Washington Watch

July 1, 2011

Who Gets Aircraft Priority

The Navy, and not the Air Force, is in line to get the most new fixed-wing aircraft types purchased by the Defense Department over the next 30 years, according to a paper released to support the 2012 Pentagon budget.

The “Aircraft Procurement Plan, Fiscal Years 2012-2041,” mandated by Congress to inform the annual defense budget—but only released in late spring—shows that the Navy will have a new patrol aircraft, a new carrier-based stealth drone, F/A-18E/F and F-35C manned carrier strike fighters, new EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft, and a new-start fighter called the FA-XX. There will also be F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing fighters and a new stealth drone for the Marine Corps.

Meanwhile, the Air Force’s shopping list is considerably more modest. While USAF will buy the lion’s share of Joint Strike Fighters—1,763 F-35As through 2034—it only has two other significant new programs planned: purchase of the KC-46A aerial tanker and the eventual purchase of a new long-range strike aircraft.

The Navy will get “bridge” buys of F/A-18E/Fs to keep the sea service’s air arm in business while it waits for F-35s, which have been delayed. The Air Force will have to make do being some 200 aircraft short of its national strategy-dictated level of fighters, and will, according to the report, “mitigate its shortfall until the 2020s via investments in the F-16 force.” Those investments refer to an as-yet-undefined series of capability and structural upgrades to extend the F-16’s service life, likely to include some new spars and stiffeners, electronic warfare enhancements, and new radar.

Moreover, it seems the F-16s are going to have to last longer in any case. The plan refers to the Air Force retaining at least some F-16s through the end of the 2030s, whereas it previously said it would extend the fleet into the mid-2020s, or at the latest, to 2030.

The 2011 version of the plan posited real growth (above inflation) of three percent a year in aviation accounts throughout the scope of the plan, but the 2012 version anticipates zero real growth in aviation after 2017. This reflects the Obama Administration’s plan to reduce defense spending by $400 billion over that period.

The plan calls for the Air Force to buy 603 F-35s between Fiscal 2012 and Fiscal 2021. As recently as last year, the Air Force was hoping to get its F-35 buy up to 110 aircraft a year—which would reduce the need to extend the service lives of F-15s and F-16s—but Air Force officials say privately they no longer see their peak buy exceeding 80 a year.

The plan noted that the F-22 program is nearly complete, and that the Pentagon will maintain the Raptor as “the premier air-to-air fighter by spending $4.5 billion on modernization” over the next 10 years. However, in previous years, the Pentagon said it would spend $7 billion on F-22 modernization.

Once C-17 production comes to a halt, there will be at least a 10-year drought in buying strategic cargo aircraft, according to the plan.

“Although the department is spending considerable sums on modernizing legacy strategic lift and long-range strike platforms, there will be no new procurement of aircraft in these categories during FY 2012-2021,” it reads.

The strategic cargo fleet is going to level off at about 300 airframes, comprising C-5s which have received an omnibus upgrade and re-engining package, and C-17s, many still considered “new” by Air Force standards, even though the oldest of the types are now about 20 years old. The Pentagon anticipates that the C-17 fleet, having seen heavy usage in Iraq and Afghanistan, will undergo a major service life extension and upgrade program to keep it operable for another 30 years.

The Air Force’s family of bombers—B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s—will likewise be upgraded with new defensive systems and weapons to keep the US in the long-range strike business until the new bomber begins entering the inventory in the 2020s. The Air Force plans to buy about 100 new bombers at a forecast unit cost of $550 million a copy, but the system’s requirements are still in flux and no formal program yet exists to develop and build it.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee’s oversight panel, Vice Adm. P. Stephen Stanley, principal deputy director of the Pentagon’s cost assessment and program evaluation office, said the 30-year annual plan is not an effective way to plot or assess the Pentagon’s aircraft acquisition strategy.

Stanley said the plan would work better if it was demanded less frequently—say, every four years—so it could be tied to the Quadrennial Defense Review, and that it should only have to look 20 years into the future, rather than 30.

While a 20-year look is manageable, Stanley said, 30 years requires difficult and speculative predictions about economies, strategies, budgets, and technologies.

However, Congress ordered the plan because it was concerned about the aging of America’s military air fleets, dwindling numbers of military aircraft in Pentagon procurement plans, and concerns about the long-term health of the defense industrial base. Without work to look forward to on a predictable basis, Congress was concerned that the industry would close down certain critical design and production capabilities.

HASC oversight panel chairman Robert Wittman (R-Va.) said at the hearing that “decisions to cut or efforts to kill a number of programs, including the F-22 fifth generation fighter, the C-17 cargo aircraft, and the Air Force’s combat search and rescue helicopter … arguably place American air supremacy at risk, or at least at question.”

Other witnesses at the hearing—including representatives of think tanks and government watchdog agencies—suggested that while the Pentagon probably already had 30-year investment plans that they were maintaining for planning purposes, the plan as now required gives Congress visibility into defense thinking that it otherwise wouldn’t have.

A New Revolution in Military Affairs

The US will soon likely witness another Revolution in Military Affairs, like the one during the 1990s in which stealth, precision attack, and networked systems vastly multiplied the capabilities of US military forces and changed the calculus of warfare.

Now that those same capabilities are bubbling up in nations and nonstate actors of all sizes, it may be time for the US to rethink how it will fight in the future—a future that may see an end to the utility of aircraft carriers, an inability to deploy large ground forces overseas, and possibly the end of the era where “stealth” as we now know it is an effective military tool.

Such were the conclusions advanced by Barry D. Watts, writing in a paper for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “The Maturing Revolution in Military Affairs.”

The demonstrated effectiveness of missiles such as China’s D-21 ballistic missile—which can be retargeted inflight—and broadly, other anti-aircraft and area-denial means “have the potential to bring the era of the aircraft carrier to an end,” Watts wrote. They could “obviate the ability of short-range, tactical US airpower to operate from forward bases, and substantially raise the difficulties and costs of moving heavy ground forces into overseas theaters, much less sustaining them once there.”

Moreover, since these factors will push forces farther away from their targets, “if the technologies and capabilities for precision strike at intercontinental distances emerge and proliferate widely, so will the temptation in time of war to attack the adversary’s homeland directly.”

Watts wasn’t sure how that would play out, given the “continued existence” of nuclear arsenals, and said it’s hard to guess what the future of stealth will be. On the one hand, the proliferation of active electronically scanned array radars—AESAs—and long-wavelength search radars may finally defeat stealth. With enough processing power, and assuming Moore’s Law holds and computers double in power at the same cost every 18 months or so, information warfare will, some argue, inevitably “overwhelm the capacity of aerospace engineers to reduce platform signatures.”

On the other hand, he noted, the US is increasing its numbers of stealth platforms, and they will be able to operate in groups. The F-35’s AESA “can be used for electronic attack of enemy air defenses as well as digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) capabilities,” which will allow the F-35 to duplicate incoming radar signals, alter them, and send them back to the receiver modified to suggest that the fighter is either not there or is somewhere else. In groups, F-35s could “overcome enemy air defenses, to include destroying S-300/400/500-class SAMs.”

Which prediction about stealth is right? Watts wrote that current defense leaders’ decision to press on with the F-35 implies “that they do not believe that the era of stealth aircraft is about to come to an end.”

There’s no question, though, that the US increasingly depends on “relatively unimpeded access to the global commons in both space and cyberspace” to fight the way it has gotten used to doing for the last 20 years. And there’s similarly no doubt that other countries—notably China—have recognized this dependence and are pulling out all the stops to attack it if they feel it necessary to do so.

China is “investing in everything from jamming to counternetwork attack (the offensive form of cyber warfare), anti-satellite (ASAT) systems, and directed energy weapons,” he observed.

One work-around to the dependence on space and networks for precision targeting might be to invest in systems able “to find imprecisely located targets on their own,” Watts suggested, offering the Low-Cost Autonomous Attack System, or LOCAAS, as an example. Developed under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, LOCAAS could fly to and loiter in an area where a target was thought to be, then search for the target autonomously with a laser radar, striking when it does.

However, “due to unease among senior airmen with autonomous battlefield robots, the Air Force walked away from LOCAAS,” as did the Army with similar technology in its Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System and the Loitering Attack Missile.

“The reticence regarding LOCAAS and LAM appears to stem from a cultural inclination to maintain tight control over kinetic attacks, combined with an intellectual failure to grasp the importance of being able to address imprecisely located targets,” Watts asserted.

“How soon the US military services will be forced to begin adapting to these new realities is by no means set in stone,” Watts wrote. While “the best guess” is that a response will be “unavoidable within 15 to 20 years,” the “new ways” of warfare have not yet been tested in battle.

“Until such a test occurs, US military institutions may be able to continue clinging to “traditional” ways of fighting and avoid the fundamental changes implied by the maturation and proliferation of precision strike,” he said. It would take a catalytic event to force rapid investment in radical change, he added.