The Turning Point

Aug. 1, 2009

The Air Force is in the throes of what could prove to be one of the greatest upheavals in its turbulent 62-year history.

The words “danger” and “difficulty” have become only too appropriate in describing the situation of USAF’s critical combat formations. Today is a time when aged fighters fall out of the sky and no replacement bomber is in sight. The nation bets its basic security on a force that is older—by far—than at any time since World War II.

Some see the current turmoil as comparable to earlier struggles over strategic bombers, ICBMs, and space. Those dustups created years of uncertainty.

An F-15 maintainer is ready to flag a pilot at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. (USAF photo by SrA. Laura Turner)

The unofficial term “combat air forces” refers to fighter, attack, bomber, and some intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) assets. Within that grouping, the fighter and attack force comprises the bulk of manned and unmanned striking power.

The CAF is US airpower’s center of gravity, and it has already undergone irrevocable change and damage. USAF fighter and attack aircraft are aging faster than they can be replaced.

A year ago, the Air Force possessed a fully funded modernization program covering fighters, bombers, unmanned aerial systems, data links, and more. That program has unraveled. In its place comes a new Pentagon directive: Hold off on modernization and freely accept moderate to high risk in force plans.

“We’re not going to build the Air Force we thought we were going to build,” said Michael B. Donley, the service Secretary.

The crisis has been brought to a head by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ decision to halt all production of the F-22 air superiority fighter and cut the maximum production rate of the F-35 multirole fighter. As a result, the service is trying to figure out how to do what it has never done: Accept into its aircraft mix a large number of less capable legacy forces.

The Air Force now being crafted will not be the advanced, sophisticated force conceived after Desert Storm in 1991. Plans laid in the mid-1990s called for the Air Force to push out all of its 1970s-era F-15s, F-16s, F-117s, and A-10s and replace them with new “fifth generation” F-22s and F-35s.

That plan would have, in due course, replaced all F-15Cs, F-16s, and A-10s with 381 F-22s and 1,763 F-35s.

The new plan calls for something less—far less. The new combat structure has been described as a “fifth generation-enabled” force, using small buys of advanced fighters to bootstrap more capability out of modernized legacy fighters.

In this regard, the Pentagon under Gates has made some big moves. The biggest were those to stop F-22 production at 187 aircraft—about half of the Air Force’s full replacement requirement of 381—and to limit maximum production of the F-35.

Gates’ actions were nothing if not controversial. Retired USAF Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney spoke for many with his claim, “This is the most dangerous defense budget since the post-World War II period.” Others dispute this, but there is no disputing the severity of the change.

Gates has made plain that his oft-declared effort to “rebalance” American military forces is no mere budget drill. Indeed, the Fiscal 2010 budget plan that he unveiled on April 6 was, in his words, “a budget crafted to reshape the priorities of America’s defense establishment.”

A Surfeit of Power

Those plans have been shaken to their foundations. US defense policy has been decoupled from a decades-long commitment to ensure no other power dominates any key region of the world. Two reasons have been adduced by defense officials.

One is a perceived need to focus more intently on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, in so doing, bring programming for irregular warfare into the service mainstream. The second is Gates’ view that the US military already possesses a surfeit of a certain kind of power—conventional power.

Indeed, Gates’ comments and decisions show he’s making a deliberate shift away from what are now pejoratively called forces for major theater wars. Areas of US military dominance are now referred to as “excessive overmatch.”

F-22 Raptors fly a theater security mission over the Pacific. (USAF photo by MSgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald)

In their joint USAF posture statement, Donley and Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Chief of Staff, state: “The Department of Defense provided guidance for the military to eliminate excessive overmatch in our tactical fighter force and consider alternatives in our capabilities.”

Oddly, the Gates shift does not stem from a full-blown strategy review by the Obama Administration; no national security review has yet taken place on the new President’s watch. Instead, Gates has used as his rationale the 2008 National Defense Strategy, shaped largely by himself and vigorously opposed by all the service Chiefs because of its acceptance of risk in the field of major conventional war.

At the center of this new risk strategy is the Air Force’s combined fighter, bomber, and attack fleet—the CAF.

For one thing, budget decisions contained in the 2010 plan guarantee that airmen will be compelled to continue flying aged F-15s and F-16s—two airplanes designed in the 1970s and bought, for the most part, in the 1970s and 1980s—for another three decades. The bomber force is, in many ways, worse off.

Old aircraft is only one side of the equation. The other side features a major modernization slump, based on Gates’ fighter and bomber decisions.

Taken together, these moves will inevitably drive the Air Force to higher risk levels. There are many reasons for this, but one big one is this: In the past decade, there grew within the Pentagon an overall sense that the CAF was too big.

The problem may have started in early 1991. In January and February of that year, the dominant airpower of a US-led military coalition decimated Iraqi air and ground forces in the six-week Desert Storm campaign. This led, postwar, to substantial cuts in fighter forces—from 38 to 20 active and reserve wings.

At first, this seemed reasonable. Substantial aircraft procurement in the Reagan 1980s meant the remaining USAF fighter force structure in the 1990s was, for the most part, young and strong. Moreover, equippage with precision weapons post-Desert Storm further increased the power of the fleet, allowing USAF to retire older aircraft. In all, the fighter inventory declined by some 1,000 aircraft.

What’s more, the experiences of Desert Storm led the Air Force to stop buying F-15s and F-16s in favor of developing lethal stealth and precision fighter-bombers for the future, the F-22 and F-35. Research and development money went to F-22 and F-35 programs. Meanwhile, USAF took the opportunity to invest in C-17s and complete the small B-2 bomber buy.

For all that, some in the Pentagon continued to harbor a belief that USAF had more combat airpower than it needed. Cuts came in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, and challenges to USAF force modernization cropped up repeatedly in the late 1990s.

It was not until 2002—the second year of the George W. Bush presidency—that the real challenges began to take shape.

In 2002, the F-22—the leading platform in the Air Force modernization plan—was subjected to a very tough, high-profile review by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The USAF requirement for 381 F-22s survived the blitz, but barely.

Things rocked along for another two years. However, the enormous cost of the Iraq War finally became a factor working against the F-22. In December 2004, the Pentagon issued an internal directive known as Program Budget Decision 753, signed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz.

The directive lopped billions in funding from long-term fighter procurement. It swept away all money for F-22 production after 2011. The end result of this budget drill was a truncated “program of record” of only 179 F-22s. (Efficiencies later allowed the Air Force to purchase another four, for a total of 183 fighters.)

The directive also created a fighter gap. The nation’s war plans stuck the Air Force with a requirement for 2,400 fighters. Funding, though, would provide only 1,600. The gap came to a whopping 800 combat fighters.

An MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle in its shelter at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, before a mission for Operation Iraqi Freedom. (USAF photo by TSgt. Erik Gudmundson)

The Air Force worried about that gap. However, USAF’s leaders believed they could live with a smaller fleet, given the capabilities of the F-22 and F-35. A severe funding crunch upended that plan. The Air Force could not buy new fighters fast enough to replace ones that reached their service life limits.

Senior Air Force leaders continued to budget for F-22 and F-35 production at better rates. At least with respect to the F-22, those efforts were met with constant opposition from OSD officials. The key figure in the anti-Raptor cabal was Gordon England, the deputy secretary of defense who had been appointed by Donald H. Rumsfeld but retained by Gates.

Excessive Overmatch

England was an interesting case. He had worked for two fighter houses—General Dynamics and, briefly, Lockheed Martin. When, in 2005, he was made deputy secretary of defense, England made no secret of his dislike for the F-22 and Lockheed’s Marietta, Ga.-based fighter “mafia.” He expressed a strong preference for the F-35, and became a great proponent of the notion that USAF was in possession of “excessive overmatch” in combat air forces.

Gates made that capability a major target for cuts when he began to settle on details of a new national defense strategy in the first half of 2008. The Pentagon chief focused military energies on irregular warfare. He laid the groundwork for dismantling much of the planning guidance for major theater wars. The strategy also provided the justification for getting rid of many theater war capabilities across the armed services.

One clear goal of the strategy: The downgrading of the relative importance of US conventional military forces— namely, those flexible, service-specific core competencies focused on dealing with major theater adversaries in various regions.

The need to prepare to fight and win major theater wars always had provided a framework for US defense plans. Moreover, defense strategy in the 1990s had moved away from planning for specific scenarios. Into its place moved so-called capabilities-based planning. As set out by William J. Perry, Secretary of Defense in the period 1994-97, the essence of the strategy was to prepare forces to combat capabilities presented by regional aggressors, and adapt strategies and operational plans to contingencies as they arose.

Capabilities-based planning put heavy emphasis on evaluating adversary military equipment and potential force developments, ranging from diesel submarines to surface-to-air missiles.

Gates, however, came into office with a view that effectively put an end to capabilities-based planning. When his new strategy was released in July 2008, he declared, “I firmly believe that in the years ahead, our military is much more likely to engage in asymmetric conflict than conventional conflict against a rising state power.”

Gates made irregular warfare his own personal cause. He claimed that big conventional programs had strong constituencies, but IW did not. He planned to give it one.

Publicly there was little discussion of the Gates strategy. The Presidential election was in full swing and most saw the Gates document as a strategy “destined to be overtaken by events,” in the words of Michele Flournoy, then president of the Center for a New American Security (and now Gates’ undersecretary of defense for policy).

Nor did Gates try to play his hand to a conclusion. Decisions on the F-22, a new aerial tanker, and other programs were deferred to the next Administration.

Part of the reason may have been that the Joint Chiefs collectively non-concurred with the strategy. After discussions between the Chiefs and Gates, Gates in summer 2008 elected to go ahead with the document over their objections. By then, Gates had already forced out Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Chief of Staff. In effect, the Air Force and other services lost their battle to try to get Gates to pay attention to future threats from their perspective. He saw their view as merely so much “next-war-itis.”

Things were to change, though. Gates saw his hand strengthened considerably after President-elect Barack Obama asked him to stay on in the defense post.

Soon, his strategy preferences began to emerge in programmatic form. Gates made a strange post-election move. The Bush White House, at the behest of the Joint Chiefs, had approved a large budget increase for Fiscal 2010, but Gates turned back $50 billion of it. With Bush gone and Obama in, Gates stepped up to the task of redirecting spending for the 2010 budget year into a series of bold changes. Few had foreseen how dramatic the changes would be.

Full details have yet to emerge. However, the overall direction is clear. Funding taken out over several years will make it impossible for the Air Force to buy a truly modernized force.

A B-52 takes off from Minot AFB, N.D. No replacement bomber for the venerable aircraft is in sight. (USAF photo by MSgt. Lance Cheung)

Buried in the details of the 2010 budget was a major negative decision: DOD would not, as asked, ramp up USAF’s F-35 purchases to 110 per year. Gates approved funding for a maximum rate of only 80 F-35s per year for USAF.

The decision to fund F-35 production at that rate locks in major shifts for the Air Force. First, it guarantees the long-term USAF fighter inventory will be smaller than planned by at least several hundred aircraft.

Will that number be enough to support overseas and homeland security requirements? The answer depends on details of the force planning construct. The F-35 budget was set prior to any decision on new defense planning scenarios and will be affected by decisions in the Pentagon’s massive 2009 defense review.

The Net Result

Theater war planning itself is out of favor. Not only that, but, for many, the goal of preparing forces to fight in two regions more or less at the same time seems much less compelling than it once was. The ability to take on two adversaries almost simultaneously has been a core tenet of US national security policy since the Truman years. However, with Gates opting for more risk in conventional conflicts, the two-war notion looked like an outmoded construct.

The net result of all these and other factors is a trend toward forces for just one theater war. Schwartz testified within recent weeks that there was “no question” that 187 F-22s would be “adequate for one major combat operation.” However, sizing combat forces for one operation at a time could seriously limit future policy options.

A final element of change in the rebalancing strategy is a rebuff of technology—a move particularly hard on the USAF combat air forces. Gates made it clear he is not a fan of exotic and highly capable weapons.

“I concluded we needed to shift away from the 99 percent ‘exquisite’ service-centric platforms that are so costly and so complex that they take forever to build and only then in very limited quantities,” Gates told an audience at Air University in Montgomery, Ala., on April 15, 2009. “With the pace of technological and geopolitical change, and the range of possible contingencies, we must look more to the 80 percent multiservice solution that can be produced on time, on budget, and in significant numbers.”

Unfortunately, the combination of Gates’ F-22, F-35, and bomber decisions ensures that USAF will not make a full transition to “fifth generation” aircraft. Instead, USAF will most likely keep significant numbers of F-15Es, F-15Cs, and advanced block F-16s for some time to come. The fleet will hit a low point over the next five years as fighters age and F-22 production ends.

This transition phase will last a decade as USAF’s planned F-35 inventory slowly builds. It’s a fact of life in this joint, allied program that the Marine Corps and several allies will receive deliveries of F-35s before Air Force bulk buys begin.

The result is that, five years from now, USAF’s combat air forces will actually look older than it does now.

An F-35 Lightning II at Eglin AFB, Fla. USAF is slated to receive only 80 F-35s per year—maximum. (USAF photo by SrA. Julianne Showalter)

Under the Gates plan (subject to the strong possibility of revision by Congress), the Air Force in 2014 will field a mere 186 F-22s and some 100 F-35s. This boutique fifth generation force will account for just 19 percent of the active duty inventory. The other 81 percent are to be old fighters.

By 2020, the situation should have improved. USAF, by that year, should take delivery of about 580 F-35s. That assumes OSD imposes no further program cuts or schedule delays.

The F-22s and F-35s, joined with remaining F-15Es and even a few F-16s, will form a fleet of around 1,300 active duty fighters. The CAF of 2020 will be an improvement, but it will never be able to give the nation full return on the taxpayer investments. Nor will it be the low-risk, superior force that was planned prior to 2009.

Now clear for all to see is the fundamental result of a decade of Pentagon decision-making: For the first time since the years before World War II, the Air Force has failed to re-equip itself.

Rebecca Grant is a senior fellow of the Lexington Institute and president of IRIS Independent Research. She has written extensively on airpower and serves as director, Mitchell Institute, for AFA. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine,“Playing With Fire,” appeared in the July issue.