There’s No “Reset” Button
After Operation Allied Force in 1999, the Air Force, which bore the brunt of that intense, three-month military campaign, took half a year to “reset”: to give its airmen some extra rest and get their schools and upgrades, to repair and refurbish its aircraft, replace weapons expended, and generally get itself back up to par.
After 11 years of war in Afghanistan and 20 years of war in Iraq, however, the Air Force will not catch such a break. No reset is planned for the service, and indeed, no letup in operating tempo is in the cards.
Aircraft lost in the course of combat have, when possible, been replaced “as we go,” according to Lt. Gen. Christopher D. Miller, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs. Miller said the Air Force has to renew itself on the fly, because there’s been no indication of an extended breather ahead.
“We have been doing depot work on our airframes at a higher rate because of contingency flying,” he said, and that work has largely been paid for out of the overseas contingency operations account, or “war supplemental,” that Congress has used to fund the wars.
Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz set a goal of managing operating tempo “for every type of airman and every component to be at sustainable levels,” Miller said in an interview. Even so, some career fields have been “very highly deployed,” he acknowledged, and “demands for deployed forces are really expected to stay where they’ve been.”
The Air Force will probably be engaged in some form of combat flying through the departure of US ground forces from Afghanistan in 2014.
After that, senior service officials expect to remain long after the majority of ground troops depart, providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to the Afghan Army, training for the Afghan Air Force, and some degree of air sovereignty until the Afghan Air Force, can perform those missions for itself. USAF will be involved in similar tasks in Iraq.
“I don’t think anyone knows exactly what it will look like, but there will be … a residual mission just like there was after Desert Storm,” Miller said.
SLEP to the Future
The Air Force is trying to convince Congress to fund service life extension programs for the F-15 and F-16 fleets because, while not many of those aircraft were lost in Operations Enduring Freedom or Iraqi Freedom, a large chunk of their service lives was consumed in those contingencies. This will leave the service with a gap in capability until new aircraft arrive—the F-35 strike fighter in particular. And there was no make-up funding for the years of wear and tear incurred during combat flying during Northern and Southern Watch, the aerial blockade of Iraq from 1992 to 2003.
It is easier to make a case for replacement equipment “when a ground vehicle is just flat worn out,” Miller said, because that is plain to see. It’s harder to visualize fatigue stress and structural wear on a well-maintained aircraft.
“We keep the airframes in 100 percent flyable shape as a matter of course,” he said, and “that abstract service life number of hours that you’ve flown off them is kind of difficult to pin down.” However, “we’re continuing to make the case for funding to extend the life of the platforms we have.”
The big danger for the Air Force during the disengagement from the ground war lies in how those continuing operations will be paid for, Miller said. The Pentagon has agreed to “wean” itself off OCO funding and fund its activities almost entirely through the baseline budget. But while the other services won’t have a big residual mission in Afghanistan, the Air Force will.
It’s important, Miller said, that Congress understand “that we are going to have to sustain” activities in Southwest Asia “and make sure that is resourced in our baseline and not taken out of procurement and modernization, and … capability for the future.”
F-35 or Bust
The Air Force simply can’t do without the F-35 strike fighter, and buying new fourth generation fighters to maintain inventories is a bad response to F-35 delays, said Air Combat Command chief Gen. G. Michael Hostage III at a late-April briefing in Arlington, Va. “Beyond 2018, our fourth generation fleet can’t fight without fifth generation fighters” to back them up,” he said. “We have a woefully tiny F-22 fleet, and we won’t be getting any more.”
After the “painful agony of concurrency” problems have been shaken out, Hostage said he has no doubt the F-35 will be a world-beater. “I have every reason to believe” the F-35 will be up to the job, and do it better than any other aircraft, “but I need all 1,700-plus,” he said.
Without the F-35 in sufficient numbers, the F-15 and F-16 fleet “can’t survive” the murderous environment of anti-access, area-denial systems—no matter how tricked out with upgrades they are.
The F-35 concurrency issue is “getting smaller” as fewer bugs are discovered in testing and fewer changes need to be made to the early production jets, but “it’s a fact of life,” said Hostage. The same kind of issues plagued all previous fighters, and he thinks the F-35 is doing better at this stage of production and test than any of them.
Battle Cry of the Hollow Force
The only viable way to accommodate reduced budgets is to slim down the force and keep what’s left highly ready, Hostage said in his April 26 presentation. He said slashing funding while maintaining forces at existing levels will bring severe consequences.
Doing “more with less is the battle cry of the hollow force,” he said. If personnel and force structure accounts are off the table, the only items left to cut are “flying hours, [operations and maintenance], and base operating support”—the prescription for hollowness, he said.
In the early 1980s, said Hostage, many of the aircraft on Air Force ramps had no engines, and half of them couldn’t fly. The Soviet Union, counting jets from on high, didn’t know the condition of the aircraft, “and they didn’t call our bluff,” he observed. At the time, the Air Force was not engaged in frequent large-scale deployments and constant combat, however. A hollow force will not work today. The Air Force has to keep its aircraft ready for use.
Surveying the View From ’42
The Defense Department will spend about $770 billion over the next 10 years on new aircraft, aircraft modifications, and support. The inventory of all-service fighter/attack types will shrink, but the number dedicated to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance will balloon.
However, the growth in the ISR fleet is scheduled to come almost exclusively through remotely piloted aircraft purchases, and there is no money available to launch big-wing manned ISR replacement programs to succeed today’s E-3 AWACS, RC-135, and E-8 JSTARS fleets. By 2022, the ISR fleet will grow from 1,169 to 1,418 aircraft, a greater than 20 percent increase, and most of it will be in the form of remotely piloted aircraft.
The numbers were included in the Pentagon’s “Annual Aviation Inventory and Funding Plan, Fiscal Years (FY) 2013-2042,” completed this spring.
The aircraft plan was structured around five main objectives, presumably listed in order of priority.
They are, first, to meet the need for “persistent, multirole” ISR. Next, to provide “sufficient enabler capability and capacity.” Third, to acquire fifth generation fighters “while maintaining sufficient inventory capacity,” by extending the service lives of F-15s, F-16s, and F/A-18s. The fourth listed objective is to modernize long-range strike capabilities, and the last stated goal is to “emphasize modernization and readiness.”
Although ISR was listed first, the Air Force’s “big wing” ISR fleet didn’t get much discussion in the 30-year aircraft plan. “Potential recapitalization” of the fleet is considered a “far-term” effort, according to the document, though USAF has conducted an analysis of alternatives on how best to replace the aged and battle-worn platforms. One E-8C JSTARS will be retired because of damage that isn’t economical to repair.
Each service contributed its own numbers and explanations to OSD, which collated and confirmed the numbers before sending the document to Congress.
Lawmakers demanded the document several years ago, prompted in part by the controversy over terminating the F-22 fighter. Lawmakers, frustrated by service comments that near-term aircraft cuts made sense in the long run, wanted more context and asked to see the long-range aviation plan.
The first iteration of the document—in February 2010—only included fixed-wing manned aircraft. Congress then insisted the report broaden in scope to include helicopters, remotely piloted aircraft, executive aircraft, and support costs.
This year’s 36-page document states annual Pentagon funding for aircraft will peak in Fiscal 2022, when spending will total about $80 billion.
There Are Some Winners
According to the aircraft inventory plan, the Air Force plans to launch a program to replace Air Force One—the President’s transport—in the next few years, aiming for “the first aircraft being delivered to begin modification in 2019.”
However, despite its longstanding desire to replace its Hueys with a modern helicopter, USAF said it will have to keep flying the UH-1N. The Air Force will “selectively modernize” the aircraft, mostly to “avoid increased sustainment costs brought on by obsolescence.” A program to replace the HH-60G rescue helicopter will go forward, with research and development funding peaking in Fiscal 2015.
The Army and Marine Corps score a big plus in attack helicopters. The two services will be buying new or remanufactured AH-64 Apaches and AH-1W Cobras, respectively. The attack helicopter inventory will bloom 10 percent, from 882 today to 966 in 2022. Accompanying text only says the increase meets Army and Marine Corps procurement objectives; it does not explain why the increase is needed, nor is any link drawn to national military strategy.
Much-needed modernization of the aerial refueling fleet is on the horizon as well. USAF will retire 20 KC-135 tankers during the next five years and start bringing on the new KC-46. By 2022, some 83 KC-46As should be delivered, and the 179-aircraft buy is to be completed in 2029. Future competitions will determine how to recapitalize the rest of the KC-135 inventory—already more than 50 years old—and the KC-10 Extender, now almost 30 years old.
Air Force leaders have said they wanted to launch a replacement for the T-38 in Fiscal 2013, but the project slipped between the budgetary cracks. The 30-year plan calls for a T-X replacement aircraft “to begin production around FY18, with a planned IOC [initial operational capability] in FY20.”