Washington Watch

April 1, 2012

A Total Force for the Long Term

In the Fiscal 2013 budget request, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve were cut more deeply, in percentage terms, than the active force. That was a deliberate move on USAF’s part, said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz.

In previous rounds of post-Cold War budget slashing, active forces were the ones cut the most. As a result, the nonstop operating tempo of the last 10 to 20 years has been harder on the active duty than on the Air Reserve Component.

Schwartz, speaking with reporters in February, said most of the choices made for the 2013 budget were based on avoiding a “hollow force,” meaning he wants to ensure that whatever forces USAF fields are ready, well-trained, and properly equipped. Maintaining more force structure on the books than the service can provide resources for is unhealthy for morale and retention because troops will hear the service boast of its prowess but “know differently.”

The personnel choices in the budget were made so members of all components “can see themselves in these jobs for the long term,” without fear of being overdeployed or unable to live up to the billing of the world’s best Air Force, Schwartz said.

“If Congress decides not to proceed with some or all of our recommendations,” Schwartz said, “it is a zero-sum game,” and cuts will have to be made elsewhere.

“The thing that I lose sleep over,” he continued, is if Congress insists on an approach of ‘keep what you’ve got, but do it on less money’—that is the quickest way to a hollow force I know. I don’t think anyone wants that.”

He asserted that if Congress rejects USAF’s approach, fine, but the alternative “needs to be something that’s equivalent in terms of capability and cost.” Schwartz then added, “And I must tell you: I know how hard it was to do this. I’d like to see what others propose that’s any easier.”

Hell to Pay

Schwartz expressed his “profound disappointment” over what appeared to be yet another acquisition snafu, this time pertaining to the Light Air Support system, which USAF is acquiring for the Afghan Air Force so it can provide its own troops with close air support after the US withdraws from that country.

The Air Force at first ruled that Hawker Beechcraft’s bid would not be considered—a decision the company legally protested—then awarded the contract to Sierra Nevada. However, the Air Force discovered documentation of the source selection “didn’t meet standards,” Schwartz explained in a Feb. 29 Washington, D.C., meeting with defense reporters.

USAF on March 2 set aside that source selection. Schwartz announced that Gen. Donald J. Hoffman, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, had launched an inquiry into the affair.

Asked if this was evidence the Air Force really hadn’t gotten its act together since the excruciating missteps involved with replacing USAF’s KC-135 tankers, Schwartz maintained that the “second tanker go-around” went well. But on the Light Air Support aircraft, “candidly, … if in fact we did not execute this source selection according to standards, it will be a profound disappointment.”

He said the Air Force has “labored diligently, I think, to improve our acquisition process … in terms of human capital, in terms of the expertise associated with this.” If the Air Force “fumbled” the deal, then, yes, “we obviously haven’t arrived at the point where we are consistently providing the level of acquisition excellence that’s expected.”

He added, “There’s no way to put a happy face on this” and said that if it turns out the problem was not due to some “innocent mistake,” then “there will be hell to pay.”

Hoffman’s review should “help us to better understand if there are still systemic issues involved.” Schwartz acknowledged, “The stakes are high. Believe me, we know that.” Not only could USAF suffer damage to its reputation but the Afghan military needs the capability.

And how can the Air Force avoid such hitches in the future? “Work our asses off,” Schwartz said. “Hold people accountable for standards of performance.”

The service is now under the gun to get the program redone swiftly, he said.

“We have to move quickly to execute the program with a new solicitation and source selection in order to get it done before the funds expire” at the end of Fiscal 2013.

“If we are going to thin out our presence in Afghanistan,” he said, it’s important the Afghan Army have a close air support platform. Aside from the “embarrassment to us as an Air Force, it’s the fact that we’re letting our teammates down. So we will work with all dispatch … to try to recover this again as Congress permits.”

The Last to Go

The decision to terminate the C-27J and take the existing aircraft out of the force was a hard one but a choice that exemplified why the Air Force must be allowed to close some bases, Schwartz said.

“The C-27J is not a cheap airplane. It’s a fine machine, and I wish we could have kept it. It was the last thing that went” in the Fiscal 2013 budget deliberation, Schwartz said. However, the Pentagon’s cost-estimating shop determined that over 25 years, the C-27J would cost $308 million per aircraft to operate, versus $209 million apiece for the C-130J and $185 million each for the C-130H.

“Some of that had to do with the basing approach we took: Four airplanes here, four airplanes there,” he said. The C-27J was to populate the Air National Guard for use both in Stateside emergencies as well as overseas contingencies, but no base was slated to have more than a quartet of the small airlifters.

“If we put all the airplanes at one place, … the differential would have been less,” Schwartz said. Clustering aircraft at fewer operating locations means less ground support equipment, simulators, and other gear is needed, and there’s less overhead to spread among the limited number of airplanes.

Basing is one of the aspects of life-cycle costs over which USAF has some control, he said. It’s a consideration USAF will have to apply to the F-35 fighter.

“If … you choose to base at fewer locations and have larger squadrons—24, 30, perhaps 36 aircraft per squadron—there are considerable savings and efficiencies associated with that,” he asserted. Whereas original plans would have put F-35s at more than 40 bases, “we’re pressing down on that,” and current plans will locate the fighter “in the low 30s” of bases. Pending future decisions on squadron size, “it could go well lower.”

Much has been made about estimates pegging the F-35’s 50-year life-cycle operating costs at more than a trillion dollars; Schwartz said such far-flung projections are of “limited value.” However, they did “trigger additional scrutiny of those factors that we control,” such as basing.

Another cost-saving measure under consideration is a changing view of contractor logistics support.

“It is expensive,” Schwartz said, and the model for the F-35 is contractor logistics support, but “that may change.” Other costs USAF can control: “how much aviation you do versus simulation, how you manage your maintenance accounts.” And of course, basing: “how concentrated it is and the efficiencies you get from economies of scale.”

Calling for BRAC

On the subject of necessary efficiencies, Schwartz said flatly that “base closure, as opposed to base realignment, is needed.” The Chief said he is “not presuming the outcome” of a proposed two rounds of base closure and realignment, but additional Air Force closures in new BRAC rounds are “only good business practice.”

After the last BRAC round in 2005 the Air Force was still left with too much infrastructure, and no major bases closed, Schwartz said. Now that the force is contracting even more, USAF will have still fewer assets to spread around the existing base structure.

“I’m not one who would propose going to zero management reserve on this,” he said. “And not everything’s driven by cost.” Air sovereignty alert missions, he noted, must be done by bases all over the country; it’s not a function that can be consolidated at one location.

However, if there is another BRAC, “it will not be like 2005. This will be about not realigning things … but it will be about eliminating excess infrastructure.” The Administration has proposed two new base closure rounds, in 2013 and 2015, but the proposal has met with a tepid response in Congress.

Iran, China, and Long-Range Strike

The United States has lots of military options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, should it come to that, and the diplomatic crisis over the Persian bomb is a perfect example of why the country needs a new long-range strike aircraft, according to Schwartz.

In his wide-ranging discussion with defense reporters, Schwartz was asked about USAF’s capabilities to attack Iran’s nuclear program, which is located deep in hardened facilities nested within rings of substantial air defenses.

Calling such a mission a “grand hypothetical,” Schwartz noted that the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound munition designed to penetrate hardened, deeply buried targets, is “operational,” and “you wouldn’t want to be there if we used it.” A stealthy B-2 bomber can carry two MOPs.

Moreover, “we have capabilities that apply in a variety of contexts to contingencies that might unfold in the [Persian] Gulf and the Asia-Pacific, or elsewhere,” Schwartz said.

Nevertheless, he added, “we’re not sitting on our hands,” and the Air Force is working to refine and improve the MOP.

“It goes without saying that strike is about physics. And the deeper you go, the harder it gets,” he observed. But the MOP is “not an inconsequential capability.”

However, Schwartz said, “there’s a tendency, I think, for all of us to go tactical too quickly and worry about weaponeering.” The larger issue is one of policy, he said, and USAF’s obligation is to provide options to the President. With regard to Iran’s nuclear program, “we have done that,” he said, adding that he believes Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, head of US Central Command, is “satisfied that we have been as forthcoming and imaginative as possible from our perch.” The Air Force and all the services would “each contribute what we are prepared to.” Other, nonmilitary, options are available from other branches of government, he noted.

Schwartz said Iran and China both illustrate the value of maintaining a credible long-range strike capability.

“I’ll tell you why we need a bomber,” Schwartz said, asking rhetorically, “Do you think that the Chinese have established one of the world’s best air defense environments in their eastern provinces just to invest their national treasure?” Iran has done the same thing around “certain locations in their country” for good reason, he said.

“I would say they’re not doing this for the fun of it. They’re doing this because they have a sense of vulnerability.” And what conveys that sense of vulnerability? “One of those things is long-range strike. And that is an asset that the United States of America should not concede. That’s why the long-range strike bomber is relevant and will continue to be relevant.”

Long-range strike is not just about Iran and China, Schwartz continued. Many air forces and ground defenses are improving around the world, “which is why I argue … we too need to improve. Being static is not the place America wants to be.”

However, Schwartz said the new bomber will have to come in on budget, or else “we don’t get a program.” That direction was laid down when then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gave the program its go-ahead, and “that guidance still pertains,” Schwartz said. “I get it. Loud and clear.”