Washington Watch

April 1, 2007

USAF Readiness: Going, Going….

The Air Force can no longer say it is on the edge of a readiness crisis. It is now actually in one, and nothing short of huge budget boosts over many years can pull it out, say top Air Force officials.

USAF’s Fiscal 2008 budget, sent to Congress in February, contains a modest spending increase. However, most of it is taken up by higher costs of fuel, pay, and health care. It does not begin to bring the service out of its current funk.

A senior service official, speaking on background, said returning USAF to a healthy condition will take budget increases of $20 billion a year for 20 years.

All readiness indicators are worrisome. In Air Force “stoplight” charts—where green is good, yellow is a caution, and red is bad—assessments are sliding more and more toward the red zone. In 2004, 68 percent of USAF units were counted as “ready.” That number was bad enough, but, in 2005, it fell down to 63 percent. Last year, the figure was 56 percent.

The number of units judged to be in the “red” rose from 15 percent in 2004 to 20 percent in 2006.

This year, despite some gains in readiness accounts, flying hours will be cut 10 percent—as they are projected to be each year for the next few years—and pilots will have to depend more on simulation training. Depot maintenance is only funded at 77 percent of the needed levels. Infrastructure, one of the classic bill-payers, is now on a replacement schedule of about 275 years.

Readiness problems stem principally from the vagaries of flying decrepit aircraft. For years, recapitalization funds have been diverted to pay for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before that, equipment replacement was simply deferred.

“We really have a crisis in modernization,” USAF budget director Maj. Gen. Frank R. Faykes told reporters at the release of the 2008 budget request.

Modernization has been kicked down the road for many years. Now, a significant portion of the fleet is grounded or restricted due to age problems, but help still isn’t on the way.

For instance, USAF needs to procure roughly 110 F-35 fighters each year to offset planned F-16 retirements, but it can afford to buy only 48 per year. At that rate, it will still be buying F-35s in the 2050s—and still not have bought out its planned inventory.

Tankers are USAF’s No. 1 priority, but budget plans show that it will buy only 14 a year. That will require that the youngest KC-135Rs of today will still have to fly missions 30 years from now. They will be nearly 80 years old.

“This budget forces us to accept significant risk,” warned the service official, and, without a substantial boost, it sets the stage for USAF becoming “a smaller and less capable force.”

He added that it is “unnecessary and unreasonable” to ask the service to accept this decay. The nation could spend more on defense, he suggested, given the currently low percentage of national wealth devoted to that purpose. (See “The Chart Page,” February, p. 10.)

Murtha Demands, “Give Us a Number”

In an unusual twist in budget politics, a Capitol Hill defense baron has expressed growing impatience with the Air Force over its seeming reluctance to ask for what it needs.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, used a Feb. 12 hearing to signal his belief that the Air Force should stop negotiating with itself and just declare its requirements. Evidently, he is not the only lawmaker thinking along those lines.

At the hearing, Murtha put the issue to Michael W. Wynne, the Secretary of the Air Force, and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff. He told the two that he’s baffled as to why the Air Force continues to cut its end strength.

“Reducing the size of the Air Force … worries me,” Murtha said. “You’re getting to the point where you’re very, very on the edge here.”

Wynne said that, as the Air Force’s budget was being prepared, he had judged it to be “a stretch” for the Air Force to ask for “a huge plus-up in our budget,” so he didn’t ask.

To this, Murtha answered, “You’re endangering the future.”

Murtha said he wants to accelerate replacement of the Air Force’s old KC-135 tankers and F-16 fighters. “When I see what’s happening worldwide, I think you need to really be concerned about the future readiness of the Air Force,” Murtha said. “Quit making the changes and give us a number so that we can buy what you need.”

Congress suggests the Air Force might have to keep additional airmen in line with planned expansion of the Army and Marine Corps. USAF leaders resisted doing so because they were counting on savings from personnel reductions to help finance modernization.

A few days before the hearing, Wynne acknowledged a need to adjust Air Force end strength, but he said USAF would not try to amend its 2008 budget submission. “We’re willing to live with it,” Wynne said, because “this is a very poor time to approach the Congress” for a huge increase.

When Wynne and Moseley went before Murtha’s panel, numerous members expressed exasperation with them for not requesting more of the equipment the Air Force needs.

Wynne and Moseley promised a major reassessment of Air Force modernization and readiness spending this summer.

Those Slippery Mobility Plans

It was supposed to be nailed down. After an excruciating, years-long mobility planning campaign—with multiple requirements studies, capabilities reviews, analyses of alternatives, and so forth—the Air Force last year announced its decision: It would make do with only 187 C-17s, fix up its 111 C-5As and Bs, buy some new C-130J theater airlifters, and replace its tanker fleet as quickly as possible.

That, however, was then, and this is now. In just the last few months, the mobility plan has gone back into the meat grinder and has come out with major revisions.

The biggest item to come into question is the $12 billion C-5 upgrade program, which had two parts: the Avionics Modernization Program (AMP) and Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program (RERP). At the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in February, service leaders acknowledged that the C-5 upgrade program is over budget and that A-model renovation may not be worth the candle.

“The facts are coming out,” Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne told a news conference. He predicted that the C-5 upgrade “will undoubtedly become a Nunn-McCurdy report,” a reference to the law demanding special explanations and justifications if a major program’s unit cost jumps more than 15 percent.

“Once that happens,” Wynne explained, “the program then is subject to restructure and reanalysis and perhaps even a redefinition.” Offering no specifics, Wynne said that the scale of the overrun is “staggering.”

Last year, USAF decided upgrading the C-5 fleet would be more cost-effective than buying more C-17s. Loath to let a strong program die, however, Congress added 10 C-17s to USAF’s buying plan, bringing the total to 190 and extending the production line more than a year. (See “Aerospace World: Boeing Gets Reprieve for C-17,” November 2006, p. 14.)

Moseley says that the C-5A, even with the AMP and the RERP, will be mission-ready only about 60 percent of the time—far less than the 75 percent the Air Force was going for—and will only be good for a maximum of 25 years. That’s already inside the planning cycle for its replacement, he said.

“The real question is, do you want to spend that RERP money on a C-5A? Is it not a more interesting question to get the C-5Bs as reliable as you possibly can … and then look at what you could do with the $5 billion” earmarked for C-5A engines

Those options include some combination of buying more C-17s, cargo-capable tankers, more C-130Js, or the still-undefined Joint Cargo Aircraft, a small transport to be bought in conjunction with the Army, Moseley said.

Wynne said Congress’ add of 10 unrequested C-17s “bridges us” to allow a thorough review of the airlift situation. However, the situation will “put some pressure on us in the ’09 budget, because that’s when we think it’s going to be probably a critical time” to make some definitive moves, Wynne said.

Tanker Program Lifts Off

The Air Force in late January launched its high-priority, “winner take all,” $40 billion KC-X tanker replacement program, releasing a final request for proposals on the project.

The service then heaved a huge sigh of relief a week later, when the Northrop Grumman-EADS team announced that it would, in fact, participate as a bidder.

Why the relief? Boeing and EADS’s Airbus unit are the only makers of large airliner-class aircraft in the world. Boeing was already in the race. Without Northrop Grumman, it would have no competitor. With no competition, there might not be a program at all; it might well have been shut down by Congress.

The Northrop Grumman-led team had threatened not to bid, arguing that terms of the draft RFP stacked the deck against its KC-30 entry. Some members of Congress—notably, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)—believed the Air Force was trying to steer the project to Boeing. They said they would not tolerate a sole-source award this time, even if the program had to die.

Northrop Grumman said the draft RFP had blunted the KC-30’s advantages of larger size, greater cargo- and passenger-carrying capability, and fuel-offload capacity. It seemingly preferred a smaller aircraft focused solely on aerial refueling, such as the Boeing KC-767.

Also, draft RFP language referred to World Trade Organization disputes over subsidies that might have penalized the Airbus A330-derived KC-30.

The Air Force amended the final RFP language somewhat, giving more credit to factors such as cargo capacity, with a goal of obtaining overall “best value” to the government. The WTO considerations were also relaxed.

Northrop Grumman, after studying the new RFP, announced on Feb. 8 that its KC-30 “is a very competitive offering that fully supports the Air Force’s tanker mission.” The company thanked the Air Force for its willingness to take industry concerns into account.

Under the terms of the contest, the winner will build 179 aerial tankers to replace the KC-135E fleet, which is more than 45 years old. The Air Force plans to buy between 12 and 18 tankers a year. The Air Force has more than 530 tankers, all of which will have to be retired before 2035.

Proposals are due this month, and the Air Force has said it will choose a winner before the end of this fiscal year. Wynne has said he wants work to begin before the end of calendar 2007.

Plans call for first deliveries in 2010.

Uniformity or Diversity

Composition of the future tanker fleet might not turn out to be as one-dimensional as suggested in the RFP.

In late February, USAF Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley said the future will bring more tanker competitions and that there might be “some utility” to having a mixed fleet of aircraft.

The Chief’s words suggested the first-round winner does not necessarily foretell the winner of a second or third round.

Moseley, at a press conference in New York, noted that the existing tanker fleet is a mixture of a large number of KC-135s and a small number of much larger KC-10s and that USAF may want to obtain a similar high-low mix in the future.

Boeing in February said it would, in fact, offer its KC-767, based on the commercial 767-200ER because, after reviewing the RFP, it saw no value in offering a larger airplane. It had considered offering a tanker variant of its 777 airliner, which is similar in size to the KC-30.

Mark McGraw, Boeing vice president for tankers, said the company even rejected the somewhat longer 767-300ER design because the business case just did not justify “carrying around an extra 19 feet of aluminum.” Speaking at an Arlington, Va., press conference in February, McGraw and other company officials said their reading of the requirement indicates that USAF wants an aircraft small enough so that many can be crowded onto small forward airstrips and distributed over a wide geographic area.

Italy and Japan have each ordered four KC-767s. If it wins the program, Boeing would build the airplane on its civilian 767 line at Everett, Wash., and militarize and test it at the company’s Wichita, Kan., plants.

Northrop Grumman maintains that its KC-30, carrying 45,000 more pounds of fuel than the KC-135, with faster pumping capacity and the ability to make a quick switch to a large cargo or passenger configuration, is a good bet to win. At nearly twice the size of the KC-135, it will offer prodigious cargo-moving capacity when not being used as a tanker.

Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and the UK have all signed up to use the KC-30.

Should it win the tanker contract, Northrop Grumman would conduct final assembly in Mobile, Ala.

Previous chiefs of Air Mobility Command have promoted the two-tanker concept. With two types, there’s less possibility that a serious technical problem could ground the entire fleet.

Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, commander of US Transportation Command, said last year he thinks the next tanker should be a combination tanker-cargo aircraft.