Washington Watch

April 1, 2010

ABL Successful, but “Not Practical”

The Airborne Laser’s success in shooting down a ballistic missile was a fine achievement, but the system is impractical for sustained combat use. That was one of the insights offered by the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael B. Donley, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, in 2011 budget testimony to Congress.

Other assertions were that the US is hoping to get back 4,000 to 6,000 airmen it has provided to help spell Army and Marine Corps troops abroad; that USAF has a smaller shortage of fighters, now that it has reduced its fighter requirements; and that the Air Force’s reduced force structure will pose only a “moderate risk” to its ability to perform its required missions.

After 16 years of development, the ABL in February targeted and shot down live boosting ballistic missiles—a longtime holy grail of ballistic missile defense. Whereas the Air Force once anticipated a small fleet of ABLs to defend the US, allies, and forward deployed troops from ballistic missiles, such plans have been shelved indefinitely, Schwartz told members of the House Armed Services Committee.

“It was a magnificent technical achievement,” he said, “but the reality is … that this does not reflect something which is operationally viable.”

The ABL, hosted aboard a 747 crammed with plumbing and chemicals necessary to generate high-wattage laser power, is no longer “queen of the realm” of directed energy, Schwartz told the House panel. The future is “in the area of solid-state [lasers], not chemical-based lasers.”

Solid state offers “the sweet spot” in lasers, Schwartz explained that technology “isn’t as big, isn’t as heavy, doesn’t require exotic chemicals to operate, and, ideally, can be miniaturized so that it can operate, in a variety of aircraft, both large and small.” He said he’s received “indications from our smart folks that this is within the realm of the technological possibility.”

Donley agreed that the ABL has been “tremendously successful,” but is “very expensive, and it is not necessarily representative of the future of the technology.” Donley reported that the Air Force is still trying to figure out “where the directed energy program is going at a strategic level,” but he assured the lawmakers that “we have a robust DE program” and “it’s pretty well-funded.”

Return of the Prodigals

Since the early 2000s, the Air Force has supplied airmen to be drivers and gunners and to perform many other missions as a relief to overstressed Army and Marine Corps ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. With heavy demands on a fixed level of USAF manpower, though, Schwartz wants to get these “in lieu of” airmen back.

In response to questions from Rep. Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat who chairs the House panel, he reported that the number of so-called ILOs has declined to about 4,700 personnel—considerably down from a high of more than 6,000 two years ago.

“As Iraq has subsided in terms of strength, so, too, have our joint expeditionary taskings,” he said.

However, USAF will “plus-up in Afghanistan about 2,000 people,” among the 30,000 others in the “surge through the late summer of this year” and some of these will be “nontraditional” taskings—that is, jobs outside the airmen’s usual missions.

The Air Force is happy to do all it can to support the joint effort, Schwartz said. However, “as the Army grows its pool to its final end [strength], and likewise the Marines, we need to make sure that this does not become a habit. That is, they establish their combat support and combat service support in greater numbers, [and] that relieves the Air Force and Navy of these augmentation taskings.”

Schwartz said he “can’t deny” that lending airmen for jobs traditionally performed by Army and Marine troops has an “impact” on the Air Force’s readiness and its overall ability to perform its missions.

“We are not as ready across the board on all of our missions as we would be were this a peacetime setting.” He said that forward deployed forces get first call on funding, people, and equipment, but that, as a result, the readiness of Stateside bases is inadequate and continues to fall.

The Air Force has reduced its combat fighter force by more than three wings’ worth, in part to free up personnel slots that would have gone to flying or maintaining the aircraft for other missions, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Between 3,500 and 4,000 of the freed-up slots will go to ISR, illustrating that a 4,000 to 6,000 contribution of ILOs represents a huge hit for USAF.

Donley said USAF’s most “stressed” career fields are contracting, explosive ordnance disposal, and terminal attack controllers. Schwartz added other battlefield airmen to that list. However, Donley said that while the weak national economy has helped USAF with recruiting, the service is actually slightly over its end strength numbers and is “trying to manage that down in moderate numbers in the months ahead.”

Falling Fighter Force Structure

The Air Force has in recent years allowed that it faced a chronic and growing shortage of fighters, owing to termination of the F-22 program at 187 aircraft, slower deliveries of the F-35 fighter, and the early retirement of the three-plus wings of older fighters.

Asked by Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.) to discuss the shortages, particularly as they affect the Air National Guard, Donley said, “This is a … much smaller problem than it was a couple of years ago. The requirements have changed. The perception of what is required to do this work has been adjusted in the last few years.”

The depth of the fighter “bathtub”—a reference to the projected shape of the fighter inventory curve on a chart, which was level, then curved steeply downward and then upward, and becomes level again—is shallower now because of reduced stated requirements.

Schwartz said the fighter requirement is now just 2,024 aircraft, well below USAF’s stated minimum of 2,250 of just over a year ago. He also said that while the Air Force is now slated to get only 48 new F-35s a year, “we do believe that once we break out of the development phase,” USAF hopes to get 80 per year, “and we’ll be trying to even push that higher.”

Schwartz and Donley said a raft of reports on fighter force structure, investment plans, and how the Air Guard will be included in these plans will all be provided to Congress by the first of this month.

Schwartz told Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-Calif.), the panel’s ranking member, that he would rate the overall risk of the reduced Air Force inventories as “moderate … with respect to the reductions in fighter force structure” as well as in ISR.

He added, though, his wish that Congress not add aircraft to the Air Force’s budget—either fourth generation fighters or C-17s—because it needs to move on to new systems.

“Part of moving forward to the next generation platforms is not hanging on too long to legacy force structure,” he asserted. “Part of retooling ourselves to be more relevant to the joint team is growing in some areas, [while] shrinking modestly in others, which we consider to be a ‘moderate risk.’”

Doing it for the Army

With respect to the future of light mobility forces, Schwartz said he believes the Army is now satisfied with the plan for the Air Force to take over the mission to be performed by the C-27J transport.

He said that, in the past, the Army wasn’t “sure their Air Force would be there with them when they needed direct support” but that a recent test in Iraq with C-130Js demonstrated USAF’s commitment.

“We have demonstrated to our Army brothers and sisters, as well as others, that we will be there, we can do this, we will do this … with a mix of platforms, in this case [C-27s] and [C-130s].” USAF will use whichever aircraft is “optimal” for the mission at hand.

Schwartz said the Air Force is not planning on acquiring more than 38 C-27Js, though many Air Guard units not scheduled to get such aircraft have expressed a desire for them.

With regard to “direct support” to forward ground forces, Schwartz added that the Air Force has sharply increased its use of airdrops.

“Our airdrop requirements have increased sevenfold,” he said, “and that’s how we’re supporting outlying areas in Afghanistan now, … through precision airdrop of supplies.” He said that 55 percent is food, 35 percent is fuel, and 10 percent is building or barrier materials.

“I believe General Casey [the Army Chief of Staff] … is comfortable” about USAF’s direct support commitment, Schwartz said. “And if you were to ask [Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of US Forces-Iraq], I think he would tell you that we changed people’s minds. We are going to do this mission to the standard that our teammates expect.”

On Other Fronts …

Schwartz also noted that while the Air Force had asked the senior Pentagon leadership to let it forgo performing the avionics modernization program upgrade on some 221 C-130 aircraft, “the department did not accept that proposal, so 221 aircraft [are] fully funded.”

In another cost-avoidance move, Schwartz said that the Air Force and Navy will use the same ground control stations, depot maintenance, and training pipelines for their respective RQ-4 Global Hawk aircraft. “We will do those things that make sense,” Schwartz said, “to … minimize cost and maximize effectiveness. But I do not think we should overly focus on ownership. That doesn’t take us to the right place.”

Donley reported that USAF spends about nine percent of its investment money on space, “only exceeded by the mobility and the global precision strike mission areas.” He said that an Operationally Responsive Space capability—being able to put a payload in orbit on short notice—remains a high priority for the service. He hopes to “get a capability in place by the end of this calendar year.”

The Air Force has stepped up its nuclear inspections sharply in the last two years. It has gone from no no-notice inspections between 2005 and 2007 to three in 2008 and eight in 2009. They are coming “more frequently and more invasively,” Schwartz said, “not to make life hard” for the airmen, “but to ensure that we discover where we are not up to par.” It will take years for the Air Force to return to what it considers the right level of competency in the nuclear mission, Schwartz said, allowing that it had slipped in the 15 years after the end of the Cold War, and USAF had “lost the edge.” “Part of it’s institutional, … part of it is culture,” he said. “This is not a short-term undertaking. This is recreating that culture of excellence, that nonacceptance of deviation in this particular area. And we continue to work on that.” He added, “We kidded ourselves before. We can no longer do that.”