The Risk Goes Up

April 1, 2007

The Air Force is losing its battle to strike a balance between fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while providing long-term investment in future readiness, service leaders reported at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.

For the time being, the Air Force is meeting its heavy commitments to both operations—by juggling people and money, by seeking ever-greater efficiencies, by shifting some attack options to the cyber world, and by applying lessons learned along the way. It is also looking ahead to both the technical and political realities of dealing with rising challenges—and challengers—beyond today’s fight, in the Pacific and elsewhere.

However, because its future investment accounts have been consistently raided to pay for the demands of today, the Air Force is facing a decade-long period in which it may not be able to fight two major regional contingencies in close succession, as called for in the national strategy.

That’s the assessment of Gen. Ronald E. Keys, head of Air Combat Command, who told Air Force Magazine in an interview during the symposium that USAF is going to “have a one-MRC force for a while. That ‘while’ could be 10 years.”

Keys was referring to the fact that USAF’s fighter force, much of which has reached or exceeded its planned retirement age, will not be renewed at the needed rate. Specifically, the Air Force’s budget calls for a maximum of 48 F-35s a year—less than half of what it would take to replace the F-16 fleet in the needed timely manner.

Keys said 48 “is not the right number.”

No matter how good the new fighters may be, relative to those they replace, they cannot be in two places at the same time “or three places at the same time,” Keys said. When called for, the fighter force is likely to already be deployed somewhere, he said. If another emergency pops up, he said, it will take longer to prosecute a fight and likely cost more lives.

Keys’ warning about increasing risk was echoed in more general terms on Feb. 28 by Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said US military action in a second theater would be “less precise and more heavy-handed” than it should be. However, Pace said the question is “not whether … we will get it done.” He asserted: “No one in our country or any potential adversary should question our ability to handle another crisis tomorrow.”

The slower replacement rate means that it will be necessary to keep existing fighters going longer than now planned—and they have already been stretched, Keys said.

“The question is, can you bridge that gap with current airplanes?” he asked.


The situation raises a Catch-22 in Keys’ mind: If the Air Force can’t get the money it needs to buy new generation aircraft, it will have to patch up the old ones and somehow lengthen their lives and capabilities to keep them relevant. But such life-extending is expensive, and if the Air Force can afford it, then it should apply those funds to buying new airplanes.

“It is ‘pay me now, or pay me later,'” Keys asserted, adding that the ACC chief who “follows me, or the one that follows him, is going to have to face up to this.” (See “Making the Best of the Fighter Force,” March, p. 40.)

ACC has scrutinized the problem “two dozen ways, probably,” Keys said. No easy answers have emerged, and all are scenario-dependent.

The last time the Air Force was in such a huge predicament, he said, it raided the readiness accounts to put hardware on the ramp, creating “the hollow force of the ’70s,” Keys said.

However, “we can’t do that today. We’re in the middle of a war. We have to preserve our readiness and still recapitalize, and the only place you get that kind of money is from reducing people and platforms.” Even so, readiness accounts are ailing because the costs to keep up old airplanes “has gone up 87 percent, and it’s climbing. That’s a staggering cost.”

“The only good news in all of this,” Keys reported, “is, the train wreck is not happening inside the budget cycle, so I don’t have to do something today. I have time to build my plan.” The time will also be important to build what Keys called a “coalition” of support in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, and in the White House to recognize the urgency of the replacement issue.

Can USAF “live with” the glacial rate of replacing worn-out airplanes

“You can live with anything; it’s just a matter of how much risk you want to take,” Keys explained.

Keys reported that ACC is exhausting every conceivable work-around to diminish the impact of dwindling capacity. The new long-range strike system, he told reporters, could perform some of the role of a gunship, and Keys said provisions will be made—holes, wiring—to allow that to happen as the strike system takes shape. It would be able to fill the role even better if destructive lasers come along.

Cyber Substitutes

In his speech to the symposium attendees, Keys also touted the development of cyber capabilities for both attack and defense. Cyber-attacks could substitute for kinetic attacks under certain circumstances, he told reporters, potentially offloading some of the burden carried by combat aircraft.

However, cyber warfare is its own domain with its own demands and not simply a substitute for aircraft and munitions.

Keys told reporters at a press conference that he sees three levels of cyber-enemies in the world. The first level comprises smart people who “are trying to get a trophy,” to be able to boast that they broke into a difficult security system and caused disruption. Level two includes people who “have money,” such as organized crime, drug cartels, and terrorists, and who are making attacks to achieve a political or financial end. Finally, there is “state sponsored” cyber-attack.

“Not only do you have money behind it, but you’ve got some fairly high level technological stuff,” Keys noted. He also pointed out that hacker tool kits are readily available on the Internet, and some Websites are actually subscription services that send out updates to clients when better defenses are developed—a reverse form of anti-virus protection.

Keys noted that most computer chips are now manufactured in China.

“Do you think they’re putting anything in those chips?” he asked rhetorically. “If they’re good enough, how would you know? [Until] the day comes and they pull a lever and everything shuts down.”

The efforts now under way—with a Cyber Command; dedicated cyber squadrons and wings; and growing integration of cyber awareness, defense, and attack—are to make sure that a computer attack does not represent “a single point failure,” like aerial tankers or space access, Keys said.

The threat to individuals, the economy, and government from modestly funded cyber-enemies is “scary,” Keys summed up, and USAF is stepping forward to confront it.

No Zealots Needed

“I have to balance risk, … capability, and … transformation,” Keys asserted. “I can’t afford to be a zealot, and I don’t [have] the money to be a zealot, so I’ve got to figure out what the right answer is.”

All these priorities are “competing for limited resources,” he said.

“Sometimes it forces us to stop doing things we’d like to do or delay things that we need to in order to meet some future demands, and that’s why you see buys being truncated, installs of equipment not being done fleetwide.”

He said he’s leery of “the golden BB” that will solve all his problems and is instead looking for capabilities that make all his systems better and more adaptable to “prevail at irregular warfare.”

Keys told his industry listeners that he wants advanced hyperspectral sensors that can penetrate foliage and even the earth, “machine-fused intelligence,” open architectures, collaborative systems, and persistence that is “weeks, even months, long.”

Flying hours are being reduced by 10 percent a year in the budget just tendered to Congress, Keys noted, and some of that reduction will be made up by simulation time. However, the war has “masked” the flying hours situation, he said, and many pilots are getting many extra hours of combat flying time, which helps make up for the reduction.

Despite the difficulties, Keys said, “we’re dealt a hand and we’ve got to play it. So we’re going to balance … acquisition and sustainment and ensure we can do the things we have to do today in the war, and we’ll build a force for the future.”

Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, head of Air Mobility Command, told the symposium that his organization has managed to sustain a breakneck pace of operations by learning on the job, by being adaptable, and by selectively using hardware innovations.

“After five years of … this Global War on Terrorism, we have gotten pretty good at this,” McNabb said, noting that AMC is lofting about 900 airlift or tanker sorties a day, or about one every two minutes, worldwide.

The key to pulling it off, McNabb said, is aiming for “velocity” in every step of operations. He said AMC has mimicked NASCAR pit crews and Southwest Airlines in trying to steadily reduce turnaround time between missions, getting the effect of more aircraft by keeping the ones he has in the air almost nonstop.

Another way to streamline and make more efficient the activities of AMC aircraft was to close down various en route planning facilities and consolidate everything at the Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott AFB, Ill., AMC’s home base. From there, he said, AMC has clear visibility into its entire fleet at a glance.

Optimize the Flow

“We can really optimize the flow” and manage the sequence of where things go, when they show up, and when they move on to their next destination, McNabb explained. Aircraft are moving with fuller loads, cargo is reaching its destination faster, and the whole system is more responsive to commanders who either want to reroute aircraft or stop the process entirely for an emergency.

Analysis of the way cargo is moved has either deleted steps in getting gear to the front lines or been rationalized better to make breaks and transshipments more logical, McNabb reported.

The whole system, he said, is “rapidly tailorable for max effect.”

Moreover, AMC has created new ways of managing people, both active duty and reserve, to reduce their individual burdens. Some reservists are being called for shorter periods because they can manage these better with their regular jobs, allowing them to volunteer more readily.

There have been some technical innovations that have also improved AMC’s wartime edge, McNabb said. Precision airdrops have been instituted, relying on GPS-aided instrumentation to put parachute-laden gear closer to where it needs to go—in some cases, within a few feet. The new wrinkle is that these drops can be made from much higher altitudes, above small-arms fire and even some anti-aircraft systems, such as man-portable missiles.

It is the getting-shot-at part that McNabb said causes him to lose sleep. Most AMC aircraft are large and slow and make an inviting target for enemies on the ground. The fact that, early on, the flight patterns were predictable made getting in and out of forward bases hazardous. AMC aircraft were shot at “215 times in ’06,” McNabb reported, and the knockdown of a big American aircraft is a main goal of many US enemies.

To combat the problem, AMC has trained its pilots to act unpredictably, to vary their approach and departure patterns, and to routinely perform maneuvers once only done by highly trained special operations pilots.

Tactics, techniques, and procedures are constantly being adjusted to keep the crews and their aircraft safe. Other innovations include widespread use of night vision goggles for nighttime takeoffs and landings and “spiral” approaches.

The crews are using these procedures “every day and they’re doing it safely,” McNabb said. His big wish is to put more self-defense systems on aircraft as soon as possible.

First, a Tanker

McNabb said he’s delighted that the Air Force has finally gotten its KC-X tanker competition under way and emphasized that the aircraft will be a “tanker first,” rather than a mixed-use aircraft. It will be employed as a cargo airplane if the tanker requirements are moderate on a given day, he said, and AMC will look into the use of tankers as data and communications relays, but not as a primary function. In fact, such a capability, if put on tankers, will have to be transparent to the crew, meaning that such a capability will function automatically, without the crew’s involvement.

The new tanker will be able to refuel with both hose-and-drogue and boom equipment on the same mission, McNabb noted, and this will make a huge difference in the velocity at which aircraft of dissimilar types can be refueled in midair. It will also be able to operate in the “sweet airspace” where temperature, winds, and other conditions make for the most efficient flights.

McNabb said AMC’s efforts have directly reduced casualties in the ongoing wars. He noted that, thanks to a determination to put lives first, wounded soldiers have better than a 90 percent survival rate if they can be moved to an aircraft. (See “The 90 Percent Solution,” October 2006, p. 60.) Also, the decision to move a great deal of cargo shipment from road convoys to aircraft has taken personnel off the roads, where they would be subject to mines and roadside bombs.

“What a difference this has made; it has saved lives.”

As an instrument not only of resupply in wartime but also as an answer to humanitarian distress calls and noncombatant evacuation operations, AMC “gives us great ability to slow down events or speed them up, to play or not to play, but everybody knows we have it.” No other country, McNabb said, has our “ability to move.”

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are commanding the attention of the Air Force in many ways, but in the long term, it is the Pacific region that will “be the primary interest for our children [and] … grandchildren,” according to Gen. Paul V. Hester, head of Pacific Air Forces.

Hester said that the Pacific’s huge and growing influence in the world economy and the military rise of China and India mean the region will command greater focus by USAF, and it is preparing now to meet that challenge.

There is no NATO-like organization in the Pacific that keeps nations there “talking, … not shooting at each other,” Hester said. Toward that end, the Air Force is taking steps to create cooperative arrangements for the region’s air forces.

He said he is planning to engage various countries in jointly buying, operating, developing, and sustaining Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft. He envisions a joint effort with the aircraft, based at Guam, that could provide information on the region giving many participants both an insight into each other’s military activities and a common program to foment more cooperation.

“We’ve started our investment in platforms and technologies that can be revolutionary in the ability to build coalitions and find common agendas for building answers,” Hester asserted.

“We will bed down roughly 10 Global Hawks out in Guam starting in ’09. No bullets, no bombs, no missiles, only sensors. If crafted correctly, we have an opportunity for an American platform to fly jointly funded, researched, and produced Australia and Japan sensors on it, run by Indian software, downloaded into a multinational assessment center in Singapore, … drop into Thailand, and do a gas and go at a refueling station, and then get up and go out into the Indian Ocean to go help our friends in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or others who need our assistance with the persistency of this [intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance] platform.”

Beauty of the Plan

The beauty of such a plan, Hester said, is that it will build cooperation and a means to get a common picture of the region “before there is a crisis, not after the crisis has started.”

Potential partners will be able to participate in an experiment this summer either by coming to Guam or traveling to a command center in Hawaii to “see all the sensor data that is published and put to us” from an analysis center at Beale AFB, Calif.

Hester called it an opportunity for countries to get involved in regional activities, to provide “overflight … alternative airfields, pick the routes, pick the targets to look at.”

Numerous countries have accepted offers to participate in wargames run at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, PACAF’s home, Hester reported. The Air Force has also sponsored and underwritten a number of small airpower symposia in various Pacific countries, he said. “The common feedback to us was, we need to do more of this. Sit around a tabletop, talk, look at a problem, discuss, … talk some more. It is the start of how to solve common problems.”

Guest countries are also more frequently accepting offers to come train at Red Flag Alaska, he added.

The current deployment of F-22 Raptors to Kadena AB, Japan, is the first step in introducing this new capability to the theater, Hester noted. Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, will be getting a full squadron of F-22s over the next year, and by 2011, there will be two squadrons there and one in Hawaii. Eight C-17s are based at Hickam and eight more are coming.

Guam, however, will be the centerpiece of the Pacific engagement strategy, Hester noted, saying that island facilities are scheduled to receive $14 billion worth of improvements over the next 10 years. Guam will receive large improvements in infrastructure. The Navy will be in charge of military construction activities there, because 16,000 marines and family members are being relocated to permanent bases on Guam, from Japan, by 2014. More and more exercises, particularly with Japan, are being run on Guam.

Kadena is also gaining in importance, given its location in what Hester called the “strategic triangle with Alaska and Hawaii.” Kadena will get a battalion of Army PAC-3 Patriot missile defense systems soon, “pointing to the north” toward North Korea.

Yokota AB, Japan, will soon get a Japan Air Self-Defense Force air operations center, to be integrated with USAF facilities there. It will focus on national defense, “including ballistic missile defense,” Hester reported.

There has been discussion that Korean takeover of operational control of joint forces in wartime might signal a change in the role of the Air Force there.

However, Hester said that “American airpower is going to stay on the Korean Peninsula in the same form it is today, as long as the Koreans continue to ask us and we have an alliance agreement with them.”

As operational control of ground forces shifts to Korea in 2012, it remains to be determined how air forces will be coordinated or commanded.

“We’re working our way through with the doctrine center” about how to work the issue, Hester said, “as to who’s in control and how that might blend with an operational commander that might be a Korean.”