Some Shrinkage Will Occur
The Air Force will cope with looming budget cuts by shrinking, to make sure that the force it does field is not “hollow,” Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, vice chief of staff, told a House Armed Services Committee panel in July. However, the cuts come at the worst possible time in terms of the service’s modernization efforts, he said, and open a window where China and other potential adversaries could catch up and erase USAF’s technological lead in key areas.
Breedlove, in testimony before the HASC’s readiness subcommittee, said the planned 12-year, $400 billion budget reduction being imposed on the Pentagon is causing “quite some concern” among USAF’s senior leadership, and could cause “a fundamental restructure of what it is our nation expects from our Air Force.”
Both the tactical air fleet and bomber fleet are “in bad need of recapitalization,” and USAF’s carefully laid plans to manage modernization will be “challenged,” he warned.
The service’s must-buy shopping list includes the F-35 fighter, the KC-46 tanker, and a new penetrating bomber—all big-ticket programs.
To live within its means, the Air Force will have to “constrict” in size, Breedlove told the HASC panel, “in order to maintain a ready and fit force to fight.” Reducing force structure will free money up to meet deficit reduction targets and needed modernization, but at the cost of needed capability.
“Our capacity would have to come down,” he said, adding that a hollow force is not acceptable given the combat requirements of regional commanders. “We can’t afford to go there,” he said.
Just a week before, Breedlove told the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute that the Air Force is struggling to figure out “how we’re going to make it through the next five years without $49 billion”—a figure that presumably reflects USAF’s share of the $400 billion cut.
“We’re in a tough spot now,” he told the Mitchell symposium attendees. “We see near-peers or peer competitors beginning to build similar capabilities in stealth, … long-range strike, …[and] missile technology on their aircraft.” These countries, he said, “have money, and they have a very deliberate plan which they are good at executing, and they will bring pressure [on] our advantages across the world, all at the same time.” The fiscal pressure, which is unrelenting, he said, will “challenge our ability to remain ahead of that … technology curve.”
The Air Force, Breedlove said, must “think our way through some of these issues, where we clearly will not be able to buy our way through.”
The $400 billion reduction—which Administration officials have hinted could balloon to $900 billion or more—is already “about a seven percent cut,” Breedlove said. “The effect … will drive us to decisions which are going to be tough across the next few years.”
The last time the Air Force faced a significant drawdown—in the early 1990s, when the Cold War ended—the service was flush with new systems across the fleet, and so did not face an onerous procurement bill, Breedlove noted. Now, however, all that hardware has aged 20 years, and USAF is already “flying the oldest Air Force we have ever flown.”
Coping with cuts previously imposed, the service has already retired more than 1,500 older aircraft, “canceled major acquisition programs, and deferred much-needed military construction, just to get to where we are.”
The Air Force is “clearly … some number of decades ahead of the Chinese in stealth and in the capability to employ stealth,” Breedlove told lawmakers. Although no country can close a gap of four decades “overnight,” the Chinese are employing cyber espionage, and that is helping them leapfrog ahead of where they otherwise would be.
China is “intruding into the nets of our manufacturers and our government,” and as a result, is “catching up at an increased rate because of what they learn from those cyber intrusions,” he said. China also has the funds to turn stolen secrets into hardware.
“When [China says] they’re going to build 300 [J-20 stealth fighters] in the next five years, they will build 300,” Breedlove asserted. “They will put the money to whatever they decide to do.” The situation “scares me because of the determination and the fact that they’ll deliver.”
Confessions From “The Bomber Hater”
More than nine months after then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gave the go-ahead for the Air Force to start working on a new penetrating bomber, requirements for the airplane are still undefined, and apparently still the subject of top-level Pentagon debate. At the very least, it is clear USAF hasn’t made its bomber ideas apparent to senior defense leaders.
Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, illuminated the lingering bomber controversy. Talking with defense reporters in mid-July, Cartwright—who, as chairman of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, had considerable influence over new weapon systems—said he remained unconvinced by Air Force assertions of what the bomber ought to be able to do.
“I’m questioning what it is we’re building, and what attributes” the aircraft should have, he said. “What is it we’re going to build it for?” Cartwright, who previously oversaw the nation’s nuclear bomber fleet as commander of US Strategic Command, confessed that he’d developed a reputation as “the bomber hater.”
While he flatly stated, “I think you have to have a bomber,” Cartwright also acknowledged he was at great odds with USAF over whether the aircraft should be, as the service suggests, “optionally manned.”
“Nobody has shown me anything that requires a person in that airplane,” Cartwright said. “I’m waiting for that argument and I haven’t found it yet.”
He shrugged off the contention that, as a future element of the nuclear triad, the bomber should have a human crew to provide nuclear surety. “I say, ‘Gee, I don’t remember the last time I manned an ICBM or SLBM or a cruise missile.’ I’m not sure I understand that logic.”
Further, bombers are “pretty quick,” but not quick enough, for the most time-sensitive targets, he said. “There are several places on the face of the Earth [where] bombers can’t reach,” and have to be serviced by missiles of some sort.
While he recognized that building a cockpit into the aircraft wouldn’t, by itself, render the aircraft inordinately expensive, Cartwright said making the bomber optionally manned would force the design to be hyper-survivable against the toughest anti-access measures, an approach that would definitely raise its cost.
“It takes you to a design and a survivability characteristic of the platform that [is] significantly better” than a simple truck-like remotely piloted aircraft. Cartwright said the new bomber should reflect the design philosophy of the Predator family of RPAs—inexpensive, flexible to incorporate new weapons and technology, and with only as much self-protection as is necessary.
Cartwright noted that the oldest but largest element of the existing bomber fleet is the B-52, and “if you take that out of the inventory, you really don’t have much left.”
A new manned bomber, however, risks becoming an “exquisite” capability that would cost so much the Air Force would not be able to afford enough of them to be useful, he maintained.
“If we’re going to go out and spend billions of dollars to build … less than 20″ bombers—which is the size of the B-2 fleet—”then I question the investment,” Cartwright said, adding, “I want to be able to think in terms of hundreds” of new bombers, not “10.”
Bomber Debate Rages
Cartwright’s comments indicate he is not persuaded by the Air Force’s ideas about the new bomber’s attributes.
Less than a week after Cartwright made his remarks, USAF Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, speaking to AFA’s Mitchell Institute, insisted that the ability to strike any target on Earth remains a “core capability” of the service, which therefore needs a new bomber.
The Air Force will make affordability a prime consideration in designing and building the airplane, he said, and the bomber will have “a valuable deterrent effect, even in a strictly conventional” role.
“The conventional capability to reach into a target area and take those targets when we want is a strategic effect,” he asserted.
The new bomber will be designed to be a conventional platform first, and a nuclear platform later. It will be an “evolutionary” part of the family of long-range strike systems, balancing “existing, evolving, and new capabilities.” It’s not the Air Force’s intent to “lean very far forward” in the design.
“The bomber will not be an exquisite, ‘lone wolf’ platform capable of accomplishing all the missions by itself. It will rely on the ‘family’ in many cases,” Breedlove said.
As to cost, “we need to be able to afford this system, so we can buy 80 to 100 of these platforms.” Affordability, Breedlove said, “is a key parameter.”
The Air Force has said it wants to bring the new bomber in at a unit cost of under $550 million, but that figure shouldn’t be given too much credence, according to Shay D. Assad, the Pentagon’s director of defense pricing. In a separate meeting with defense reporters in July, Assad said USAF’s ballpark price for the new bomber is, at best, “a rough estimate,” especially since the issue of requirements has yet to “settle down.”
Assad said the bomber’s cost will be figured by comparing it with historical programs such as the B-2—which has been out of production for 10 years—and with “similar type” programs, “to the degree they exist.”
However, if affordability becomes the acute issue it is expected to be, it’s entirely possible that the airplane will be designed to fit the available funds, and not the other way around.
“We … might establish, within the department, a position that says, ‘This is all we can afford,’ ” Assad noted. “In that regard, then you have to make the requirements meet that [dollar figure].”
Breedlove also said that, following months of discussions with the Navy about joint and mutually supportive capabilities the two services see as required in the future, they agree that a bomber is essential.
“One of the primary things that came out of discussions in AirSea Battle was this need … to have long-range strike of some form,” Breedlove said. Long-range strike “overcomes area denial measures.” Long-range strike is a capability “the nation currently depends on” and has relied on for operations in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “We will continue to need this capability into the future,” he asserted.
Assad said he would have “more insight” into the bomber’s requirements—and thus cost—in three to nine months.