At the outset of another Quadrennial Defense Review, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force believes that having enough equipment and personnel to fight two Major Theater Wars in quick succession is still a good yardstick for sizing US forces. It’s as good as any other, at least.
Gen. Michael E. Ryan, in a wide-ranging discussion with defense reporters in Washington, D.C., on June 21, said the two-MTW standard seems to “capture most” of the requirements for dealing with threats on the scale of North Korea and Iraq, as well as handling smaller military tasks worldwide.
“I still think it is a good concept” around which to size the US armed forces, Ryan said, though he added he would like to see more attention paid to the size and number of Smaller-Scale Contingencies that the Air Force has routinely been assigned to cover since the end of the Cold War.
Specifically, he said, he would like to see the US plan for those “routine” operations first, and then add forces sufficient to conduct the two major regional conflicts.
Ryan also discussed readiness and industrial base issues, Aerospace Expeditionary Forces, the impact on Air Force airlift of the new Army “transformation” effort, USAF’s strategy for its next bomber-type combat air vehicle, unmanned aircraft, tactical modernization, and the prospect of a new space force.
Ryan said a seeming thaw in relations with North Korea did not undercut either the two-MTW strategy or the rationale for deploying a national missile defense.
While quick-succession wars with North Korea and Iraq or Iran are the two notional MTWs used for shaping the force, the strategy is not dependent on those specific scenarios, Ryan said. He noted that last year’s conflict in the Balkans was “a Major Theater War for the United States Air Force,” in that it consumed almost all USAF’s assets that would be devoted to a single MTW.
Stretched “Pretty Darn Tight”
Had a second theater war erupted, the Air Force would still have been first in with airpower to carry out the national strategy of halting the second aggressor while the first war was being won.
“We could have gone to the second theater,” Ryan asserted. However, “we were stretched pretty darn tight.”
As for missile defense, Ryan noted that North Korea is not the only nation the US needs to be worried about.
“There are other nations that are striving to be able to deliver weapons of mass destruction with intercontinental-range ballistic missiles,” he said, noting that North Korea would not be alone in possessing such a capability within the next two decades.
Ryan said that a national missile defense system should be pursued, but he warned that it should be paid for with new monies that aren’t drained away from existing accounts. The force is thoroughly employed and already struggling with insufficient resources, he added.
“We are always concerned about priorities,” he explained. “We all agree that the missile [defense] system, when it is feasible, ought to be pursued, … but we’ve always said that the missile defense system ought to be [funded] over and above the needs that we currently have.”
Ryan pointed out that Air Force readiness “is now at the lowest … state we’ve been in years.”
Readiness is a key concern for USAF because, typically, “we are the ones who are demanded to be … first in” when a crisis erupts, noted the Chief of Staff. “We are the early responders in both theaters” of the two-MTW construct, he said, so readiness for the Air Force is also vital to all forces that would follow it into combat.
USAF doesn’t have the luxury of getting into a readiness slump that could be fixed over time if a threat began to emerge, Ryan said, since it is expected to be an almost instant-response force.
Substantial funds are being applied to fix spare parts shortages, to try to take care of aging airplanes, and to improve the quality of life for the troops, who are getting harder to hold onto in a booming economy, he asserted.
USAF is raiding the accounts for upgrade, maintenance, and modernization of its real property to fix the readiness problems, he said.
“We are on a 250-year replacement rate for our infrastructure because we took a conscious decision to do that, because we are short [of funds in the other areas],” he said. The Air Force leadership told Congress last year it was $3.5 billion shy of the figure needed to “turn around readiness and get us back to a fully ready force,” Ryan pointed out.
“I am worried about the level of funding for defense in general,” he added.
The new Air Force vision statement, recently published, is called “Global Vigilance, Reach, and Power.” It describes how the service has reshaped itself, since the end of the Cold War, into an expeditionary force capable of moving out quickly and setting up forward bases from which it can rapidly launch a devastating air attack on an enemy.
200 Strikes Per Day
Ryan confirmed that the Air Force now anticipates it can deploy one Aerospace Expeditionary Force-about one-tenth the Air Force’s total combat capability-in about 48 hours and five AEFs in only 15 days. Further, he said, a single AEF would be able to attack 200 targets a day across an area half the size of Texas, as well as provide air superiority. USAF could go farther and deeper with a greater number of tankers and bombers thrown into the mix.
“Within our AEFs, we have a sufficient number of aircraft-including F-16s, F-15Es, bombers-to be able to do that number of targets per day in a surge capacity; that is, we have them on a 12-hour shift.”
The “five-in-15” construct is not a strategy but rather a mechanism “that allows you to visualize what an AEF does for you,” Ryan said. “About five AEFs [or about 1,000 attack sorties per day] is what you need per Major Theater War,” he added. Moreover, the capabilities of the AEFs are not simply additive but increase with greater depth of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance assets, greater numbers of strike aircraft, and greater numbers of longer-ranged aircraft. Based farther from the battle area, the force would not be able to strike as many targets; if closer, the number goes up.
“Distance takes away from the number of sorties that you can effect because it takes longer to [fly] them,” Ryan noted.
The 48-hour deployment time for one AEF assumes two prepared operating bases are available for USAF aircraft to use.
The five-in-15 clock also assumes the availability of pre-positioned stockpiles of ammunition, spare parts, fuel, and other necessities, as well as “unconstrained lift,” Ryan said. To move five full AEFs in two weeks would demand the use of most of Air Mobility Command’s transport airplanes. Sharing the airlift with other branches of the armed forces would mean a slower deployment time. He noted that the other forces could also make use of sealift assets and land transportation that is also available to get to the fight.
The Army is in the midst of defining a new transformation strategy for itself that calls for lighter forces and faster deployment times, chiefly in response to its being left out of last year’s Operation Allied Force. One reason the Army did not take part is that it is too heavy to get to the fight soon enough to make a difference. (Another, perhaps more critical reason, is that US political leaders understood that the Army could take heavy casualties in a Balkan operation.)
Ryan declined to comment directly on the Army’s transformation strategy but did offer that “we won’t see an Army transformation force for some years.”
The new Army vision “that requires them to be more mobile and agile … is what the world needs for the future,” he asserted. However, this vision of the Army requires a degree of airlift that Ryan said is unaffordable and unrealistic to expect.
“We will never have enough lift-ever-to do two simultaneous theater wars. We can’t afford to go there,” he said.
A new review of airlift requirements-the Mobility Requirements Study-2005, or MRS-05-is due to be completed this fall. Ryan jokingly observed that he’s sure it won’t call for any less airlift than is now in the force. The current stated requirement is for 49 million ton-miles a day to be moved; for every million ton-miles a day added, he said, another C-17 would have to be bought.
Toward a New Bomber
Congress has complained that the Air Force is moving too slowly to develop a follow-on bomber to the B-2, especially since the workhorse B-52s now in service are already nearly 40 years old and the B-2 line has been closed. Ryan, however, said the Air Force will not move toward a replacement bomber until it has technology that would afford a “quantum leap” forward in long-range strike capability.
The technical breakthroughs necessary to justify work on a new bomber are not yet in hand, he stated.
“That is why we think in the next 10 to 15 years we need to continue to work on those technologies very hard to give us the next jump,” said Ryan. He noted that this leap should be similar to the advance from the B-1 to the B-2. That next jump will be the basis of the next attack aircraft, Ryan said.
“It will have to do with propulsion, … with improvement in the signature of the airplane, … radar, … visual, heat. … We don’t know whether that airplane is orbital. It could be suborbital. It may not be manned. It could have energy weapons on it.”
The B-2, he added, has limitations that mean it will always require “support of command and control and communications systems.” The B-2, though “a wonderful war machine,” is subsonic and can “only go at night” to minimize risk to its crew.
“It doesn’t do all the things we want it to do,” Ryan asserted.
“We want something that we can … get there very rapidly, that may be able to go autonomously,” said the Chief of Staff. “We are looking at something that has maybe a hypersonic [speed].”
Ryan insisted that the technological change underlying the next strike platform “has got to be a quantum leap, not just a small incremental leap.”
New B-2 Shelters
USAF is in the process of buying portable shelters that it can deploy to a forward operating location. The shelters allow the B-2’s sophisticated coatings, tapes, and other stealth surfaces to be maintained in the field.
He said, “If we had our druthers, we would rather forward deploy the airplane to get more sorties out of it rather than go to long-duration sorties,” such as were flown in Allied Force.
Beddown locations for the B-2 might include Guam, Diego Garcia, and sites that already host deployed B-52s. Enough will be bought to pre-position some and for others to be carried along as part of a deployment package. The shelters are “not very expensive” and will boost the combat effectiveness of the B-2, Ryan claimed.
In the next 10 years, the Air Force will be concentrating on adapting emerging technologies-particularly in weapons, avionics, and the ability to redirect bombers in flight-for the legacy bombers: B-52s, B-1Bs, and B-2s.
Ryan sees “good reason to worry about the health of the defense industrial base,” on which the Air Force relies for its “asymmetrical advantages” in warfare. He believes the industrial base has “shrunk to a worrisome level” and should be taken into account when the US awards the Joint Strike Fighter contract, but only after a clear technical winner has been chosen.
The timetables on the JSF and the F-22 fighter are of high importance to USAF, Ryan said. He noted that new surface-to-air missiles like the SA-10 and SA-12 will likely be widely deployed “in the next five years,” and new threat fighter airplanes will be available that will pose a serious risk to USAF’s bombers and sensor aircraft in particular.
“We can never send our bombers or for that matter our ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] fleet forward to a point where they are in jeopardy from these [threats],” Ryan insisted. “We need an aircraft that is agile enough to protect them.” The F-22 will fill the mission and replace F-15s that will be “25 to 30 years old when we get our first [F-22] squadrons.”
The JSF likely will come along just at the point when the Air Force will have to replace almost all of its F-16s and A-10s, which by then will be past their planned service lives.
“That is a big order,” Ryan said, but he’s more anxious to get an airplane that is “right” rather than on time.
Job 1: “Get It Right”
“The Joint Strike Fighter still has a lot of developmental work to go,” he said. “Because of the age-out of the force, it is important. But it is really important to get it right.” Because of the large number the Air Force plans to buy, the JSF avionics must be thoroughly wrung out “to make sure this airplane is good for a long time … because we are going to keep it for a long time. [There are] lots of technical challenges on that airplane.”
Ryan has previously said that the Air Force’s need for the JSF is critical but that the service does not want the JSF if it doesn’t come in at close to the advertised price or with the expected level of stealth.
There are no such concerns about the F-22 in his mind. He described the Raptor as having been tested “more than we’ve tested any other airplane” before making a production decision.
“We are very confident” the F-22 will live up to its billing, Ryan said, and the need for it has only increased with the rise of new SAMs and threat fighters.
The Air Force is “very committed” to developing an unmanned aircraft component in its fleet, Ryan said. He noted that cruise missiles and other munitions today technically qualify as smart unmanned aerial vehicles, except “they don’t come back.”
The main issue for the service is deciding for which missions it makes sense to send a robotic airplane-or a munition that doesn’t return-rather than a manned one.
Command and control of unmanned aircraft that return is “complex,” Ryan explained. It is “a heck of a jump” from a High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile-type weapon that locks onto a radar and destroys it to an aircraft “that has to find [the target], … survive the defenses, and operate with other weapon systems that are in the sky, and return and land and be reusable.”
Nevertheless, “we think the [Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicle] program is worth pursuing,” he said, because missions will doubtless emerge where that kind of technology is useful. “There are lots and lots of questions on it, but we are going after it.” However, “you have to nail down the mission” first.
Ryan was asked to comment on how much Iraq’s air defense system has been worn down by strikes from coalition aircraft over the past few years. He declined. Nor would he say whether Iraq has replenished its system with illegal imports from abroad. However, he praised the rules of engagement that permit coalition forces to strike anywhere in retaliation for a threatening move by Iraq. This arrangement is far superior to “this stupid idea of proportionality” that was used in 1995 air operations in the Balkans. Ryan was commander of 16th Air Force in Italy at that time.
“What happened there was, if they shot at our folks and knocked down a [pilot], we were not allowed to come back and take out a [SAM] site unless, one, it was a smoking gun and, two, we got the UN’s approval,” said Ryan. “I don’t want to ever, ever put people in a position like that again.”
Please, No Hits Allowed
He joked that the proportionality rules that applied to operations over Bosnia seemed to suggest that “if they shot at us with an SA-6 and missed, we could shoot a HARM back, but we’d have to miss.”
Ryan said he’s puzzled by some of the tortured logic he’s seen since Allied Force suggesting that the US is not really committed to a war unless it puts its people in grave risk of being killed and that, somehow, US pilots in the Balkans were invulnerable to fire.
“There is not one military man … in a leadership position that I know of who wants to put people … at undue risk just to say they were at risk,” he claimed. “The idea that you must be at risk, that you have to take casualties … -not one military officer that I know of in a leadership position believes that.”
The job of commanders is to ensure that the troops are exposed to the least risk possible, said Ryan, adding, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t put them in harm’s way.” He continued that it was plain “lucky” that no American pilots were killed in Allied Force and that today US pilots are “being shot at” over Iraq.
“We wouldn’t go” if there was a rule insisting that no pilots be harmed, he stated. “We put them at risk every day, but our job is to minimize that risk.”
Ryan said he doesn’t see a heavy manned presence in space within the next 25 years and no real departure from “what I would call Earth-centric space requirements.” That means the Air Force’s space role in the next quarter century will focus on “what I call the aerospace domain.”
USAF-and all the services-are already heavily dependent on space assets for information on enemy activity, weather, navigation, and for communication and will only become more so, Ryan predicted. This will mean “we are going to have to protect our assets in space,” he observed. There will certainly be attempts to jam US satellites, for example.
However, it would take some “substantial change in policy or cataclysmic event or some breakthrough in major technologies that would lead to the weaponization of space, … using space as a platform for offensive operations,” he said.
The Space Based Laser program is an example of how USAF is hedging against the possibility of weapons in orbit, Ryan said.
“In the next 25 years, I see us moving to defensive requirements in space and a capacity–when the policy changes or the demand changes–to be able to go into weaponization if we need to.”
Ryan was asked his views on the new, Congressionally mandated space commission, which was created to review ways to enhance US military space power, including whether USAF should spin off a space force or other separate branch of some kind. He said that he thought it would be useful to contemplate “what we ought to do for the future.” However, he’s adamant that air and space at this particular time ought to be an integrated operating domain.
He noted how B-2s on strikes into Yugoslavia last year relied on satellites for target reconnaissance, for weather information, to navigate with the GPS system, and to communicate with ground controllers. Its weapons were also GPS-guided.
To “pull apart the integration of those capabilities” would simply add overhead costs and create “an artificial separation of the vertical medium.”
“We think it is critical that you integrate what happens in space with what happens in the atmosphere [and on the ground],” he asserted.
The Air Force already supplies almost 90 percent of the dollars for space systems, as well as 90 percent of the military space operators, though USAF is not the primary user of the systems. The requirements for space systems, particularly communications, “are driven by the other services. … We happen to be the experts” at designing and fielding space systems, Ryan said.