Defense was not a central topic during the recent election, but nonetheless the Biden administration takes office amid tremendous national security pressures. World events will demand great focus on national security and—in particular—on aerospace power fielded by the Air Force and Space Force, which will prove indispensable as leaders navigate complex geopolitical headwinds.
Circumstances in both branches are fragile after three decades of heavy use, underfunding, and following a string of incorrect assumptions and poor decisions built on the ill-conceived notion that air and space assets exist only to support surface forces. The truth is that no matter what challenges the U.S. faces in the years ahead, air and space capabilities are vital. Air superiority and air mobility are essential for any successful military operation; long-range strike holds at risk adversaries’ war-making capacity; space delivers global command and control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Air and space C4ISR enable all military operations.
The defense of the United States depends on air power.Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
“The fundamental defense of the United States and the ability to project power forward will always be for America naval and air and space power,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley said in December. “The defense of the United States depends on air power and sea power, primarily. People can say what they want and argue what they want, but that’s a reality.”
The demand signal driving defense strategy begins with China and its increasingly aggressive posture in the Pacific; Russia and its intimidation of neighbors like Ukraine, along with opportunism in Syria; Iran and North Korea, pressing their nuclear ambitions; and nonstate actors like the Islamic State and al Qaeda, which remain threats to stability throughout southwest Asia. Those are just the known challenges. As history shows, from Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the United States has a spotty track record when it comes to unanticipated security challenges. What is certain, however, is that air and space will be in demand—no matter what. That cannot be said of the other services. Naval power is of limited use in land-locked regions, which represent more than a quarter of the countries on Earth, and armies are ineffective at sea, but air and space encompass 100 percent of the globe and can access any part of it faster than any other force. Combatant command (COCOM) war plans reflect this.
What follows are four steps that are fundamental for the Biden Administration to implement in order to secure American defense and prosperity.
Grow Aerospace Combat Capacity
Today’s Air Force and Space Force are both undersized. As then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson explained in 2018, “We are too small for what the nation is asking us to do.” Things have only gotten worse since then.
Every piece of the Air Force is undermanned and under-resourced. The bomber force is the smallest and oldest in the Air Force’s history; the fighter force has been cut by more than half since the end of the Cold War; the airlift fleet is too small to meet requirements for a major military operation; and the ISR force is a fraction of what it should be to meet everyday requirements. Today’s Air Force is “low density, high demand,” requiring leaders to cycle and wear out jets faster than intended and run crews ragged.
Worse, the aircraft inventory is old. Airmen learn to fly in T-38s procured during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. If they become fighter pilots, they may fly jets acquired before the worldwide web was invented. Most of our bombers predate the Cuban Missile Crisis. Three generations of a single family have flown in the same bomber and aerial refueling tankers. News stories may view this in a sentimental light but, in reality, this represents an Air Force in crisis. Modern enemy defenses pose extreme threats to any combat aircraft without stealth, sensors, robust processing power, and digital connectivity—but that criteria is met by only 13 percent of the bomber inventory and 20 percent of Air Force fighters. Converting the Air Force to a majority fifth-generation stealth Air Force remains a distant goal.
Today’s Air Force and Space Force budgets combine to account for about 20 percent of the defense budget. Yet some $40 billion of the Department of the Air Force’s total annual budget goes directly to the Intelligence Community without any input or control from the Department. That is enough to buy at least 400 F-35s or 400 Falcon IX space launches per year. No other service is loaded with such an external burden. This is on top of the Department of the Air Force taking the largest funding hits in the years following the end of the Cold War. From fiscal 1989 through 2001, the Air Force’s procurement budget declined by 52 percent. This was 16.1 percentage points more than the cut suffered by the Army and 20 points greater than the cuts to the Navy. In the wake of 9/11, budget increases failed to keep pace with demand. New joint missions like demand for remotely piloted aircraft were funded at the expense of other missions. Ground operations in Afghanistan and Iraq absorbed most defense spending. The Budget Control Act of 2011 made matters worse, driving aircraft procurement funding to its lowest level ever in fiscal 2013.
Things are no better in space. When the new Space Force was established in 2019, reforms needed to consolidate space-related functions and funding from across all the services failed to materialize. Instead, the Space Force was created by carving out its budget from the Air Force, as the other services held fast to their military space programs and dollars. Instead of freeing up resources for defense operations in space, the Air Force and Space Force had to fund the growing bureaucratic and operational requirements of an independent service without additional resources.
To address these concerns, leaders must acknowledge the problem and highlight the disconnect between budgetary resources and mission demand as a risk the nation can ill afford. Air Force and Space Force leaders spend months paring monetary request to the bone before submitting requests to the Defense Department leadership. Those requests get trimmed further by the Secretary of Defense and Office of Management and Budget. By the time that budget is submitted to Congress, the services are already in a compromised position. It is like going into salary negotiations with an employer and starting lower than what’s needed to cover rent and food.
The administration must understand the shortfalls and risks to readiness. The Air Force’s 2018 statement of need for 386 operational squadrons, up from 312, made clear what was necessary to meet the national defense strategy. That requirement has not changed. While the services must submit budgets in accordance with directed guidance, they also have a responsibility to advocate and articulate what they need to execute the defense strategy. Conflating these two can give the false impression that missions can be met no matter how small the budget. Historically, the Air Force recognized a planning force—what it needed—and a programing force—what the budget allowed. The space in-between was a measure of risk. The new administration should reinstate that process.
The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act recognized the risks and specifically cited an aircraft inventory floor and growth targets to restore Air Force readiness. The same issues apply to the Space Force, which, as a new service, should internalize this thinking and make it part of its culture. Congress ultimately has the power of the purse, and lawmakers cannot do their jobs effectively if budgeteers in the Pentagon do not make clear actual needs.
The Navy understands this well and has long signaled the need to grow its fleet, first to a total of 350 combatant ships and more recently to 500. The Air Force and Space Force must likewise stake out their needs.
Department of the Air Force leaders will have to establish that both the Air Force and Space Force have hit bottom, that neither can get smaller, and that they can no longer trade force structure today for capability that may or may not materialize in the future. History teaches that such trades do not deliver. In 2010, the Air Force divested over 200 legacy aircraft to free funding for fifth-generation aircraft. The planes were retired, but the savings disappeared with the 2011 Budget Control Act. Flash forward to 2019. The Air Force announced its F-15C/D force was nearing the end of its service life. The F-35 production rate was less than planned, the legacy fighter force was running out of steam, and it had too few F-22s because that program had been cut short after building just half of the required planes. Too few F-35s were being built to catch up. Now the situation is even worse.
Complete Current Program Buys
The Air Force has multiple modernization initiatives underway. It is buying F-35A fighters, the B-21 bomber is nearing its first flight, KC-46 tanker problems are getting solved, and the T-7 trainer is nearing production. These programs are the Air Force’s best hope. The Space Force has its own priorities, many of which are classified. Seeing these programs through will renew the force. Cutting or delaying them will make matters worse. Leaders must guard against trading today for an unseen tomorrow.
In the rush to harvest post-Cold War budget savings, the Department of Defense canceled the B-2 bomber after building just 21 airframes, far short of the 132 originally planned. Having made a tremendous investment in technological development, tooling, and infrastructure, it abandoned the investment and instead invested further funds in the B-52 and B-1 to extend their lives. Meanwhile, demand for the unique capabilities delivered by the long-range stealth bomber never went away. By the early 2000s, it was clear a new Next-Generation Bomber would be needed. The first effort was canceled in 2009 and a few years later it was reborn as the B-21. If the Air Force had simply been allowed to procure the full buy of the B-2s, the entire ordeal might have been avoided.
Bottom line: if a requirement remains valid, it is more cost-effective to procure the numbers necessary to meet the requirement. Cutting the F-35 buy trades short-term savings for increased risk. By contrast, the Navy has not committed to building a specific number of F/A-18s, but rather has remained open to procure whatever is needed.
Today’s Air Force is committed to invest significant sums into Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) with the technology yielded through the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). The goal is to gain increased situational awareness throughout the battlespace—targets to strike, threats to avoid, and other pertinent information—that allows actors to best employ forces to attain desired effects. An aircraft over an enemy target can be out of munitions, but still net results by passing target coordinates to an airplane or ship offshore that launches a missile, with terminal guidance provided by the aircraft or satellite constellation still overhead the target. This is essentially a modern formulation of what the Royal Air Force did during the Battle of Britain, when radars gathered position information for attacking German bombers and passed it to command and control (C2) stations, which fused the data with the relative position of their fighter aircraft. This transformed Britain’s extremely limited defending force into extremely effective interceptors.
While developing ABMS to realize this vision will be expensive, downsizing to fund that effort is exceedingly risky. JADC2 will be of little use if the force lacks aircraft to meet mission objectives. Airplanes, not networks alone, close kill chains. Aircraft, spacecraft, and ABMS are all required.
Build the Space Force for Success
The United States possesses the most capable space posture, given its many assets and a newly established U.S. Space Force. This critical lead will be lost, however, unless the new administration moves assertively to complete the transition to a fully independent service branch with full authority for military space.
The first—and greatest—challenge is to expand the resources allocated to the Space Force to design, develop, and build capabilities to deter and, if necessary, defeat any aggression against U.S. assets in space. Because every military service and agency depends on space, all must contribute to its funding and success. Topline space spending must increase significantly for the Space Force to succeed.
The second challenge is unifying the space community. The new service was essentially created by renaming Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) as U.S. Space Force. While that was appropriate, important elements of space expertise across the government must also be brought into the Space Force. A July 2016 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted some 60 stakeholder organizations in DOD, the Executive Office of the President, the Intelligence Community, and civilian agencies—all with a role in national security space. GAO’s conclusion: Too many cooks are spoiling the broth. Former Vice President Mike Pence echoed that sentiment on March 1, 2019, saying that spreading the national security space program so thin has resulted in “a glaring lack of leadership and accountability that undermines our combatant commanders and puts our war fighters at risk.” If the nation is serious about dealing with the threats facing us in space, at least some of those more than 60 government organizations need to be integrated into the Space Force.
The third challenge is personnel. When DOD re-established U.S. Space Command as a separate combatant command in August 2019, its personnel came largely from Air Force Space Command—the same command that fueled the nascent Space Force. The Air Force must establish a space component to provide representation to U.S. Space Command, just as the other services have done. Where will all these people come from? The answer cannot be to “triple hat” a small number of experts in the Space Force. Critical to maturing a stand-alone space force will be to develop a larger, deeper, and more flexible stable of space talent.
In summary, the new Space Force needs additional resources to develop new capabilities; more personnel must be recruited and trained to fully and separately man the Space Force, Space Command, and individual service space components; and the numerous disparate agencies that each have a role in national security space must be integrated into the Space Force.
Use Cost-Per-Effect to Compare Options
The present budget climate clearly will not be able to fund every priority and every wish. To build the most effective, efficient military possible, decision-makers must evaluate programs and solutions in terms of mission value, not just price. Wars are not won by the lowest-cost bidder, but by the best-trained, best-equipped, best-led military; that is, by the side that applies the most capable systems in the most innovative ways to best achieve desired effects.
Sadly, the defense establishment routinely relies on outdated cost metrics, such as unit cost, cost per flying hour, and total sustainment cost over the life of a program rather than a more sophisticated measure, such as cost per mission effect. Indeed, a well-intentioned focus on unit and sustainment costs often yields capabilities that require additional expense not calculated into the original costs. For example, if a given platform is less costly, but cannot achieve the mission alone, then the cost to achieve the desired effect must include multiple platforms, not just one.
This is precisely the purpose of cost-per-effect assessments. By measuring the sum cost to net a desired mission result, a new reality emerges. Stealth weapon systems appear far more costly on a per-unit basis than less-capable legacy aircraft designs. But because they can penetrate enemy air defenses alone, a few can achieve what would require dozens of less capable aircraft. As such, they are a far more cost-effective option for attacking the most well-defended targets. On the opening night of Operation Desert Storm, a 40 aircraft non-stealth strike package was launched against a single target. Only eight of the 40 aircraft dropped bombs, while the rest focused on keeping those strike aircraft alive. At the same time, 20 F-117s hit 28 separate targets. Which represented the better value?
Thirty years later, this lesson has yet to be learned. Efforts to compare the F-35A and F-15EX miss the mark. Aside from the fact that purchase price for the two aircraft is now comparable, the fifth-generation F-35A holds huge advantages in terms of radar-evading stealth and advanced targeting and combat capability. This is why cost-per-effect is so essential in any comparison. Cost-per-effect should encompass maintenance and sustainment—where concepts like performance-based support may prove more cost-effective than traditional methods. Sustainment comparisons must also include the multiples of support aircraft necessary for comparative mission success. Analysis based on cost-per-effect can also better measure future capabilities, where distributed aviation assets—unmanned, possibly autonomous companion aircraft—combine to execute mission goals. Trying to assess the relative value of these assets absent their teamed operational construct cannot possibly yield accurate results.
The Biden administration has a unique opportunity to embrace cost-per-effect analysis as the central rubric for weapon system comparison. It should do so without delay.
President Joe Biden’s defense team can make a lasting impact on U.S. defense policy by focusing on these four critical priorities over the next four years. It can remake its aerospace forces and put them on a sound footing for future growth by addressing the persistent capacity shortfalls that cut across virtually all their highest-priority mission areas. To do so, it must reverse years of underfunding under administrations of both parties, underfunding that resulted from a lack of transparency about how budget resources are allocated and about how risk, shortfalls, and readiness concerns are calculated and addressed.
To assist in that process, air and space professionals must advocate not for what they perceive can be afforded, but for what they know is needed. They must consistently highlight the disconnect between budget guidance and mission demand and articulate the risks associated with chronic under resourcing of the national defense strategy.
Fortunately, the Air Force and Space Force each have procurement programs underway that can address these shortfalls so long as they are fully funded and allowed to reach their potential. Canceling or truncating these programs to pay for some future capability is a historically discredited strategy the nation can ill afford to repeat, one more likely to result in a future force that is even smaller and older than it is today – and even less capable of meeting national defense requirements.
The new Space Force, meanwhile, must be granted the resources and maneuver space needed to integrate the numerous and disparate organizations and agencies in national security space into a force greater than the sum of its parts; it must receive greater funding to build new capabilities; and it must gain personnel to develop a larger, deeper, and more flexible stable of space talent.
With deficit spending pressuring future defense budgets and paving the way for likely reductions and given the cost of COVID-19 relief and other national priorities, the Department of Defense can no longer afford old ways of doing business. Adopting cost-per-effect force planning analysis to fully understand the relative merits of competing solutions to specific missions is the best and most prudent approach to evaluating its investment decisions. This must be applied across all the services, not just one or two.
Finally, the best way for the Biden administration to boost overall combat capability while garnering fast and lasting efficiencies is to initiate a comprehensive roles and missions review that applies cost-per-effect analysis as the baseline measure of merit.