Editorial: Playing the Numbers

Nov. 1, 2019

The Air Force plans to radically shift funding priorities in its next budget to pay for future network connectivity to support its vision of multi-domain command and control (MDC2). For example, it might surrender some of its most heavily worn B-1 bombers, and possibly retire F-15Cs and older F-16s, in order to free up funding to build a mesh-network combat cloud.

The idea is to accept additional risk today in order to ensure less risk tomorrow. But this strategy itself is a high-risk endeavor. Historically, when the Air Force attempted similar trades, they backfired: The service ended up losing both current capability and future funding. The Air Force can ill afford such a lose-lose scenario.

Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein is committed to maintaining today’s “hot lines” for F-35 fighters, B-21 bombers, KC-46 tankers, and T-7A trainers. He’s also committed to building F-15EX fighters. Exactly which weapons and platforms the Air Force is prepared to give up remains a closely held secret. Every option for cuts has both risks and rewards.

Retiring B-1 bombers would further diminish the Air Force’s bomber force at a time when bomber demand has been high, driven up by bombers’ versatility and cost effectiveness. A single bomber today can deliver the same munitions load in a single strike as an entire aircraft carrier air wing.

The Air Force was already planning to retire both the B-1 and the B-2 well before the future B-21 is fully deployed. But “The Air Force We Need” calls for five more bomber squadrons than exist today and Air Force leaders universally acknowledge they’re going to need more B-21 bombers than called for in the current plan. So, giving up capacity today will only increase the shortfall for years to come. The problem is especially stark when one looks at what allies bring to the fight. Most allies have fighters and airlift. Only a few have aerial refuelers. None have bombers.

So what else might the Air Force consider giving up? The options aren’t attractive:

  • A-10 Thunderbolts. The Air Force has tried—and failed—repeatedly to retire the low and slow “Warthog,” but its 30 mm cannon is a crowd pleaser among muddy boots soldiers and Marines, and Congress is loath to give up a weapon that protects those at greatest risk on the field of battle. Never mind that ground troops shouldn’t be put into positions in which their very survival depends on a Warthog blasting an enemy at danger-close range. As long as that’s a possibility, the A-10 remains a better option than the Army’s Apache helicopter, and experiencing it bearing down from above holds a distinct psychological advantage over bombs delivered from B-52s circling at 30,000 feet.
  • C-130s. The Air Force’s airlift shortage is in larger aircraft, such as C-17s; there are plenty of C-130s to go around. These are aircraft that can be retired—especially the C-130Hs. But since they are assigned to the Air National Guard, retiring them is bound to become a political issue for lawmakers from those districts. Giving them up would require putting some other mission-critical and highly useful asset into the Guard, and alone would not provide the level of savings the Air Force needs to fund its wider modernization efforts.
  • Tankers. Troubles with the new KC-46 Pegasus are proving as difficult to tame as its mythical namesake. Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Maryanne Miller says it will likely be three or four more years before the KC-46 can deploy. Like bombers, air refueling is a hallmark of US air superiority and one of USAF’s strategic advantages. But, refueling capacity is already challenged and the planned retirement of the KC-10 may be accelerated. Meanwhile, Miller says the Air Force may have to reprogram funds to retain as many as 28 KC-135 Stratotankers to make up for the fact the KC-46 won’t be available. Still unclear: If the Air Force continues to accept new airplanes at a rate of 2-3 per month, even with a flawed remote vision system, will those airplanes be left to sit idle? Or will they devour manpower and training funds while Boeing, the plane’s builder, works out the kinks in design and functionality
  • Fighters. USAF’s fighter force is aging, and the service isn’t buying enough airplanes fast enough to reverse the trend. Retiring the oldest F-15Cs and Block 30 F-16s could save some money in the short term, but doing so will accelerate the wear and tear on newer models, which will be worked harder if the number of fighters shrinks.
  • MQ-9 Reapers and Global Hawk. Unmanned drones are the signature aircraft of the past decade, providing persistent ISR and precision strike capability throughout the Central Command theater of operations. In many ways, Reapers and Global Hawks have altered perceptions of modern warfare. Yet they have also operated exclusively in a highly permissive environment. Is it time to start dialing back on a capability that cannot function in contested airspace? Maybe. But, doing so could undermine US capacity to fight the kinds of wars our nation has faced for the past quarter century.

Since becoming Air Force Chief of Staff three years ago, Goldfein has steadfastly advanced his vision for multi-domain warfare—essentially a hyper-speed implementation of joint warfare enabled by robust networks, artificial intelligence, and powerful data processing. The idea is to present our adversaries with such an overwhelming range of threats and risks that mounting a successful defense is essentially impossible. If that is the case, potential enemies will choose not to risk confrontation with the US or its allies.

The Air Force Chief has the right sight picture and Gen. Mark Milley, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agrees. A year ago, as Army chief, he embraced multi-domain operations, saying it is about “winning on tomorrow’s battlefield by simultaneously achieving overwhelming battlefield dominance and overmatch in all five domains of warfare,” and described shifting from “battles of attrition to battles of cognition, where we think, direct, and act at speeds the enemy cannot match.”

The challenge is getting to that end state. Today’s Air Force is too small for the missions it has. The chief is committed to building up to 386 operational squadron, but forming a distinct Space Force will only exacerbate funding problems, drawing away funding for essential needs such as jam-proof GPS III satellites and new communications constellations to help support MDC2.

Until those new capabilities are proven, however, the Air Force and the other services must be able to present a ready and effective fighting force that’s able to strike deep into contested territory and has the capacity to endure in a prolonged fight with a peer rival.

The problem the Air Force is trying to solve—creating a better way to fight jointly—is really a Defense-wide problem. It cannot be achieved with Air Force structure trade-offs alone. This is where new Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper can and should, make a difference. Ultimately, MDC2 will be a force multiplier for joint force operations. Paying for it must be a joint responsibility.