche cancellation to launch a new scout helicopter project in Fiscal 2006.
Brownlee said the ongoing war and future needs make it “critical” that the funds identified for the Comanche program in Fiscal 2005 and the future years defense program “remain with Army aviation.” He said the service would submit an amendment to its 2005 budget request, sent to Congress in early February.
The Army will “weaponize” unmanned aerial vehicles to take up part of the mission the Comanche would have performed, said Cody.
USAF Continues SWA Actions
Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force Chief of Staff, doesn’t think the Air Force’s considerable contribution to operations in Southwest Asia is being noticed because it’s not on the ground—in front of TV cameras.
“One of the problems we all face, and have always faced in our Air Force, is that we make it look too easy,” Jumper said at AFA ’s Orlando symposium.
“It’s amazing to me how many people think there is nobody from the Air Force deployed right now—that we are not involved in the situation over there when, indeed, we’re working very hard every day to deal with the difficult problems that the soldiers and Marines are facing on the ground,” he observed.
Jumper feels the service must try its “very best to make sure that our contribution is noted and that we do stay visible to the decision-makers.” He said they need to understand the Air Force is “on the front line of these confrontations.”
For the record, US Central Command Air Forces reports that USAF flies about 175 sorties a day in Iraq and another 75 sorties a day in Afghanistan. CENTAF warns that these are averages and could vary considerably from day to day.
“We use the range and flexibility of assigned assets to apply airpower where required, anywhere in the theater,” a CENTAF spokesman said.
A typical daily breakdown goes like this:
Operation Iraqi Freedom: 30-40 combat sorties, 135-140 tanker/airlift sorties, and 10-15 intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance sorties.
Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan): 20-25 combat sorties, 50 tanker/airlift sorties, and 10 ISR sorties.
New “Flight Plan” Describes Transformation
An updated version of the Air Force’s “Transformation Flight Plan,” released in mid-February, details new threats the service must address if it is to be successful in future wars. It is significantly longer than the 2002 version and includes lessons learned from recent operations.
The Air Force is still evolving from a Cold War to a post-Cold War force, according to the 176-page document, which was developed under the direction of Lt. Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, head of USAF plans and programs. However, the pace of transformation is picking up.
According to the plan, the “military advantages America currently enjoys are in danger of eroding in the face of new, unique challenges.” The US must face “new forms of terrorism, attacks on its space assets, information attacks on its networks, cruise and ballistic missile attacks on its forces and territory, and attacks by chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-explosive (CBRNE)-armed adversaries. ”
Moreover, America “must cope with the unique demands of peace operations, homeland security, urban operations, and low-intensity conflicts. ”
Against these new threats, “traditional concepts of deterrence may no longer apply,” and the Air Force will have to be proficient in a widening array of capabilities.
To deal with the new reality, the Air Force will pursue new technologies or emphasize existing ones. The service’s new F/A-22 fighter and E-10 Multisensor Command and Control Aircraft are both being optimized to network with other forces, spot and destroy cruise missiles, control the battlespace, and help special forces deep behind enemy lines. To aid urban operations, USAF is developing extremely precise—but significantly less destructive—munitions to fight an enemy embedded in a city without destroying the city.
Other Air Force transformation efforts, the report outlines, fall into the categories of developing new operating concepts, working more closely with other services, reorganizing to be faster-moving and more agile, and using effects-based planning in everything from procurement to operations.
“ The flight plan digs down into each of these areas in some detail, then links them all together to present a clear picture of where our Air Force is going in support of combatant commanders,” said McNabb in an Air Force news release.
A critical element in the service’s transformation efforts has been development of its air and space expeditionary forces (AEF). That development, said one senior service official, is “not a done deal.” The use, manning, and equipping of AEFs will continue to evolve.
“That’s not all behind us,” he said. “We are looking at that with fresh eyes every day, especially keeping in mind how we can complement the other services and how they can complement us. ”
Overall, the service wants to give combatant commanders an ever-greater range of options—to include nondestructive or nonlethal means of “affecting” targets—while at the same time using smaller and smaller forces to control or disable an enemy. USAF expects to provide commanders with near-instantaneous “decision quality” information that will allow them to operate faster than an enemy can react.
USAF considers the flight plan, which is dated November 2003 but was publicly released Feb. 13, a living document that evolves as new threats emerge or old ones disappear. It is intended to guide everything from reorganization of the force to budget decisions and serves to rationalize Air Force planning with that of the overall Defense Department.
Leaders React to News of F/A-22 Review
The Air Force should build 381 F/A-22s, nd a new review ought not change that plan, according to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers.
Speaking with Air Force Magazine, Myers said he believes the 2002 Defense Planning Guidance summer study that determined USAF requires 381 of the new stealthy fighter was on target.
“Yes, I think that’s fair,” Myers said of the DPG results.
“Air superiority is going to be important in the future, more than in the last couple of conflicts,” he asserted. The fact that the Air Force was able to rapidly achieve air dominance over Afghanistan and Iraq—both of which had severely degraded air forces before the conflicts began—“doesn’t mean it’s not an issue anymore,” Myers said.
“If we get into a Taiwan crisis—potential crisis—look at the kinds of capabilities they have in China,” emphasized Myers. The F/A-22 is “going to play a big role.”
Myers was reacting to the Office of Management and Budget’s direction to the Pentagon to hire an independent consultant to review the need for the F/A-22, the Army’s Comanche, and the Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarine. The new F/A-22 review comes only 18 months after the DPG study.
As a practical matter, “major programs are reviewed almost constantly,” said Myers.
Air Force Secretary James G. Roche told Air Force Magazine, “We still feel the arguments we made on behalf of the F/A-22 [in 2002] are as powerful—if not more so—today than they were when we made them.”
Roche said of the new review, “Our sense was, OK, somehow there’s one industry that wants to crank out studies, and we want to crank out airplanes.”