The New Air Force Program

July 1, 2006

After long uncertainty about its future shape and size, the Air Force now has a program that should hold up for a while.

The ongoing conflicts in Southwest Asia and a six-year transformation effort pushed by top Pentagon civilians created an exceptional amount of instability in recent years. Compounding the problem was turbulence from the Base Realignment and Closure round and the Quadrennial Defense Review, both in 2005.

Today, however, there is hope for getting on with decisions and actions governing everything from fighter upgrades to tanker recapitalization and new bomber production. These decisions will affect the Air Force for decades to come.

Much uncertainty remains, but USAF at least has a rough concept of which bases it will occupy, what kind of budget it can expect, and how many troops will be available to carry out its mission.

The Air Force will be smaller. It will have the equivalent of 40,000 fewer troops after six years. In May, USAF prescribed a reduction in force of more than 2,000 second lieutenants.

Accessions will be reduced, retirements accelerated, and positions eliminated, mostly in specialties now considered to be obsolete, losing importance, or being outsourced.

The reductions are expected to be taken across the total force—active, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve as well as the civilian force. These cuts include the elimination of dozens of general officer billets.

The aircraft fleet will be smaller. The fighter force will be reduced by about 25 percent over 10 years, and the total number of aircraft will be reduced by 10 percent in the same period. The fleet will become older; even if USAF receives all the aircraft now planned, the fleet average age will continue to rise. For example, the tanker fleet’s KC-135s, which were built in the 1960s, can be expected to be in use until the 2040s—after more than 80 years of service.

Formerly, capabilities resident in several services were called complementary. Now they are considered redundant and in need of rationalization. The armed forces have marching orders not only to cooperate but also to become interdependent.

“Back to Basics” on Military Space Systems

The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program is providing reliable access to space, reported Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley, noting that there will be about a dozen EELV launches this year. The service has taken steps to clean up acquisition problems on the Space-Based Infrared System and other space programs that have been late or over budget. USAF Undersecretary Ronald M. Sega has promised a “back to basics” approach to contracting for space systems that will emphasize lowering risk, avoiding the creep of expensive new requirements, and an incremental approach to improvements.

The Air Force also made a pitch to continue the Space Radar program, anticipating that the eventual constellation can at least supplement and possibly even replace a large portion of the airborne ISR fleet. The Space Radar would be an orbiting version of Joint STARS, providing ground moving target indication, synthetic aperture radar, ocean surveillance, and other capabilities.

That means they’ll have to trust each other to provide certain enabling capabilities. The Army, for example, has shifted its air defense portfolio almost entirely toward defense against missiles, relying chiefly on the Air Force to prevent aircraft attack of US ground troops.

Increased efficiency is not the only reason for this. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan pose a constant funding challenge, requiring elimination of nice-to-have capabilities. The Air Force, with many system retirements and truncated technology programs, will pay a hefty share of the bill.

Vision Unfulfilled

Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne, after the QDR was finished but before it was unveiled, said, “We’re going to have to take into account that the Air Force that we had planned on a few years ago may not come to fruition.”

Those plans envisioned a fighter force built around more than 2,000 stealthy airframes, an airlift fleet comprising more than 700 upgraded machines, a collection of some 30 battle management and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft, and as many as 200 medium bombers to go with the heavyweight B-1, B-2, and B-52 aircraft.

All of the new or upgraded aircraft were to take over for airplanes designed in the 1960s and 1970s that should have been—but were not—replaced over the last 10 years. The so-called “peace dividend” of the 1990s and the needs of the Global War on Terrorism in the 2000s took priority.

According to Air Force leaders, the newly emerging USAF program is a balance of portfolios that address issues of global strike, global mobility, and global awareness.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff, speaking with defense reporters in April, said the Air Force has not simply kicked the can down the road on new systems, but is taking steps to ensure the long-term affordability of the program. (See “Editorial: Wing-Walking Into the Future,” May, p. 2.)

“We have flat-lined our allowance and we have not presented a bow wave outside of our program authority,” Moseley said.

“We keep inside each of those portfolios; we attempt to balance that,” he said, meaning that, for instance, after air dominance was assigned a certain share of the budget, shifts within that mission area will be paid for from within and won’t cannibalize other aspects of the overall program.

“If we get additional bills that continue to play through the summer, then we’re going to have to go back and make some other hard choices,” he added.

Moseley said USAF takes seriously the need “to be able to pay those bills” across the five-year spending plan.

Wynne and Moseley, in testimony before Congress on the Fiscal 2007 defense budget, said that the program they have crafted will preserve the Air Force’s ability to provide American leaders “sovereign options”—meaning the ability to act swiftly and independently anywhere in the world.

Those options, Wynne explained late last year, include “the option of forced entry and the option of negotiation; … the option of knowledge, i.e., that something is going on, but [the President] can reserve action; or the option of going in kinetic or non-kinetic or through a cyber medium, if that’s the desired outcome.”

The QDR determined—and the Air Force publicly agreed—that a smaller force and fewer systems can do the job with acceptable risk, given a few hedging moves.

However, Wynne and Moseley, in their joint testimony, said the Air Force is operating “the oldest inventory of aircraft in our history” and that “we must act now to preserve our nation’s freedom of action in the future.” They added that, while the Air Force can “command the global commons of air and space,” as well as the sea and cyberspace, “we cannot indefinitely maintain this advantage using the current technology of the air and space systems and equipment comprising our existing force structure.”

Holding the Line on Strategic Nuclear Forces

The Air Force will continue to maintain and upgrade a proposed inventory of 450 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles—to keep them capable beyond 2020—but will look increasingly toward the “new Triad,” which also includes passive and active defenses against incoming missiles. Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley reported that USAF is undertaking a service life extension of both the AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile and the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile and reported that the Department of Energy may update the missiles’ warheads.

The Fighter Force

The Air Force’s long-stated requirement of 381 F-22s has given way to a force of only 183 Raptors, which Moseley said adds up to seven deployable squadrons. The QDR judged the threat from potential adversary air forces to be manageable with a smaller number of F-22s, complemented first by legacy F-15s and F-16s still deemed to be adequately capable against modern threats, and later by the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

However, the Air Force won a major concession in that, if the F-35 program is delayed, F-22s will remain in production until the F-35 is ready to be built. It was deemed necessary that the nation maintain a warm production line of modern “fifth generation” fighters, and a bridge buy of F-22s is possible if the F-35 program hits any lengthy snags in development.

“Many of the F-15s have not even passed half their life” expectancy, Wynne told reporters in late 2005. “So we really have quite a phenomenal weapon system in that regard, that can be … quite a partner to an F-22.”

Moseley told reporters in April that the Air Force is considering maintaining a force of 196 F-15Cs for the foreseeable future but that it hasn’t been decided yet whether these aircraft would receive a major upgrade, such as advanced radars, to improve their reach. The Air Force in late spring was working on a number of fighter roadmaps to determine the best course of action to take on these legacy fighters, Moseley said.

Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, in their Fiscal 2007 budget deliberations, approved the Pentagon’s plan to give the Air Force more Raptors, but the Senate Armed Services Committee didn’t go along with USAF’s plan to enter a multiyear contract on the airplane. The House, however, OK’d the multi-year plan on the condition that DOD provides the requested justification. The two houses have not yet ironed out their differences.

The Air Force’s requirement for the F-35 strike fighter has notionally hovered around 1,700 aircraft for several years, but the QDR seemed to set the stage for a smaller number. Moseley said acquisition could fall to between 1,100 and 1,400 aircraft, but he added that the program still is too new for the Air Force to make a final decision. If the program is delayed, and more F-22s are purchased, fewer F-35s might be needed.

Such a scenario moved one step closer to reality when the Senate Armed Services Committee deleted $1.2 billion from the F-35 program, saying the aircraft is behind schedule.

Interconnected Decisions

The F-22 and F-35 buys also will depend on how gracefully the rest of the fleet ages. Cracks have been discovered in the wings of most of the A-10 fleet, which already was due to receive precision attack upgrades as well as an engine upgrade. If USAF decides to invest in those upgrades, it will take money away from other parts of the global attack portfolio.

“So, between F-22 and F-35 is an interesting set of interconnected decisions on the rest of our tactical inventory,” Moseley said.

Congress also reversed the Pentagon’s plan to delete a second, competitive engine in the F-35 program, deciding that the benefits of having an alternate outweighed potential savings of pursuing a power plant from a sole-source supplier.

Wynne and Moseley told Congressional committees that some inventory reductions will be driven by changes in technology. The service’s weapon systems have become steadily more effective, and the exploitation of information technologies will permit a much smaller force to deliver the same punch as a larger, older one. More reliable aircraft will require fewer maintainers. Unmanned vehicles can be flown remotely from home base, half a world away, preventing the need for much of a forward “footprint.”

Some specialties that have been rendered obsolete by the march of technology can be abolished altogether.

The Air Force had requested that it be allowed to retire the stealthy F-117 strike aircraft in 2008. However, Moseley said after budget hearings that he was willing to rethink the plan, if Congress would prefer to have a replacement in hand before retiring the airplane, which was the first stealth attack capability in the Air Force.

The F-22 will have the ability to carry up to eight Small Diameter Bombs and now can hit a heavily defended target with two 2,000-pound satellite guided bombs. However, there are few F-22s in the inventory, so Moseley is willing to wait.

The F-16 will continue to receive both structural and avionics updates, and the youngest of those in USAF service can be expected to see use well into the 2020s. The F-16 will continue to be fitted with standoff weapons, but will require a permissive target area for reasonably safe operations.

Wynne and Moseley said that surface-to-air missile systems employed by potential adversaries have faster missiles, “with multitarget capability, greater mobility, and increased immunity to electronic jamming.” With ranges of more than 115 miles, these anti-access weapons will likely achieve ranges of more than 230 miles within four years.

The two Air Force leaders also forecast that, within just two years, there will be twice as many advanced SAMs as there were in the late 1990s. Poorer countries also are upgrading their older systems to more lethal variants.

Long-Range Strike

The fighter force will be shaped in part by another factor—the Air Force’s direction on long-range strike systems.

The anticipated capabilities of stealthy, long-range unmanned aircraft, which have long loiter time and the power to employ precision munitions, could well alter today’s calculations as to how many manned fighters will be needed.

Unmanned systems offer opportunities “unforeseen 10 years ago,” Moseley said.

Science and Technology to Support “the Vision”

Air Force S&T efforts will get priority, depending on how they contribute to a new “vision” for research: furthering capabilities to “anticipate, find, fix, track, target, engage, assess … anytime, anywhere,” Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley reported.

New S&T efforts have to be “relevant” to the ongoing war against terrorists, as well as to furthering USAF’s capabilities in its traditional core missions. They noted efforts in hypersonics and nanotechnology as having particular leap-ahead possibilities, along with information technologies that can read the sensor network autonomously and detect and isolate attacks against the network as well as its components.

Research also will continue in directed energy. Wynne and Moseley said basic capabilities are already being fielded in the form of laser defensive measures, and they noted that the Airborne Laser system “continues to move DE technology forward.” The ABL, however, has been scaled back to be more of a technology demonstrator, rather than the prototype for a future weapon.

The QDR determined that the Air Force should get right to work on developing new long-range strike capabilities beyond those offered by today’s fleet of B-1Bs, B-2s, and B-52s. The QDR posited both a rapid precision global strike capability—something capable of striking anywhere in the world within an hour’s warning—as well as a system that also could provide persistence and heavy payload, possibly in conjunction with high speed. The first capability suggests a conventionally tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, while the second implies some sort of long-range bomber.

The Air Force has until 2018 to get a new bomber-like capability fielded, under the QDR guidelines. It expects to launch an analysis of alternatives this summer to determine the best way to do it, and Moseley has expressed his desire to have a flyoff between competing designs.

Moseley said the 2018 deadline may seem like a long way off, but “that’s when we … have to have something on the ramp, operational,” he said at a Capitol Hill seminar in April. “If you work backwards and give yourself a couple of years for test, … we have to have a design in hand by about 2011. That doesn’t give us many months to do this thing.”

In the meantime, the Air Force would like to reduce the size of its bomber fleet by retiring the most problem-prone B-52s and using the money to upgrade the remaining aircraft of all three types with new systems and weapons. It would reduce the size of the B-52 fleet from 94 to 56 aircraft, with 18 in Fiscal 2007 and 20 more in 2008.

Congress did not go along with the B-52 retirements, however, insisting that until a new capability is in hand, the Air Force shouldn’t let go of any long-range strike capabilities, particularly since those capabilities would be most in demand in confronting a threat far from the US homeland and US bases. The House authorization bill for Fiscal 2007 would only allow USAF to retire one B-52H lent to NASA.

Mobility Forces

Although the Air Force has, within the last two years, voiced a need for at least 222 C-17s, the QDR found that a level of 180 called for in a 2005 mobility study is sufficient. The Air Force agreed, provided that it can get seven more airplanes to replace the C-17 service life used up during the almost nonstop use of every C-17 airframe since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started. The Air Force considers those seven to be attrition replacements and put them at the top of its list of unfunded priorities.

Still, USAF asked for funding in its Fiscal 2007 budget request to shut down the C-17 line and put the tooling into storage.

Neither the House Armed Services Committee nor Senate Armed Services Committee agreed that C-17 production should end, with each panel diverting money requested to shut down the line toward buying more of the aircraft. The House panel added funding for three airplanes and the Senate committee for two, plus long-lead parts to keep open the option of continuing production past 2008. It remained for the authorization conference to determine the final add, but, along with foreign orders from Australia, there may be enough C-17 backlog to keep the line going another year.

The Air Force and US Transportation Command acceded to truncation of the C-17 line as long as funding remains constant for the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and if USAF can get some additional cargo capability out of the KC-X program, which is to deliver a new aerial tanker beginning in the next few years. TRANSCOM chief Gen. Norton A. Schwartz said a combination tanker—aerial refueling, with some cargo capability—provides him with enough flexibility to pick up the slack if QDR expectations about lift requirements turn out to be too rosy.

The Air Force released two requests for information on the tanker in the spring and is expected to release the final request for proposal in the fall. Notionally, the service is looking at buying 10 to 15 tankers a year for up to 25 years, for a fleet of 300 to 450 tankers. Even though USAF is not planning to replace its KC-135Es and Rs one-for-one with new tankers (due to a smaller fighter fleet in the future), the replacement schedule will still not allow the last R model to retire until the 2040s.

In another airlift initiative, the Air Force is looking to partner with the Army on the Joint Cargo Aircraft, a smallish airplane or medium-size helicopter designed to resupply ground troops at far-flung locations with little or no airfield capabilities. The size of the aircraft still was being debated by the two services in late spring, but the Senate had moved to delete the Army’s funding.

Moseley said USAF plans to keep at least 500 C-130s in the fleet for tactical airlift, but the service prefers to spend its money on new C-130Js rather than fixing up its oldest C-130Es, many of which have wing box cracks. Moseley said it will cost $20 million apiece to fix up each old C-130E, while a new C-130J costs about $70 million. The Air Force also has said that the C-130J, due to its greater power and reliability, is about as effective as two older-model C-130s.

New ISR Aircraft

Like the F-117, USAF may reconsider its request to retire the U-2 early, in about 2012. Moseley reported that the Global Hawk UAV offers big advantages over the U-2 in terms of time on station, but that the sensor suite now available on the U-2 won’t be ready on the Global Hawk for several years.

When the Air Force lost its E-10 battle management aircraft program in the Fiscal 2007 budget proposal, the service was left with just one aircraft on which to try out various new technologies and sensor suites that could be applied to an E-10 program in the future, should it be approved.

Wynne said it remains critical to develop the capability to detect stealthy aircraft or low-flying cruise missiles, which the E-10 would have provided. The Air Force will continue to explore that capability in the Multiplatform Radar Technology Insertion Program. The MP-RTIP radar will be developed and deployed both on the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft and the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.

Rather than pursue the E-10, the Air Force will seek to re-engine its E-8C Joint STARS aircraft. The E-8 has long suffered from inadequate power for optimal climb, time on station, and operation of its multitude of onboard sensors, processors, and radar. Re-engining the E-3 AWACS fleet also remains a possibility.

Special Operations and Rescue Aircraft Move Ahead

After a long delay, the Air Force is going ahead with plans to replace its aging HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue fleet with 141 new helicopters. The new aircraft are expected to provide better speed, range, survivability, cabin size, and high-altitude hover capabilities.

The Air Force has taken delivery of its first CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor special operations aircraft, which will give the service the means to infiltrate and extract special operations troops at greater distances, higher speeds, and with better survivability. A total of 60 CV-22s are planned for USAF. The service decided years ago that the CV-22 was too large and expensive for the CSAR mission.

The Air Force also will continue buying Predator unmanned aircraft, using the type as both an observation platform as well as a strike asset, especially for fleeting targets. The service will continue to buy Sniper targeting pods, which allow fighters to offer combatant commanders the same real-time video imagery as Predator. Aircraft upgrades will allow this imagery to increasingly be passed down to ground troops via data links and laptop-style displays.

Though it appears that the Air Force can now exhale and get on with its overall program, Pentagon officials warn that the reductions may not be over, yet. A private study commissioned by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, due next month, will determine if there is more rationalization in store for the fighter fleet and for the F-22 in particular.

Also, England has told his lieutenants that next year’s budget—the first in a new five-year plan—could see service reductions in “double digits.” That, in turn, could well force the Air Force to recast its program yet again.