The Air Force Starts Over

Aug. 1, 2007
Just a year ago, the Air Force had a program plan that it thought would stick. It had weathered various strategy and system reviews and had sorted out issues of base realignment and future end strength. It had faced and made many major decisions.

The resulting overall program, although far from what the service really needed, at least seemed to offer the promise of stability. After nearly two decades of turbulence, the prospect of clarity and resolution was welcome.

However, external pressures now have twisted even this latest Air Force program out of shape, virtually obliging USAF to start over in developing its future plans.

The Air Force will likely have to add more airmen and keep more old aircraft than it had planned. It will be able to buy far fewer new fighters than it needs and will be forced to keep old ones longer. It could well end up postponing acquisition of a new bomber. To cut costs, USAF is slashing the size of its nuclear weapons inventory. Meanwhile, it is “burning up” transports and fighters in combat at a high rate. The service also faces a looming huge bill to extend the lives of aircraft it believes are or will soon be too tired or obsolete for combat.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley told Congress early this year that big changes in the US military, announced near the end of 2006 and at the 11th hour of the budget process, practically voided “plus-two million man-hours” of labor in crafting USAF’s 2008 spending proposal. The plan had been carefully balanced, he said, so that the service could live within its topline, albeit with a degree of risk.

However, the big changes were made so late in the cycle, he said, that there wasn’t enough time to work them into the plan before the budget deadline. A new, financially and structurally rebalanced program won’t be ready until late this fall, when the service puts the wraps on its 2009 funding request.

A big monkey wrench in USAF’s plans was the White House’s decision last fall to increase the size of the ground forces—Army and Marine Corps—by 92,000 people over the next few years. The boost is intended to relieve the stress on ground troops making multiple return tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the action will have a ripple effect seemingly not taken into account; namely, the Air Force will need more people and equipment to support the ground force expansion. It wasn’t funded to do so.

The cost to the Army and Marine Corps of adding those troops is expected to be around $60 billion, a figure that ignores any costs the Air Force now must bear to support them.

Besides needing more airlifters to get larger numbers of ground forces and their gear to battle, USAF will require more tactical air controllers and other battlefield airmen to integrate with the expanded ground branches. Moseley tasked Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, chief of Air Mobility Command, and Gen. Ronald E. Keys, head of Air Combat Command, to develop estimates of what the ground force expansion will require in terms of airlifters and battlefield airmen, respectively.

McNabb’s result—a highly condensed version of a Mobility Requirements Study—determined that if all 92,000 new ground troops fit out combat brigades, it will take 335 strategic airlifters to move them around—about 35 more than the Air Force’s plans call for, Moseley said in June. If, however, some are put into support organizations, USAF’s airlift burden will be less.

Needed: 1,000 Airmen

Again, assuming that all the new ground forces are applied to combat units, Keys determined that USAF will have to supply about 1,000 battlefield airmen to embed with them.

The airlifters would cost upward of $7 billion, while the airmen would cost more than $100 million per year.

“We are still waiting to hear” from the Army and Marine Corps exactly how they will bring on the new ground troops, and therefore what resources USAF will have to apply to support them, Moseley said in June. However, in April, he said, “There is no money inside the Air Force program right now” to acquire more airlifters or airmen.

“I will resist” funding such a program by cutting any of the Air Force’s top priorities, Moseley said in April. He said he expects to announce new “roadmaps” for every aspect of Air Force planning—organizations and programs—by the end of this month, and he said they will be released to the public.

The Air Force’s acquisition priorities, in order of importance, are:

1) the KC-X, a new tanker to replace the KC-135E

2) CSAR-X, a new combat search and rescue helicopter

3) space systems

4) F-35 fighters

5) a new bomber, to be deployed by 2018

Other disruptions have played havoc with the Air Force program. Record high—and climbing—fuel costs pushed the service to cut flying hours by 10 percent, to be offset by simulator time. That didn’t set well with Congress, and after grilling from unhappy members of both houses, Moseley admitted that he, too, was having misgivings about the idea. Still, for every $10 per barrel climb in the cost of fuel, the Air Force must find another $616 million annually to pay for it. Moseley said he doesn’t believe the cost of fuel will come down, either.

In its 2008 authorization bill, the House voted to add $403 million to increase all the services’ flying hours, but the amount wasn’t enough to get the Air Force’s mission capable rates to the service goal of 80 percent. Instead, MC rates will hover at or below 75 percent for at least another year. Across the board, USAF readiness rates have declined by 17 percent over five years.

The Air Force has long been thwarted in its attempts to manage its “own inventory” and retire those older aircraft that are increasingly costly to fly and maintain. Although giving a little on older C-130Es, Congress has balked at retiring KC-135Es or B-52s until their replacements start to enter the inventory. This process will take at least four years for tankers and at least 10 for bombers. The Air Force wants to retire old airplanes and plow the saved operating costs into new systems that will be more effective and less pricey to run.

“Operation and maintenance costs have gone up close to 180 percent over the last 10 years operating these old aircraft,” Moseley told defense reporters in April. The cost surge mainly has to do with repairing or “remanufacturing” aircraft that are stress-fatigued, and finding or fabricating parts that haven’t been made in decades.

Another ravenous consumer of USAF funds is personnel. Moseley noted that personnel costs have risen 57 percent in the last 10 years.

In May, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget pleaded with Congress to temper its zeal to provide ever-more-generous compensation to uniformed personnel. It pointed out that adding a half-percent boost to the Administration’s requested 3.0 percent military pay raise would cost the Defense Department about $7 billion over five years. Growth in health care costs for all the services, coupled with Congressional denial of Pentagon plans to get military personnel to bear some additional co-pays and other fees, will take another $16 billion chunk out of the budget. Together, those items could pay for tankers and USAF fighters over the same period.

The Air Force’s end strength request for 2008 was 328,600 active duty personnel, and Moseley said the service’s financial plans hinge on getting down to 316,000. Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne has explained that the service can get by with that number of people, but only if USAF is allowed to buy new equipment that requires fewer support personnel.

The 316,000 figure, however, was determined before the Army and Marine Corps were expanded.

Nothing Left To Cut

The Air Force volunteered to cut 40,000 active duty equivalents from its ranks in order to pay for modernization programs. There was no place else to cut: In wartime, readiness accounts are off limits and infrastructure had already been decided by the Base Realignment and Closure process. That left only people to cut to find more money for programs.

Other issues are eating into the Air Force’s buying power. There has been above-average cost inflation in building materials and aerospace metals, on which the Air Force is dependent. A growing shortage in the availability of titanium, for example, has directly led to delays in delivering F-22 fighters and other aircraft.

Moseley told reporters that the Air Force-specific portion of the 2008 budget adds up to $110 billion. However, adding in an “unfunded priorities list” of items the service needs but was denied Pentagon permission to request, along with the service’s 2007 supplemental request, brings the actual required amount to $145 billion.

“That tells you the magnitude of the problem” in funding, he said. Moseley has said the service needs an extra $20 billion annually, just to tread water.

The No. 1 priority for the Air Force is to replace its oldest aerial tankers, which date back to the 1950s. The entire ability of the Air Force to project power and conduct operations a world away hinges on tankers, but the service has been blocked from getting them for six years, due to an aborted leasing plan and fallout from the Darleen A. Druyun scandal.

Early this year, USAF released its final request for proposals for the KC-X, and is expected to choose a winner this fall. The Boeing KC-767 and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS) KC-30 are the two contenders for the program. The Air Force wants to buy 179 KC-X aircraft, in a first batch of 80 and a second of 99. Although it originally thought it might buy two types of aircraft, the service has decided to stick with just one, to reduce logistics costs. It may also use the selected aircraft as the basis of a next generation fleet of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft. The Air Force has budgeted $13 billion to buy KC-Xs through 2013.

If the program doesn’t deliver on time—if, as top service leaders predict, the program will be delayed by protests by the losing team—USAF will face a formidable bill to keep KC-135Es going. Already, the fleet is in need of a $1.4 billion strut repair or will face grounding.

The service’s second priority is the CSAR-X replacement for the HH-60 Pave Hawk search and rescue helicopter fleet, which is worn out from heavy use and which has never really been large enough to meet requirements. Moseley has called it a “moral imperative” to invest adequately in a system to retrieve airmen shot down in battle, and USAF plans to buy 140 aircraft for the mission.

However, the CSAR-X program can’t seem to get airborne. The Air Force selected Boeing’s HH-47 Chinook helicopter last year, but losing bidders protested to the Government Accountability Office that USAF failed to follow its own rules and common sense in evaluating costs and value. The GAO upheld some of the protesters’ arguments.

Top service officials predict lengthy litigation is still to come. Moseley lamented that the program had become more “about lawyers” than about picking up downed airmen, who would pay the price for the program’s delay.

Many of the Air Force’s key space systems have suffered delays and explosive cost growth over the last decade. It’s a problem that Air Force Undersecretary Ronald M. Sega has chalked up to unrealistic initial cost estimates as well as an Air Force acquisition system that has bled away its competency to manage large, complex space programs. However, Sega reported that there has been success in arresting cost growth on most systems, chiefly by imposing discipline on the habit of constantly adding new requirements. Stability, Sega said, will help USAF space more than anything else.

The test of a Chinese anti-satellite weapon earlier this year also prompted the Air Force to boost its efforts in developing space situational awareness programs, a move that Congress supported. Moseley said he had tasked Air Force Space Command chief Gen. Kevin P. Chilton to “take a look at the post-ASAT shot” and determine where the service needs to bolster its space capabilities. However, Moseley stopped short of urging that an American ASAT program be launched.

“Anything beyond defensive counterspace now requires a policy discussion and a set of decisions at a higher level than Air Force Space Command or the Department of the Air Force,” Moseley told reporters in April.

The Senate, in its 2008 defense authorization bill, determined that the Space Radar, a high-profile program that could provide the ability to maintain persistent surveillance over world hot spots, should proceed only with greater interagency cooperation.

Moseley said in June that he will also put new emphasis on “responsive space” efforts—namely, to obtain the ability to loft satellites into orbit on very short notice.

The Air Force has just two manned combat aircraft programs in production: the F-22 and the F-35 fighters. Both aircraft are stealthy, “fifth generation” fighters exploiting the most advanced technology available. The F-22 is being delivered at the rate of 20 per year. The official “program of record” is for 183 of the fighters, but this figure has always been a budgetary accommodation and not based on the requirement, which is for 381 aircraft. Under current plans, the F-22 program will start shutting down in 2010, but the service has the option to keep F-22s in production if there are delays with the F-35 fighter, which has just entered low-rate production of initial test aircraft.

Under last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the Defense Department leadership agreed that there should be no interruption in building fifth generation fighters, opening the way to buys of more F-22s. However, to reach USAF’s goal, it would take 10 more years to bring the buy up to USAF’s stated requirement of 381. Wynne has said that he expects USAF will want to go beyond the 183 on order, with at least another 20 likely for the 2011 budget.

So far, the Air Force has not backed away from its long-held objective of buying 1,763 F-35s, which are to replace the F-16, A-10, and some F-117 aircraft. However, while the service planned to buy 110 of the aircraft annually, its latest plan calls for buying only 80 per year at maximum, meaning that USAF’s numeric goal would not be reached until 2034.

The F-35 is tracking well to the schedule and cost set for it two years ago and has had a largely problem-free early flight-test program. The Air Force is expected to achieve a limited initial operational capability with the F-35 in 2013.

“We should be buying the Joint Strike Fighters at 80 to 100” per year, Moseley asserted. “We should be buying these … in economic order quantities that allow the manufacturers to get at the best delivery price and to get us to recapitalize faster,” but the planned budgets won’t allow it, he said.

The Air Force plans to keep about 178 F-15s indefinitely, since it won’t be getting about 200 of the F-22s it needs. The aircraft retained will be the most “healthy” of today’s fleet, and they will get improvements to their radars, avionics, and weapon systems.

Shorter Life Expectancy

The F-16 fleet is in the process of receiving both structural life extension and system improvements, but heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan has sharply eroded the fleet’s life expectancy, which is expected to be about 25 percent less than was anticipated for normal wear and tear. This fact pushed the F-35 to the fourth most urgently needed priority on the Air Force’s list.

The Air Force has about 1,300 F-16s today, but that number will drop to about 1,100 by 2013 and will decline by about 100 per year afterward. If the F-35 is severely delayed, or if the Air Force can’t keep the annual procurement in the 80 per year range, then the F-16 will have to undergo a life extension program beyond measures already being taken. The improvements would be expensive and add no new combat capability to the force.

Hard use also compelled the Air Force to undertake a broad rehabilitation of the A-10 Warthog. Most of the A-10 fleet will receive all-new wings, because cracks were discovered in many of the airframes. The type will also get a precision engagement upgrade, allowing it to use the latest weapons, as well as a modern cockpit. About 223 A-10s, so modified, are now expected to remain in USAF’s inventory through 2028 or beyond.

The Air Force expects to phase out the last of its F-117 stealth attack aircraft next year. Its mission will be taken over by the F-22 and F-35.

A new bomber is in the planning stages, but has yet to get under way. Although senior USAF officials have long speculated the aircraft would be supersonic, hypersonic, or unmanned, the service has zeroed in on buying a subsonic, manned bomber with extreme stealthiness. It will have an unrefueled combat radius of at least 2,000 miles and be able to carry up to 28,000 pounds of ordnance.

In yet another move to lower its costs, the Air Force announced earlier this year that it will slash the size of its nuclear arsenal, trimming away all 460 of its AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles. The stealthy missiles, which can only be carried on B-52Hs, were costly to maintain and represented a system unlikely to be used, Wynne reported. The Air Force also said it would further reduce its inventory of nuclear AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missiles—again, to save money. The service will investigate converting some of the missiles into conventional weapons, but offered no concrete plan to do so.

Also in the nuclear arena, USAF decided it will confine its intercontinental ballistic missile fleet of Minuteman IIIs to 450 missiles. Another 50 will be taken out of service and used as fleet reliability test articles. All 500 are slated to receive a suite of upgrades to improve their maintainability and navigation accuracy.

Supplementing both fighters and bombers in the attack role will be Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, described by USAF as a “killer scout” and “hunter-killer” aircraft, respectively. The Air Force plans to buy about 250 Predators and about 80 of the larger Reapers, which can carry a range of air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance.

Likewise, the Air Force is continuing development and production of the Global Hawk high-flying intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance UAV, of which a fleet of 60 is planned. However, USAF has so far not figured out a plan to replace its major ISR aircraft, the E-3 AWACS, E-8 Joint STARS, and RC-135 Rivet Joint. The E-10 multirole command and control aircraft was canceled in the FY07 budget, and no successor has yet been named.

A new radar that was to equip the E-10, the multiplatform radar technology insertion program, or MP-RTIP, will likely be fitted to Joint STARS, with Congress’ blessing. The E-8 is also likely to receive a badly needed re-engining to improve its climb, persistence, and electrical generation power.

The manned U-2 reconnaissance aircraft will remain in the Air Force inventory until about 2012, or until its unique signals intelligence function can be duplicated by its chosen successor, the Global Hawk. Moseley said he will not retire the U-2 until his field commanders are comfortable doing so.

The Airlift Question

Airlift continues to be one of the Air Force’s toughest programmatic problems. Last year, following the QDR—which incorporated a limited mobility study—the service decided it could manage with 180 C-17s and about 110 C-5As and Bs for strategic lift, provided the C-5s received both a structural and re-engining upgrade as well as an avionics upgrade to a new configuration, C-5M.

Congress added 10 C-17s to the Air Force’s program last year, though, because the type has been highly successful in a range of operations but is being used at an extremely high tempo. Also, the Pentagon’s last major mobility study had left many unanswered questions about future requirements, just as Boeing was preparing to shut down the production line.

The Air Force believes it has at least another year to figure out what to do in strategic lift before the C-17 line is closed beyond the point of economic return. It has stated since the QDR that it wants to get the results from testing the C-5M upgrade before deciding its path ahead in strategic lift.

However, when costs began to rise on the C-5 upgrade in the spring—threatening a Nunn-McCurdy cost cap breach—the Air Force began to float the idea of buying another 30 C-17s and reducing the size of the C-5M program. Senior leaders also complained that it didn’t look like the Galaxy would achieve the promised 75 percent mission capability rate that made the upgrade worthwhile in the first place.

Since then, Lockheed Martin, which is performing the C-5 re-engining, has said it will offer a fixed price contract on the program, and match or better the Air Force’s MC goals.

Rising costs likewise compelled the Air Force to reduce the scope of the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program, being performed by Boeing. To pay for the increases, USAF cut the number of transports to be so modified, by 118 aircraft. The Air Force continues to buy new C-130J aircraft, but not at a rate that will allow it to replace its oldest C-130Es—which have wing box cracks—in a timely manner.

The Air Force is also trying to decide how a new aircraft will fit into its overall mobility strategy, and this, too, has put USAF plans in abeyance. The Air Force is partnered with the Army on the Joint Cargo Aircraft, a small transport designed to support far-flung ground troops and operate from very small airstrips. Just how much the JCA will absorb some of the mission of the C-130 is not yet clear, but the Air Force supports the program because it had been running some C-130 missions in Southwest Asia half empty.

Moseley said in June that he also envisions the JCA as being a platform around which coalitions can be built. Much as the F-16 is used by many coalition partners, Moseley sees the JCA as a way for cash-strapped countries to participate in joint activities. He also sees it as a principal Air Force contribution to the nascent Africa Command.

In mid-June, the Army and Air Force selected L-3 Communications to provide the C-27J Spartan as the JCA. A contract awarded at the time specified that the two services will buy at least 78 of the small cargo aircraft, which will replace the Army’s C-23 Sherpa and some C-12 Huron aircraft.

The joint arrangement, however, didn’t sit well with the Senate Armed Services Committee, which said in its 2008 defense authorization bill markup that the Air Force should be given responsibility for the fixed-wing cargo mission.

Moseley said that if the Air Force can get a procurement raise of $20 billion a year, the service can do everything it has to do, but with little room to spare. Without it, though, all accounts will be short, capabilities will diminish, and so will the nation’s “sovereign options.”