Washington Watch

July 1, 2009

Taking on “Additional Risk”

Air Force leaders in 2010 will shrink the fighter force by about 3.5 wings to save money, free up funds for other missions, and lower its manpower requirements.

This can be done, USAF leaders said, because the Pentagon leadership under Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates perceives that the US will enjoy unchallenged air dominance until 2015 or so.

However, key members of Congress weren’t immediately convinced, and wondered openly and forcefully in budget hearings whether USAF is unwisely divesting itself of needed capability.

Moreover, the Air Force itself acknowledges that, under the new scheme, its ability to prosecute two major combat operations at once will be “degraded.” The two-war capability has always been shorthand for military sufficiency.

For all that, Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley averred that USAF has a “window of opportunity” to “take some additional strategic risk” and reduce its tactical air forces by some 254 aircraft in Fiscal 2010. Five aircraft already were scheduled for retirement; the other 249 had been slated for inactivation, but over five years, not 12 months.

The 249 comprise 112 F-15s, 134 F-16s, and three A-10s. The other five were F-16s tagged to retire in Fiscal 2010.

The bulk of the aircraft—about 200—would come out of active units and the remainder from the Guard and Reserve. Air Force aides calculated the savings of these moves to be $351 million in Fiscal 2010 and $3.5 billion over the next five years.

The cuts will cause the Air Force to assume higher risk in meeting its national strategy obligations “during the next … six to seven years,” Donley said. The money and manpower saved by cutting fighters will be put toward missions considered higher priority, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, “and in the nuclear enterprise,” he explained.

The idea is to emphasize the shift toward fifth generation fighters—specifically, the F-35, Donley continued. In combination with the F-22, now capped at 187 aircraft, and with enhanced fourth generation fighters, Donley said the fighter force will be “significantly better” in 2025 than it is today, despite the reduction in the number of overall fighters to about 16.5 fighter wing equivalents.

Donley said the budget includes more than $1 billion in Fiscal 2010 alone to improve the F-22—the service later said more than $7 billion is budgeted to enhance the F-22s over the next five years. Older fourth generation fighters which “are going to be around for a longer period of time” would also be modified and upgraded, Donley said. Among these upgrades will be infrared search-and-track systems for the F-15, which would give the aircraft more ability to detect stealthy adversaries; structural upgrades to help the aircraft last longer; software improvements; and additional weapons.

The fighter reductions are a move that “we think … makes strategic sense,” Donley said, although the Air Force declined to explain in budget testimony what has changed in the strategic picture that makes a reduction in fighters acceptable. Gates said in April that he expects a Russian fifth generation fighter to be operational in about 2016 and a Chinese fifth gen fighter to reach service in about 10 years.

In unclassified briefing slides intended to explain the fighter cuts and an overall “Combat Air Forces Restructuring,” the Air Force nevertheless noted that “upgraded adversary fighter radars/avionics [are] narrowing the gap to fifth generation capabilities—we no longer hold [the] technological edge.” In fourth generation fighters, advanced air-to-air missiles challenge the superiority of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, the best American radar-guided dogfight missile. When coupled with advanced electronic warfare capabilities in adversary aircraft, this “denies first-shot advantage” to USAF fighters.

Moreover, ground threats have gotten much tougher.

“We can no longer expect to encounter only Vietnam-era analog SAMs,” or surface-to-air missiles, the Air Force noted in its briefing. The development of advanced, digital SAMs with greater range, mobility, and lethality make the battlefield “more dangerous for legacy fighter aircraft.” Advanced threats are proliferating at an “unprecedented rate.”

The briefing slides compared the inventory planned in last year’s budget with that for this year, versus anticipated threats in 2015 and 2024. In 2015, the new planned force, with the fighter cuts, would achieve the goals of a single major combat operation “with manageable risk” as long as modernization—that is, F-35 purchases—continue apace. In 2024, the larger percentage of fifth gen fighters in the fleet “improves performance significantly,” but the performance of the fleet in a second MCO would be “degraded due to swing requirements.”

In a statement about the CAF restructuring, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz said, “Make no mistake, we can’t stand still on modernizing our fighter force. The Air Force’s advantage over potential adversaries is eroding, and this endangers both air and ground forces alike unless there is a very significant investment in bridge capabilities and fifth generation aircraft.”

Airpower Shortchanged

The plan to sharply reduce the Air Force’s fighter inventory while truncating production of the F-22 met with skepticism on Capitol Hill from members of Congress who expressed their concern that the service has cut beyond fat and muscle well into the bone.

“I’m not sure it meets the need,” said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, of the plan in a hearing on the Air Force’s budget.

“Is the Air Force shortchanging itself?” Skelton asked Donley and Schwartz. Both reiterated that the plan represents the most “affordable” option but allowed that it entails higher risk to national strategy.

Skelton said he has “concern” about the Air Force’s readiness. He pointed out that the service has endured 18 years of “continuous combat” during which its gear has seen heavy use, leading to “detrimental effects … such as engine and structural fatigue, deterioration, corrosion, and increased rates of component failures.”

Of the planned cut of 3.5 wings of fighter force structure, Skelton said, “We’re going to have to look at this very closely and understand what risks this plan might entail, whether the reinvested savings will net us an overall increase in the Air Force’s ability to meet our national security requirements.”

HASC ranking member Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.), now nominated to be Secretary of the Army, said he had yet to be convinced that very much analysis had gone into the “sweeping decisions” resulting in the Air Force’s downsizing.

“I still have a degree of skepticism as to how much of this rebalancing was principally driven by realistic military requirements and the analytical rigor rather than budgetary pressures.” McHugh was particularly incensed that the Administration had by late May failed to provide a future years defense program, but was asking Congress to go along with the spending plan nonetheless.

The FYDP is “required under Section 221 of Title 10 of the United States Code,” he noted. Making such far-reaching decisions before conducting the Quadrennial Defense Review—which a parade of Pentagon witnesses said would justify the budget actions—is putting the cart before the horse, McHugh said.

In response to continued questioning about the F-22, Schwartz said that the F-22 lost out to higher priority programs, and that he would indeed want more than 187 of them if there were not such tough budget restrictions in place.

“Two [hundred] forty-three is the right number and 187 is the affordable force,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz also said that the Air Force is in the midst of a “long discussion” about how it sizes its aircraft squadrons. It hasn’t been decided, he indicated, whether “an 18-aircraft fighter squadron [is] the optimal size, or 15 or 12, in some cases, rather than, say, 24,” which has long been the Air Force standard. It will be important to figure this out, Schwartz said, because USAF is “trying to achieve sort of a critical mass on maintenance and aircraft sustainment. … We may decide or we may propose that it makes sense to have fewer larger squadrons rather than more smaller squadrons.”

Options From the CBO

Speeding up purchases of the F-35 would be one of the most cost-effective ways for the armed services to reverse a growing deficit in fighter aircraft while still preserving technological superiority, according to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office.

In a May report, “Alternatives for Modernizing US Fighter Forces,” the CBO said that by spending just $5 billion more (in 2009 dollars) over the next 24 years, the Air Force could buy 164 more F-35s than they are now planning and modernize their fleets faster and with greater capability. That’s possible, the CBO said, because getting the fighters sooner would eliminate the need to modify and structurally extend the lives of current “legacy” fighters such as the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 and AV-8B, which the F-35 program will replace with several variants of the multirole fighter.

The wild card, CBO said, is whether the F-35 will hit any major snags in flight testing or production. Significant delays could leave the services with fewer aircraft, and they would be substantially below par with modern foreign fighters.

A drawback to the accelerated alternative would be that fighter spending accounts in the early years of F-35 production would have to be about 35 percent higher per year, but would buy out the program five years earlier than now planned. That would, in turn, give the Pentagon some cushion to put production funds toward an F-22 replacement in the late 2020s.

The CBO looked at seven options altogether. In the second option, the Air Force and Navy would buy more F-16s and F/A-18s, respectively, and fewer F-35s, but on the Fiscal 2009 schedule. This option would cost $8 billion more than the Fiscal 2009 scheme, and $3 billion more than the F-35 acceleration alternative. It would keep up inventories of fourth gen fighters while the F-35 comes on line, but would leave the services with more nonstealthy aircraft for a longer period of time, leading to higher combat losses against projected threats.

Under a third alternative that would keep the service fighter inventories at the desired levels, the F-35 would be canceled and the services would simply buy more legacy types, but outfitted with state-of-the-art radars and other systems. This option would be $48 billion cheaper than the 2009 budget plan, and result in a force able to carry as many bombs but with a sharp reduction in targets hit and aircraft safely recovered.

“The lack of stealth aircraft that would result … would be viewed by some observers as a significant shortcoming,” the CBO said. The aircraft “would not enjoy the survivability advantages conveyed by stealth technology.” This wouldn’t matter much against “lesser adversaries,” but against a near-peer, longer wars, bigger combat losses, and a “loss of tactical flexibility” would result, and there would also have to be a much bigger investment in electronic warfare.

Under a fourth alternative, the F-35 program would be halved, and the bomb-carrying capability lost would not be made up. The number of fighter aircraft, across the services, would drop from 3,500 to 2,100, and the savings would be about $67 billion versus the 2009 budget plan. This alternative would put the US air forces on more of a par with other countries, such as Russia and China. Alternative 5 would try to recapture some of the lost bomb-dropping capability by buying about 1,000 unmanned systems like the MQ-9 Reaper for the Air Force and 225 for the Navy. This option would cost $20 billion more for both services than Alternative 4.

The last two options would shift bomb-dropping capability from fighters to bombers. In Alternative 6, the Air Force would buy just 325 F-35s and 250 medium-range stealth bombers, while the Navy and Marine Corps would buy 410 F-35s and 275 stealthy unmanned combat aircraft. This option would cost “two percent less in constant dollars but four percent more on a net-present-value basis” versus the 2009 spending plan. The seventh alternative would beef up the sixth option force by buying another 1,000 Reaper-class aircraft, at a cost of $20 billion more.

Under Alternatives 6 and 7, the services would give up some fighter capability and flexibility but gain longer range and preserve overall tonnage of bombs that could be carried compared to the Fiscal 2009 force.

The CBO noted that the option chosen for the Fiscal 2010 budget request comes closest to its Alternative 1 than any of its other postulated options.