Last year’s budget sequester so crippled the Air Force that a third of its fleet was grounded and only a handful of jet aircraft were ready in case of a new international crisis, according to the head of the combat air forces. That debacle drove USAF’s request to shrink even more, as the service desperately tried to save enough cash to keep a smaller force fully prepared for unexpected wars.
And without Congress’ help, the same sequestration-based disaster will surely play out again next year.
Last summer’s stand-down was as badly timed as could be imagined. It was preceded by years of here-and-now combat operations that shortchanged depth and left the Air Force in a fragile readiness state, according to Air Combat Command chief Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III.
And, as he said in a July speech at an Air Force Association-sponsored event, the damage is still reverberating.
“By the end of the grounding period—three months and a week—we had eight combat ready airplanes” in the continental US that weren’t either already forward deployed to a combat area or getting ready to go.
“In other words, I had no reservoir force, were a contingency to pop up—a Syria, Iran, North Korea. … That was how bad it got.” He said he spent this past summer on Capitol Hill trying to explain “the reality of what sequestration does to us. We have to stop this.”
Hostage said he’s reached the practical limits of asking his people to “do more with less” and won’t do it anymore.
He started his speech—attended by industry, media, foreign air attachés and USAF officials—by noting that “my successor’s been named,” so “I say what I want. I don’t care who hears me. I’m going to tell the truth … because at this point, there’s not much they can do to me.”
Hostage is expected to retire this fall, and Pacific Air Forces chief Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle is set to take over ACC.
The command faced “pressure” not to ground units because “that would look bad,” Hostage said, but he had little choice. There’s “no definition for flying below … basic military capability rate,” meaning that aircrew are safe to fly, and in bad weather, but aren’t combat ready.
Rather than take his whole force below BMC, he elected to keep some units ready while others he simply shut down. Such a “debacle” mustn’t happen again, and he’s made a commitment to his airmen, saying, “I will not send you into combat unless you are organized, trained, and equipped to do what we’re going to ask you to do. I will get fired before I send somebody who’s not ready to go.”
How did USAF get in this mess
The Pentagon knew sequester was coming for the first half of last year, but until the law actually kicked in, spending wasn’t seriously constrained.
“We had already been overspending because of the Continuing Resolution. Then, oh, by the way, [Congress decided not to] … reimburse” war spending.
“We had to absorb all that in six months. When we did the math, that would mean … flying the aviators once or twice a month. So I said, that can’t happen. So we figured out who we could keep fully operational and who we had to stop.”
While he believed airmen would accept grounding as a one-time fix to fiscal problems, “I don’t think they can accept it if I go back to them, year after year, and say, … ‘This year, we’re going to ground you.’ I think we would run into a morale issue pretty quickly.”
It was only because of the Murray-Ryan bipartisan budget deal that there was relief from sequester in Fiscal 2014. ACC has “clawed [its] way back out of that hole” by getting its pilots and crews requalified, but “it was a long struggle,” Hostage related, and depot maintenance is still backlogged. The three months of grounding required six months of rebuilding proficiency. Then, there was a 10-day government shutdown, requiring a further three weeks “on the recovery.”
Before the budget deal, Hostage said, he was contemplating “several months” of keeping units at BMC in Fiscal 2014, then working them back up to combat mission readiness, to avoid grounding. However, he’s decided that just won’t work. In fact, he fully expects that sequestration will return, and “we’re going to hit the same spot at the bottom of the cliff.”
He sees no sign that the nation is confronting its fiscal problems, the sequester being simply a “by-product.”
“Based on that, I’m telling my force we have to be ready to deal with a sequestered budget for the duration of the law.” It expires in 2023.
The only reasonable path, he said, is to make “painful decisions” like the personnel cuts and aircraft retirements USAF has requested in its Fiscal 2015 budget. Those amount to some 27,000 people and hundreds more airplanes than the Air Force has already reduced over the last eight years.
What We Owe Young Airmen
As ACC commander, Hostage said his role is not to “whine” about what he doesn’t have, but to “produce as much combat power as I can possibly produce for whatever the nation allots to me to do that.” And the way to achieve that, he said, is for USAF to get smaller—“not able to go as many places at once” but with enough proper equipment and training that “wherever we go, we will dominate.”
To achieve that, USAF must have the flexibility to manage, he said, and politics “is not letting us make those hard choices.”
The “horrific” budget options include cutting A-10s, KC-10s, and U-2s, he noted.
“I have need for those capabilities. I just don’t have the resources,” he explained. Hostage would like to retain a force of 250 A-10s, but, he said, the funds won’t be there, and frankly, “it really pisses me off” when people say the Air Force wants to cut these airplanes.
“I’m only losing the U-2 because I was directed [by Congress] to buy the Global Hawk and the only way I could buy the Global Hawk is to get rid of U-2s. I can’t afford both.” In a “perfect world,” he’d have both, because “right now” the unmanned Global Hawk doesn’t have “the same awareness” of a U-2 pilot.
“So don’t tell me I cut the U-2. I didn’t. I’m sacrificing the U-2 to pay for something I’m told I have to buy.”
The aircraft the Air Force is consolidating around, he said, will let ACC “produce combat power across the range of military options that we have to be prepared for.”
However, “I don’t think we’re going to be allowed” to make those hard choices.
The Air Force of 30 years ago was big enough to ride out political and economic “perturbations,” but it’s too small for that now, Hostage said.
“We don’t have the latitude anymore to hang onto the amount of force structure we have or the infrastructure.”
USAF has for years begged Congress to let the service close bases. It doesn’t have enough airplanes to spread around them all.
“I could close one in three bases across my command and still have plenty of infrastructure,” he asserted. This “baggage” is “having a serious impact on our ability to produce maximum combat power.”
Hostage now tells commanders he won’t ask them to try to do more with less. Instead, “I tell [them] … work to the maximum amount of combat capability you can produce. When you hit a limitation, tell me what that is.
Don’t push past it. … Don’t cut corners. Don’t do the things you’re tempted to do because you don’t want to report failure.”
Instead, Hostage wants commanders to “tell me what your limit is, stop at that point, and I will either fix that limit or we’ll deal with it until the time comes that we can remove [it].” He said, “We owe it to those young airmen” not to ask them to do more than they are trained and equipped to do.
The effects of the sequestration will linger for some time. One entire class of the USAF Weapons School was canceled, and “we can never recover from that because time moves on.” The potential future service leaders who missed that class “will not get the chance to go [back], and if they do, they’ll bump somebody else.” The result will be a years-long deficit in elite operational weapon experts that will only heal when that year group finally ages out of the Air Force.
The service has just 17 E-8 JSTARS aircraft used to track and target ground vehicles. USAF will be taking some of them out of service to free up funds to develop—“out of hide”— a replacement for the type. While an E-8 replacement isn’t in the “top three” of USAF buying priorities—the F-35, the KC-46 tanker, and the Long-Range Strike Bomber are—the JSTARS would be fourth, he said.
Having fewer E-8 JSTARS available involves taking some risk. Consequently Hostage told the industry representatives in the audience that “what’s critical about this program is speed. I need to put renewed capability on the ramp as soon as possible because I’m taking risk in the interim.”
ACC is uninterested in “new stuff,” but simply needs a sustainable replacement for the capability already in the JSTARS. (Air Force leaders have said they expect the solution to be a heavily tricked-out, off-the-shelf, business-class jet aircraft.)
ACC is also trying to work more closely with industry to identify the technologies that will make a real difference in preserving the nation’s military edge, he said. Independent research and development has two functions: to produce “the stuff I actually need to go to war” and to keep adversaries second-guessing.
“What I really want to do is make [adversaries] … spend whole bunches of money to defend themselves against something that I don’t spend very much on. … I want them to spend a million bucks to defend against my five-dollar weapon. I can’t afford to be on the opposite side of that.”
One of those asymetric imbalances he mentioned as being in the Air Force’s favor was directed energy, including both high-powered lasers and high-powered microwaves.
Not all of USAF’s troubles are due to shortages. In remotely piloted aircraft, the Air Force has too many.
ACC’s fleet of RPAs is “overweighted” with machines good “at fighting in a permissive environment,” he said. “I need to resize and reapportion that fleet.” It would be “foolish” to get rid of all the existing RPAs, as the MQ-9 Reapers “still have some applicability on the edges of a contested fight, but only on the edges,” Hostage observed. “I need the ability to produce [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] in a contested environment.”
The other services that depend on USAF for ISR have come to expect a “staring eye on the battlefield, 24/7” and that’s “not going to happen in a contested environment,” Hostage warned.
The answer isn’t a stealthy new RPA. “We’re working to build … the capability” to deliver that expected ISR product, though not necessarily with an aircraft,” he said. “There’s a love affair out there in the nonaviation world with the concept of the unmanned platform, but I really need the human tightly in that loop.” So-called “nontraditional ISR”—in the form of a fighter with sensors in the thick of the action—will still be essential.
“The day will come” when pilots flying an aircraft remotely will have all the “kinesthetic” awareness of what’s going around the airplane, and when that day comes, “I’m happy to stop flying manned airplanes. But that day is not here, yet.” While Hostage doesn’t think “we’ve seen the birth of the last human aviator,” he said, “I believe it will happen someday.”
Hostage said the effort to second-guess potential enemies and have the right mix of capabilities on hand for any contingency is an ongoing battle of wits, and it’s getting harder to think out loud about that particular cat-and-mouse game.
An Air Force “Red Team” looks constantly “at what potential adversaries are capable of, what their methodologies are. We look very carefully at what they think of us. We watch how they train, because how they train indicates what they think we’re capable of.” He said, “We think we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we look for disconnects” in the comparison.
Times have changed, though, and thinking openly about the challenges has become precarious.
Twenty-five years ago, “there was no possibility that all your secrets could disappear just because somebody plugged a thumb drive into your computer,” he said. “So we’re far more circumspect now about talking and writing and publishing and putting out there those kinds of thoughts.” Hostage said, “We live in a world where, when I tell you something, … the next day it’s known around the world,” and “some very smart people” decide, “?‘Let’s go steal what they’re doing.’?”
Hostage pushed for the new bomber, explaining that “we have an ancient fleet of B-52s [and] a rapidly aging fleet of B-1s,” both “excluded” from operating in or near denied airspace, because they lack the stealth to survive. They can “get close” to contested space, with the help of fifth generation fighters, “but they can’t conduct deep strike in the way the B-2 can.” The stealthy B-2 fleet, at 20 airplanes, however, is “just way too small to be our sole capability” against heavily defended targets deep within an enemy’s territory. USAF must preserve the ability to deny “sanctuary” to any target, he asserted.
While Hostage is thrilled with the capability delivered by the fifth generation F-22 and F-35, they have a shared shortcoming: magazine depth. That’s why he’s hopeful that research into directed energy weapons will bear fruit and that lasers may even be “retrofittable” onto older generation fighters to keep them relevant.
He could not say whether directed energy will “define” a future sixth generation fighter and even conceded that air dominance after the F-22 may not even be an aerial platform. In the near-term, however, Hostage warned that the US must not be complacent about its ability to win air wars. The surface-to-air missile threat is large and proliferating and making it tough to engage even a medium-size nation such as Syria with good weapons.
“I could not send an A-10 into Syria right now,” he said. “They’d never come back. I would have to conduct three weeks of very significant [integrated air defense system] degradation before I could think about sending a fourth gen platform, and I sure as heck wouldn’t send an A-10 in because the rate of fire that would come in at low altitude would be unsustainable.”
Good as it has been, Hostage said, the A-10 no longer represents a survivable system in well-defended airspace.
When “I talk ‘contested/denied space,’ I’m talking about the South China Sea,” Hostage said, as well as “dozens” of other places where small, mobile, or shoulder-fired threats are proliferating to create contested airspace. Simply put, the environment USAF has to fight in is changing.
Hostage said people have to understand USAF is “no longer a requirements force [where] you tell me what the requirement is, I build the force.” The Air Force has become a capabilities force: “I’ve got this much capability, you’ve got this much requirement. You tell me where you want to use it, but when you use this much, we’re done,” he said.