A 10-Year Plan

April 1, 2012
The austerity shaping the Air Force today will likely persist, compelling potentially even tougher “tough choices” and severely limiting the service’s future options. However, there are basic capabilities that simply can’t be deferred if the US is to continue to field the world’s best Air Force.

F-35s Nos. AF-2, AF-3, and AF-4 soar over the countryside on a test flight. USAF officials say the F-35 offers capabilities crucial to the future force. (Lockheed Martin photo by Darin Russell)

Such was the message delivered in late February by USAF’s top leaders at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, held in Orlando, Fla. Their remarks, coming just a couple of weeks after release of the Fiscal 2013 defense budget request, explained the thinking behind the numbers, and they urged members of the broader USAF family to come together and support the plan, lest the service truly lose capabilities the nation demands.

“This is not a one- or two-year thing,” Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley told reporters during a press conference at the symposium. “It’s not even a five-year thing.” There will be precious little room for new starts for a decade or more, he said.

The “next 10 years are largely consumed with our efforts to continue” the F-35 fighter, KC-46 tanker, essential new satellites, and a new long-range bomber, Donley said. “We’re having to take a risk in other areas” to afford the new programs, he asserted, acknowledging some systems—and a new jet trainer to supplant the 50-year-old T-38, for example—are “unfunded requirements.” They are not appearing in the budget for 10 years or more because “we don’t see the money today.”

To organize the most pressing needs so they can be afforded over time, the Air Force had to look “two FYDPs,” or two five-year, Future Years Defense Programs out, Donley continued, which is “five years beyond … our normal comfort zone.”

There’s “no question, we are taking risk,” he said of the budget, which calls for retiring more than 280 aircraft on top of 250 already ordered to the boneyard in recent years.

“We’re leaving behind or restructuring or delaying a number of programs and capabilities that we would otherwise like to retain or proceed with, but the dollars are not there to do that. So we’re making tough choices now,” he said.

Though there will be “twists and turns in the next 10 years,” which may see an improved national economy that may make possible the return of some force structure, personnel, or programs now deemed unaffordable, “we can’t predict that,” Donley said, and Air Force plans won’t assume increased funds.

“We’ll keep the seed corn going,” Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Chief of Staff, added to Donley’s comments at the same press conference, referring to science and technology funding for advanced concepts. However, expensive new projects beyond the 10-year timeline—such as a sixth generation fighter—won’t receive “programmatic definition” until they become pressing needs, he said.

Donley cautioned that fiscal pressures from personnel accounts continue to be a challenge and threaten what modernization is in the spending plan. The percentage of its budget the Air Force spends on operations and maintenance vs. research and development has shifted significantly in just one year. In Fiscal 2012, the ratio was 64 percent to 34 percent, respectively, but in the Fiscal 2013 budget, it’s 67 percent to 33 percent. That represents a shift of more than $3.5 billion. The O&M accounts fund things such as flying hours, personnel, and maintenance of aircraft. As the average age of aircraft increases and as personnel costs rise—particularly health care costs—that leaves less for investment in new gear.

As Small as Can Be

The Air Force will perform a service life extension on some 350 F-16s, such as the one shown here. (USAF photo by MSgt. Andy Dunaway)

In his symposium speech, Schwartz said, “We will need all members of the extended Air Force family to inform and reinforce our efforts” in the weeks and months ahead, as the 2013 budget is debated in Congress. There can be no “splintering of our unity and … undermining of our shared effort,” he added.

“We may not agree with complete unanimity on exactly how to compose a smaller force in every detail, but we can all agree that we must avoid a lesser force.”

Schwartz said personnel would not be “the billpayers” in the 2013 budget request, and the positions USAF is eliminating were directly tied to the weapon systems being retired, such as maintainers on C-5A Galaxy transports and A-10 close air support aircraft. He also said the personnel level will now remain stable, “unless there [are] additional [force] structure reductions.” The Air Force, he said, is “as small as we can be for the tasks that are inherent” in the new national military strategy.

The service has shrunk by 24,000 active duty personnel since 2004, Donley noted.

However, Schwartz allowed that USAF is, to some degree, subsidizing the other services as they struggle to cope with the drawdown in overseas operations. Following his speech, Schwartz was asked about the shares of the budget the services would receive in Fiscal 2013 and USAF’s apparently smaller share.

He replied that it would be “inhumane” to try to separate more than 80,000 Army and Marine Corps troops “in one year.” The 2013 budget, he said, is a “snapshot that needs to be taken in a larger context.” There is a “glide path,” allowing the ground services to shrink their forces through 2017, and that decision demanded some “push arounds” in the overall budget. The Air Force will “have our opportunity to alter that snapshot condition … as we go forward.”

However, as to budget shares and relative importance of service contributions, “I don’t think anyone can deny the fact that the new strategic guidance is air- and space- and cyber power friendly. It’s undeniable. We’ll just have to posture ourselves in an economic and efficient way … for those requirements.”

The Pentagon’s Fiscal 2013 budget request asks Congress to authorize two more rounds of Base Realignment and Closure, one in 2013 and one in 2015. Schwartz said BRAC is crucial, because it makes little sense to spend money on “excess” capacity when the service is scrounging money for real, unmet needs.

Gen. Donald J. Hoffman, head of Air Force Materiel Command, said that in some ways the Air Force can’t wait for BRAC and is realigning to meet the more urgent need of reducing spending. A major AFMC reorganization announced in November will consolidate his command from 12 centers to five and will cut more than a thousand acquisition management positions in the process.

“We’ve postured ourselves for efficiency, whether there’s a BRAC or not,” Hoffman said. There’s “no legislation” that enjoins the Air Force from slimming down in this way, he added.

A KC-10 tanker undergoes maintenance at JB McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. The new KC-46 tanker will dominate USAF budget discussions for at least a decade, and KC-10s will stay in service indefinitely. (Photo by Rick Llinares)

There is a concerted effort on AFMC’s part to scrutinize all costs and to anticipate and define expenses that previously have simply been paid as a matter of course. The review extends even to “what it means to be an air base,” Hoffman said. Bases in remote locations will continue to have a full range of amenities and services for personnel, but places like AFMC’s headquarters at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, need not provide perks such as shopping centers, bowling alleys, and movie theaters when civilian versions are available “right outside the gate,” Hoffman said.

Donley, in the press conference, said USAF is examining any and all ways it can reduce costs. One area that has come under scrutiny is contractor logistics support, or CLS. Because many new kinds of platforms—such as remotely piloted aircraft—have “come into the force quickly” over the last 10 years to fight the wars in Southwest Asia, the normal steps of creating an organic maintenance capability, training pipeline, or even performing operational test and evaluation were skipped. However, support costs are rising considerably, Donley said, and USAF must check to make sure it’s hitting the right balance of CLS and organic support, particularly with major programs such as the F-35.

Schwartz also enjoined industry to “be on board” with USAF’s new direction, working with the service to hold down costs “relentlessly” and to design affordability into weapon systems. For its part, he promised the Air Force will strive to “keep schedules on track by stabilizing requirements, matching ambition with actual operational need, and ensuring more discipline” in advancing “appropriately matured technologies.” Industry’s job will be to “deliver capabilities on cost and on time.” Being good stewards of limited taxpayer dollars demands that USAF “avoid procuring unnecessary capability” or paying “handsome financial bonuses to industry for unmet milestones and cost creep.”

The F-35 Is Critical

The Air Force, Schwartz said, will soon be smaller than at any time since its inception in 1947.

He also noted that this is a period of transition, financially, for the Air Force and the other services. Now that the Iraq war is over and the US will soon wind down its presence in Afghanistan, USAF will need to migrate some of what it has been funding from the overseas contingency operations budget—the OCO, or “war budget”—back into the “base” budget.

“We are in the process of determining which of those functions that were funded by OCO will endure and therefore whose funding will need to be migrated, at appropriate levels,” back to the baseline budget, he said. These include functions that have sprung up during wartime, such as flying remotely piloted aircraft, as well as combat flying hours.

Schwartz said USAF has been “weaning” itself off OCO funds but must make the full transition to an all-base-budget spending scheme by 2014.

ACC Commander Gen. Gilmary M. Hostage III said he will always “trade capacity, as necessary, to maintain capability, to avoid becoming hollow.” That notion underlies the decision to field a smaller, but fully funded, force rather than a larger force that lacks for spare parts, training, flying hours, or munitions.

USAF Secretary Michael Donley addressed the need for continued modernization at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. (USAF photo by Scott M. Ash)

The Air Force has gotten used to operating in permissive airspace where its systems can operate largely unhindered by an enemy. This must change, Hostage said, noting that many potential adversaries are investing heavily in anti-access, area-denial systems. This demands that USAF invest accordingly, he said.

The F-35 is a crucial system the Air Force must have, Hostage said.

Acknowledging delays in the program, he asserted, “We must distinguish between the problems caused by a less-than-perfect acquisition record and our national security requirements.” The F-35 offers “critical” capability, and he said he’s optimistic—”based upon initial flight tests and comprehensive modeling”—the fighter will meet ACC’s needs.

As the provider of combat forces, Hostage said, “I can tell you, I want this system in my arsenal ASAP.”

He added that acquiring the F-35 “in sufficient quantities” is not negotiable. The F-35 “can in no way be considered a luxury; it is a national security imperative.”

Combining the F-22 and F-35 with a new long-range strike bomber—”another must-do”—will ensure the US sends “a strong strategic message to any potential adversary and [will] have a moderating influence on their strategic decisions.”

Hostage warned that with austere budgets it will be “tempting to drastically reduce the number of these big-ticket items. We must resist.” The Air Force must continue to field “sufficient numbers to confront regional threats simultaneously, as the new national strategy dictates.” Even the best aircraft in the world can’t be in two places at a time, and “quantity has a quality all its own.”

“If the F-35 is decremented to the levels of another low-density, high-demand fighter platform, our ability to provide sufficient joint airpower will be severely at risk,” he said.

C-27Js, such as this one at Mansfield Lahm Arpt., Ohio, were victims of the budget crunch. C-130s will continue to fill the tactical airlift mission. (USAF photo by SrA. Joseph Harwood)

It will be a careful balancing act to ensure the right mix of investment in new systems and upgrades to older ones, Hostage asserted.

The majority of ACC’s combat aircraft “do not have the ability to operate without significant risk in an advanced threat environment,” he acknowledged, but he also said not all potential upgrades will be purchased. A dollar spent on upgrading an old system is a dollar not spent on something new and more capable, he explained. Thus, ACC will pursue “selective modernization” of systems.

“We will likely have to shift away from multiple, incremental improvements and block changes and save those precious dollars for investments in truly game-changing technologies,” he said. That means “living longer” with older systems.

Donley reported that the Air Force will probably perform a service life extension on some 350 F-16s.

Answering questions after his speech, Hostage said ACC is doing “due diligence” working with the scientific community on what the “game changers” may be. Among them will be, eventually, a sixth generation fighter to succeed the F-22 and F-35—something ACC is “in the early stages” of exploring.

“My job is to look into that future,” Hostage said. However, he is “pushing back” on the concept of suspending technology requirements early in a program to promote affordability and diminish acquisition turbulence. He’s nettled by the idea “that I have to freeze a requirement right now because I’m going to buy something in 15 years. That just really frosts my cookies. And I don’t think we ought to accept that.” These are technologies, he said, that USAF is “just barely able to understand,” and it makes little sense to limit them so far in advance.

The Air Force has flattened its organization, such that now there are “lead integrators” for each of the service’s 12 core functions. Hostage said he is the lead integrator for five of those: command and control; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; air superiority; global precision attack; and personnel recovery. He will have to horse-trade funding between those core functions, he said.

The Elephant in the Room

However, “at some point, … I run out of things to cut. I can only give up so much capacity to gain capability before dwindling inventories make even the best quality less than dominant.” Hostage stated that “to remain … capable, we cannot maintain the status quo and try to do more with less. That will just lead us down the path to a hollow force.”

Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff, said at AFA’s symposium that the new strategic guidance is air-, and space-, and cyber power friendly. (USAF photo by A1C Melissa Goslin)

Undeniably, the elephant in the room at the Orlando conference was the specter of sequestration. Unless Congress acts between now and January 2013, the Defense Department will have another half-trillion cut imposed on it, as a result of the Budget Control Act of last year. Speakers at the symposium exhausted their supply of words to describe how ruinous an additional—and haphazard—across-the-board cut would be.

The $487 billion cut embodied in the Fiscal 2013 budget is “manageable,” Schwartz said. The sequestration, however, with its “indiscriminate salami slicing” that would break nearly all contracts and hamstring virtually all development, “will send us effectively back to the drawing board” on the strategy, as well as on personnel and force structure, he warned.

“If it comes about, then the strategy will no longer be current,” Schwartz said in the press conference.

Defense leaders have made an unprecedented series of presentations, both to the press and to Congress, about how the 2013 budget ties to the new military strategy, Donley said, in hopes that everyone will perceive the danger posed by sequestration.

“Congress now can see the details [of] how difficult it was to get to $487 billion,” he said. “It’s very clear that an additional $500 billion on top of [present cuts] would have severe consequences for the nation’s security.”

The Air Force is in the midst of a long series of tough choices forced on it. Adding sequestration, said Donley, “would be a disaster.”

Quality and Quantity Concerns for the Nuclear Triad

Strategic deterrence is vital to the nation’s security, and US Strategic Command’s traditional missions are evolving significantly to address changing requirements, STRATCOM Gen. C. Robert Kehler said. STRATCOM’s work is made increasingly important by the recently released US defense strategy, Kehler noted in February at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.

From the cyber realm to countering weapons of mass destruction and defeating threats in anti-access, area-denial scenarios, STRATCOM has a broad and expanding portfolio of global requirements.

Regarding the traditional mission, demands on the strategic triad are beginning to ramp up. All three legs must restructure somewhat as 2010’s New START nuclear arms agreement takes effect—and the US needs to simultaneously invest in preserving the vitality of the nuclear deterrent. The US is going to have “to modernize our force, particularly the nuclear deterrent force,” Kehler emphasized, even as sharp fiscal limitations loom in the near future.

USAF has worked hard to revitalize its oversight of the nuclear mission after a series of high-profile incidents beginning in 2007 revealed systemic problems in the service’s nuclear enterprise. “Stewardship of the most powerful weapons in our inventory requires the highest standards, which demand discipline and expertise at all levels,” Air Force Global Strike Command’s Lt. Gen. James M. Kowalski said during his speech at the symposium. By unifying the Air Force’s share of the nuclear triad under one commander, AFGSC has clear lines of authority and a tight “span of control” over its nuclear inventory today. Global Strike Command oversees USAF’s nuclear-capable bombers and ICBMs.

New START limits the US to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems by February 2018. To help meet the targets, USAF will destroy retired but still-intact B-52Gs, eliminate the remaining silos from previous ICBM drawdowns, and adjust a portion of the B-52H force to carry only conventional munitions.

Speaking to reporters after his speech, Kowalski said USAF intends to convert about 28 B-52Hs to a conventional-only mission and possibly have these airframes feature new capabilities not present in the dual-capable fleet.

Kowalski emphasized that he did not like the idea of a separate cadre of B-52 aircrews that are trained only in one mission and would like to have the conventional bombers spread out across the fleet. “Everyone needs to be trained in all those capabilities,” he said. “I have no intent to have a conventional-only squadron.”

The US is more secure today because the nation and its Russian counterparts dramatically shrank their nuclear arsenals when the Cold War ended, Kehler asserted. Kowalski echoed the point, noting the US has a “mature relationship” with its Russian counterparts in the strategic forces after years of nuclear arms reduction talks and exchanges.

In 2011, AFGSC hosted 18 Russian inspections as part of the New START agreement, Kowalski noted, and hosted a visit from the Russian Air Force’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Alexander N. Zelin, to speak about aspects of the nuclear mission.

The US has gone from a portfolio of some 30,000 nuclear warheads to a projected post-New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, he said. “I believe we are more secure today because of this path,” he said, and called the post-Cold War reductions an “extraordinary success.” But he emphasized he still had to manage the drawdown of nuclear forces to meet New START targets, and then and only then could he entertain serious consideration of further lowering numbers.

Any future force reductions would hinge on what emerges from a new Nuclear Posture Review, what weapons should be included in more negotiations with the Russians, and what the national strategy is in a decade or so.

“Then, we get to numbers,” he said.

In the meantime, the Obama Administration, in a drive to seek final approval for New START, promised billions of dollars to update the nuclear weapons complex and the Air Force and Navy nuclear platforms and infrastructure over the next decade. But those pledges were given before the Budget Control Act slashed some $487 billion from defense coffers over the next 10 years, with even larger reductions still a possibility.

Some slight adjustments have already been made to long-term nuclear plans, such as a two-year delay to the Navy’s next generation ballistic missile submarine program. There have been other adjustments which are going to be a fact of life, Kehler said of funding for nuclear modernization.

Congress is now debating the modernization profile of the triad, and some members have suggested the robust plans promised under the START process need a close look in the context of the overall budget crunch.

Kowalski emphasized in his speech in Orlando that there is “room for discussion on the right size of the nation’s nuclear force,” but while some lobby for a rapid drawdown, President Obama has made it clear that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the US will field a safe and secure arsenal. Any drawdown should be done by careful analysis, sensitive to military capabilities, and grounded in shared interests and values and the realpolitik of international relations.

Other powers do not necessarily see New START as a waypoint on a road to zero nuclear weapons. Both Russia and China are committed to near-term and long-term modernization of their nuclear forces and have active production lines for their weapons complexes.

“Our nation has enjoyed an extended procurement holiday,” Kowalski said, but Russia is updating its strategic bombers, submarines, and some missiles, and China is upgrading its land-based and sea-based nuclear weapons. China is also working on second generation land-based ICBMs, new ballistic missile submarines, and a new heavy road-mobile ICBM capable of holding up to 12 warheads.

“We have lost robustness and diversity,” Kowalski cautioned, but the US can achieve its goals of reducing nuclear weapons and managing the risk of a smaller arsenal by properly modernizing the triad.

– Marc V. Schanz