Washington Watch

July 1, 2010

Path to AirSea Battle

A possible future armed conflict with China would chiefly be an air and naval campaign, but the Pentagon isn’t buying the right things to make victory likely, according to a new study.

“AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept” was rolled out by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments at a Capitol Hill seminar in late May. It forecasts that a military confrontation with China would demand the full effort of the Air Force and Navy, working more closely together than they ever have before, but fielding assets that are now either in decline or deferred from the current defense spending plan.

Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., CSBA president and one of the study’s four authors, said the issues identified in AirSea Battle “are sufficiently numerous and … different from the program of record” that the buying plan needs to be adjusted as soon as possible.

The US, for example, is investing in the wrong mix of stealthy and long-range aircraft to cope with a cross-Pacific campaign, according to study author Mark A. Gunzinger, noting that the F-22 and F-35 need to be based close to the action and that most of the Air Force’s legacy long-range bombers aren’t stealthy.

Gunzinger said the platforms “able to penetrate won’t have the range to do so, and the capabilities that have the range to do so won’t be able to penetrate.”

The Air Force and Navy are already at work on an internal “AirSea Battle” concept of operations, and the CSBA paper suggested issues that the classified CONOPS should address, Krepinevich said.

According to the paper, China is endeavoring to catch up to the US with an aggressive armaments building program, but aims to bypass US strengths. It would try to decapitate engaged US forces by striking American bases in the region with heavy volleys of ballistic missiles. The increasing accuracy of those multiplying missiles will require the US to play “a shell game” and move its forces around to as many locations in the region as possible, to avoid losing too many in the opening attacks.

The authors assumed that China would strike first in any scenario, that neither country would go nuclear, but that neither country would enjoy strategic “sanctuary” from conventional attack on its home soil.

The first round of battle would see the US and China pursue a “blinding” campaign, the authors said, wherein satellites, networks, and airborne intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance assets would be hit hard on both sides, both kinetically and through cyberspace.

There would follow an “ISR competition” with both sides groping to find the others’ forces.

The US would be obliged to target China’s theater ballistic missiles—likely to number “in the thousands” by the next decade—with stealth and standoff attacks. Stealth and electronic warfare aircraft—a mix of Navy and Air Force types—would open up paths to the targets.

At the same time, the US should invest in tactical missile defenses, probably using lasers, to reduce the cost advantage China would enjoy by employing the missiles against high-value targets such as aircraft carriers and bases such as Kadena in Japan and Andersen in Guam. Hardening bases and developing means to quickly repair facilities and reconstitute networks would be key to blunting China’s missile advantage.

Air Force and Navy sensors should have a “seamless” integration such that targets would be hit by whatever platform is best positioned to carry out an attack. Navy carrier-based fighters could escort USAF bombers, to relieve the aerial tanking demands on USAF, which will still be operating mostly half-century-old KC-135s for the rest of this decade.

A greater investment in unmanned systems will greatly enhance the overall ISR capabilities of the US, the better to loiter over mobile targets and to reconstitute a picture of the battlespace after the initial blinding phase.

US allies in the region will “have to do more,” Krepinevich said, and are probably willing to do so. Japan and Australia, particularly, will have to provide more and longer-range capabilities, such as remotely piloted systems, to maintain an ISR picture of China’s posture.

Call for Cannibalism

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates warns that a slight uptick in Pentagon spending power over the next few years will be gobbled up by pay, health care, and operating expenses. It won’t do a thing to replace obsolete gear or war losses.

If the services wish to achieve either of the latter goals, he said, they will have to slash overhead, to the tune of $85 billion over five years.

“It’s a simple matter of math,” Gates said in a speech at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan.

In this year’s defense budget, the Pentagon “asked for and, I hope, will receive just under two percent” real growth, meaning spending above expected inflation, Gates said.

He went on to say that, “realistically, it is highly unlikely that we will achieve the real growth rates necessary to sustain the current force structure.” Health care costs alone, he said, “are eating the Defense Department alive, rising from $19 billion a decade ago to roughly $50 billion” today.

Gates told reporters he believes 40 percent of defense spending is in overhead. He said that he is “looking for … 2.5 [percent] to three percent” reductions, annually, from that figure, which he said translates to about $10 billion in Fiscal Year 2012 and $15 billion annually after that.

“That’s the only way we can sustain our current force structure and have investments for the future,” Gates said. “Basically, we’ve got to take money out of tail and put it toward the tooth.” If it works, “then I think we can sustain the current force structure without hollowing it out through 2015.”

Although he offered few specific targets for cutting, Gates said he sees top-heaviness in the military command structure, and wants to flatten out the reporting chain to eliminate unnecessary levels of bureaucracy.

While he’s made the case that defense spending as a function of gross domestic product—roughly 4.5 percent—is “relatively small in historical terms at a time of war,” Gates said the “fiscal duress” on the taxpayer is unprecedented and requires greater austerity. Now is not the time to simply press for higher defense budgets, he claimed.

Gates said he’ll look everywhere for efficiencies, and that everything is on the table. For example, while he’s not planning to cut carriers, he wants the Navy to reassess their value at “a time when you have highly accurate cruise and ballistic missiles that can take out a carrier that costs between $10 [billion] and $15 billion and has 6,000 lives on it. How do you do that differently than what you did 30 years ago or 20 years ago?”

In his Abilene speech, Gates chided Congress for continuing to add programs the Defense Department hasn’t requested.

He cited specifically the addition of C-17 airlifters, an alternate engine for the F-35 fighter, and military pay raises of at least one-half percent higher than those requested.

While he applauded the “admirable sentiment” on Congress’ part to continually increase the pay and benefits for troops and their families, Gates argued that this has meant cuts in the amount of equipment that DOD can afford to field.

Congress, in the abstract, cheered Gates’ calls for deep cuts in Pentagon bureaucracy and scrutiny of sacred cows—Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) called it “gutsy.” However, lawmakers paid little attention to Gates’ request to stop adding unwanted items to his budget.

The House voted to preserve the F-35 second engine and boost military pay by 1.9 percent, a half-point higher than the Employment Cost Index.

Gates indirectly paid homage to Congressional prerogatives on another front. He shrugged off the notion of finding savings from another round of base closures. While the services “would love” to close more bases, he said, politically, “it may be in the ‘too-hard’ column.”

A week after his speech, Gates directed the Defense Business Board to create a task force to recommend cost-cutting moves in overhead and business operations. He wants an interim report by the beginning of this month and a final report by Sept. 1, on cuts that can be included in the Fiscal 2012 defense budget.

Tanker Hits the Floor

Congress is officially diving into the battle to field a new Air Force aerial tanker, as proposed legislation would affect how bids are evaluated and tip the scales of the contest in Boeing’s favor. The move came as Boeing made veiled threats not to bid if its concerns aren’t addressed.

Three of Boeing’s most ardent supporters—Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.)—introduced co-sponsored or matching Senate and House bills in May dubbed the Fair Defense Competition Act.

The proposed law would require the Air Force to take recent World Trade Organization rulings into account when weighing the tanker program bids from Boeing and European Aeronautic Defense and Space North America. The WTO found that EADS—parent of EADS North America and Airbus—received billions in illegal subsidies from European governments.

“Our legislation would … prevent the Air Force from giving an advantage to European workers,” who are bolstered by some $5 billion in illegal subsidies, said Tiahrt. “We believe this must be taken into account.”

The bill could compel the Air Force to assess as much as a $5 million penalty per airplane in the 179-airplane competition. In the previous tanker contest, the price difference between the EADS KC-45—then being offered with Northrop Grumman as the prime—and Boeing’s KC-767 was extremely close. With EADS now bidding as prime—and the cost of Northrop Grumman’s participation eliminated—the KC-45 price could be significantly lower in this round.

The Pentagon has maintained that it can’t make the WTO ruling a part of the evaluation, since there is a pending WTO counterclaim against Boeing which won’t be decided until this summer. Instead, the Air Force wrote a “hold harmless” clause into the request for proposal to prevent the winner from charging WTO penalties as program expenses.

In early May, Boeing spread the word that it might not bid, ostensibly because the Air Force was writing the contest rules to favor the KC-45, and because it couldn’t overcome the subsidy advantage. This despite the fact that Northrop Grumman withdrew from the competition, saying the Air Force had expressed a clear preference for a smaller airplane—namely, Boeing’s.

It was a page from Northrop Grumman’s own playbook. In the previous contest, Northrop Grumman won concessions in the structure of the competition by threatening not to bid. The Air Force then adjusted the rules to allow more credit for the KC-45’s special features.

Officially, Boeing said through a spokesman that it would indeed bid the $40 billion to $50 billion program, offering its NewGen Tanker, based on the KC-767 but with more advanced features that would meet all of the Air Force’s requirements.

EADS has kept up a drumbeat of ads claiming that the airplane it will offer is flying now in test, and already passing fuel through its newly designed boom. Boeing has countered that the airplane EADS is hyping isn’t the one to be offered and won’t meet all USAF requirements.

Nevertheless, EADS’ flying tanker is closer to the final version than Boeing’s unbuilt NewGen. Since the program was expected to be a contest between off-the-shelf designs—to result in a fixed development, firm-fixed-price production program—Boeing’s threat not to bid might not have been pure theater: The NewGen is not an off-the-shelf design, and the company could find it tough to ready the airplane for production within the Air Force’s desired timetable.

Sizing up its chances, Boeing may not see the contract as the fait accompli many believed it would be when Northrop Grumman backed out.