The Air Force’s Tight-Budget Shopping List

Oct. 27, 2015

While Congress dithers over budgets, demands on the Air Force to fight the nation’s wars, deter new ones, and respond to aggression and humanitarian crises continues to grow. At the same time, the long delay of modernization—sacrificed to pay for relentless operations—is pushing the service to seek a lengthening list of new hardware. Getting those needed new systems in time is anything but assured, top service and defense leaders said at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference held at National Harbor, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., in September.

During the conference, senior leaders again made impassioned pleas for Congress to repeal the Budget Control Act, which has played havoc with modernization and readiness for four years, and to simply pass a Fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, instead of a continuing resolution. A lengthy CR, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James pointed out, would not even fund the Pentagon at the perilously low levels of a sequestered budget under the BCA.

“We really need our Congress to pass a full-up [appropriations] and authorization bill,” she said, because a CR “is a really, really bad deal for our Air Force.” A CR would halt about 50 “new start” programs, block USAF from “an ability to modestly upsize” the force by about a one percent increase in end strength, and it “would once again hit readiness” hard. She also told reporters that “our investment accounts—our [research and development] accounts, [science and technology accounts] … would be impacted” as well. When sequester was applied in full force two years ago, it led to grounded squadrons, massive civilian furloughs, and a backlog of maintenance and training from which USAF still has not recovered.

The Air Force is doing its part to reduce costs. Service acquisition chief William A. LaPlante said the application of “should-cost” policies, as well as a determination to get program requirements right at the outset and not tinker with them afterward, has led to “real savings” totaling more than $2 billion in the last few years. These monies have been returned largely to the portfolios that generated the savings, and have made it possible to buy “thousands” more munitions than would have been possible without the solid progress in acquisition reform, he said. A new initiative—“should schedule”—is aimed at cutting the time it takes to get a new capability developed and fielded at lower cost, he said.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, answering questions after his keynote speech, apparently declined a proposal offered by James last year that the nuclear triad, being so fundamental to the nation’s security, might be funded from a special, set-aside account that would not compete with other service modernization priorities.

“The nuclear deterrent is a must-have,” Carter said. “It’s the foundation, … the bedrock, and it needs to remain healthy … and we all know that we need to make additional investments in that, both in the Navy and, importantly, in the Air Force.” However, “the money’s got to come from somewhere and … you don’t get money by relabeling it, so the hard question remains where the money comes from in all the services.” Carter said, “We ought to face that question and stick to the central commitment of having a nuclear deterrent.”

Changing Odds

As Russia and China flex their muscles in eastern Europe and the western Pacific, respectively, the pace of updating the Air Force’s largely antiquarian fleet is behind the power curve. Service leaders said they can handle the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria largely with the old iron, but against a more formidable enemy, the odds are not changing in USAF’s favor. Every leader pointed out that China, Russia, and other countries are rapidly advancing along many technology fronts, and James said USAF’s technology edge is rapidly narrowing.

Two of the Air Force’s top three “existential” conventional needs—the KC-46 tanker and F-35 fighter—are entering production phases that Capitol Hill’s budget games could easily, expensively—and unnecessarily—unravel. The F-35 production rate is set to nearly triple next year, while the KC-46 needs to ramp up to achieve a needed 2017 capability.

The F-35 program has had to become less ambitious because of funding constraints, program director Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan reported in a panel discussion. Now transitioning from development to large-scale production, the emphasis has shifted to what improvements will be made beyond the basic F-35s, which all the services will be flying by 2018. “What we would consider to be an F-35 modernization program”—the so-called Block 4 phase—will have to be “skinnied down,” Bogdan said.

“We have to make sure that we’re doing the right things that are affordable and most relevant and useful” for combat forces of the future, he said.

Still, production is ramping up from “somewhere on the order of 40 to 42 airplanes a year … to something over 120 airplanes a year” in the next three years. “That is a big deal,” he said, and will put “a lot of pressure on the supply chain.”

Senior USAF leaders all noted that cuts in production of the F-35 would be inevitable with a long-term CR or a return to sequester-level funding, though none would put a specific number on the penalty. Reduced numbers translate to lower efficiency and higher unit costs, which the Air Force can ill afford.

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle said it’s imperative the F-35A buy be raised and sustained. It’s now running about 35 a year.

“I think we have to get to 60,” Carlisle told reporters in a press conference. “It won’t happen as soon as we would like, … but sometime after the turn of the decade … we have got to get to a figure of 60 a year. I would love to get to 80 … but no one knows what the fiscal environment’s going to be in the 2021 POM,” or program objective memoranda, the Pentagon’s five-year spending plan.

The Air Force will follow a congressional mandate to look at how many F-35s it should buy, he said, but for the moment, Carlisle affirmed that the longstanding figure of 1,763 airplanes has not changed, even though the security picture has changed radically since that figure was established.

At 60 per year, the Air Force would complete its F-35 acquisition in about 2043. At 80 per year, the buy would close out in about 2036. In either case, “legacy” fighters, such as the F-15 and F-16, will need to continue serving for a long time, he said.

Bogdan noted that the US and its international partners on the F-35 are looking to further reduce costs by acquiring the fighters under a “block buy” approach sometime in the next few years. It would be similar to what is called a “multi-year” buy in the US, agreeing to buy a certain number of aircraft over a period longer than Congress’ two-year budget cycle. The commitment allows a manufacturer to purchase materials and set labor rates more efficiently, lowering costs. Bogdan reiterated that if left unmolested, the F-35 program could be delivering jets at about $80 million apiece by 2018, which is lower than the cost of “new old” jets like the F-15 and F-18.

The KC-46 program has suffered some recent delays, using up the schedule margin, but James said she still expects Boeing, the contractor, to deliver 18 aircraft by late 2017. Under the contract, the company will absorb any costs of delays or rework, James noted.

“The KC-46 strategy is strong. We are not going to change it,” tanker program executive officer Brig. Gen. Duke Z. Richardson said in a panel discussion.

“We know of no technical showstoppers, here. It’s taking longer than we want, there’s no doubt about that, but we are making … slow and steady progress.” The Air Force still plans to buy 179 KC-46s, to be delivered by 2028. After that, USAF intends to pursue the KC-Y and KC-Z tanker programs to first replace the rest of the KC-135 fleet, which will be more than 80 years old by then, and the KC-10 fleet, which will be in its 60s.

In addition to the F-35 and KC-46, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III labeled the Long-Range Strike Bomber as “existential” for the service, necessary to begin replacing the fleets of B-52 and B-1 bombers, now more than 50 and 30 years old, respectively.

“We need 100 LRS-Bs,” Carlisle told reporters. The utility of modern, stealthy bombers has been proven beyond doubt in Libya, in deterring North Korea, and in the ongoing Pacific bomber presence. It’s a capability USAF must invest in, he insisted.

Fourth on the priorities list remains a replacement for the E-8 JSTARS airborne ground-mapping radar. Welsh admitted it had been a mistake to host the JSTARS on already old and heavily used 707 aircraft when the fleet was built in the 1990s. Some of those airplanes had literally been used as “cattle cars” before being modified into JSTARS, and are now too expensive to keep flying.

“It costs a lot to operate,” Welsh said in his conference speech. “It’s been a phenomenal system for us, but it’s time to recapitalize this airframe.” He added, “Every combatant commander agrees with me” that the system is crucial and mandatory, and “we’re going to push hard to keep it on track and get this thing done.” Exhibitors at AFA’s Tech Expo featured a series of proposed designs based on business aircraft that could potentially deliver new JSTARS capability by 2023. A fleet of about 25 airplanes is envisioned.

A replacement for the 55-year-old T-38 trainer is next on the list, and USAF is examining a number of brand-new and off-the-shelf aircraft to fill the “T-X” requirement, which calls for 250 airplanes. The service is also well underway in configuring a new Combat Rescue Helicopter, but deliveries are still years away. Carlisle has previously said that 112 CRHs is the “absolute minimum” needed to do the job.

Sleping The Fourth Gen

New priorities have joined USAF’s list of critical new programs, however. Carlisle told reporters that because USAF wasn’t allowed to buy enough F-22s to fulfill its worldwide air superiority mission, it will have to retain its F-15C and F-15E fleets for “a long time to come,” and this will require a hefty service life extension program, or SLEP, which he said would cost “billions of dollars.” Stress tests on those airplanes—and on the F-16—show there are “issues … with respect to the structural integrity” of the aircraft.

The F-15s, Carlisle said, need things like “longerons and wings,” and that’s just for starters. Such parts were built to specifications requiring that they be viable for the life of the airplane—anticipated at the time they were built to be about 20 years—but they have now been flying much longer than that. In 2008, a Missouri Air National Guard F-15 broke in half during air combat training because a longeron—a fundamental structural feature—snapped under the stress of a high-G turn.

Not only do the jets need to be refurbished to fly safely, there is a large package of capability upgrades needed to keep them credible in combat, Carlisle said.

“If I could find a way with the resources, I would do everything I could, when we put those airplanes in to do a [SLEP] … to do a capability upgrade at the same time,” Carlisle said in his press conference. Such needed improvements, he said, include a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, “some of the passive detection capability, some of the link architecture,” as well as “the radios, the communication/navigation equipment.” While he didn’t put a date on how long the F-15s will have to serve, “we have to get them as capable as we can” for however long that turns out to be. The E-models have a different flight profile and wing loading, but they, too, will need to be reinforced and improved, Carlisle said.

The Air Force had to give up its Combat Avionics Program Extension Suite, or CAPES upgrade, for its F-16 fleet in last year’s budget, but Carlisle said the aircraft must still be upgraded, one way or another.

As for an AESA radar on the F-16, “we need it yesterday; we’re behind,” Carlisle asserted. The original plan to let Lockheed Martin choose a radar supplier as part of the omnibus package was overturned by Congress and now there must be a competition, which is underway. To pay for the radar, Carlisle said he is looking for “help” from Air National Guard state adjutants, who have a set-aside equipment account funded separately from the Active Duty Air Force budget.

“I’m looking for all the help I can get because I need [the F-16s] for my air defense … of the continental United States.” First to be equipped will be the District of Columbia Air National Guard F-16s, which sit alert at JB Andrews, Md., but the whole fleet will get the same radar, Carlisle said.

The effort to choose a new radar should take “no more than nine months, hopefully no more than a year. … If I can find a way to do it quicker, I will,” he added.

A brand-new combat airplane may even be in the mix for ACC. Welsh, in a press conference, told reporters, “I think eventually we need a new close air support airplane,” notionally called the A-X, which would replace the A-10, now more than 40 years old. He described the new aircraft as a “CAS platform that is cheaper to operate” than the A-10, “has better weapons capability, is more responsive, can operate in a low-threat environment, and operate extremely successfully.” It would operate in a “high-low mix” with the F-35, which would perform CAS in contested airspace, where its stealth, speed, and electronic warfare would allow it to survive in ways the A-10 cannot.

Contingencies requiring an inexpensive CAS platform, such as the engagements “we have been in for the last 15 years,” are not likely to go away, said Welsh. “We’re going to be continuing in this vein for a while.” The A-X would be a manned airplane, he added, rather than a remotely piloted aircraft.

Carlisle agreed on the need for a new manned CAS platform, explaining that the A-10 simply lacks the stealthiness, speed, or sensor systems to survive in contested airspace, and is getting too old to be maintained economically for the low-threat mission. He told reporters that the Air Force Research Laboratory is working on new weapons that would make delivering CAS more effective and precise from a new platform.

USAF leaders were remarkably upbeat about the prospects for new, game-changing technologies entering the inventory in just a few years. Carlisle insisted that laser weapons will be installed on fighters by 2020, with sufficient power to disable or misdirect surface-to-air missiles aimed at Air Force fighters.

“We’re making significant progress” in onboard power generation, beam shaping, and beam control, Carlisle said. “I think we’ll have … capability that we can put on a fighter aircraft … before the turn of the decade. I really do. … And if I have a vote, I’ll try to get it sooner.” The system would be a podded capability, but further miniaturization of components could produce an internal system in the future.

Another directed-energy application will come in the form of an operationalized version of the Counter-electronics High-power microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, Carlisle said. The CHAMP program, carried out in 2012 by AFRL, successfully demonstrated the ability to overfly a bunker or communications node and fry all the electronics—computers, servers, data systems, etc.—inside without causing any physical destruction. Carlisle suggested that USAF has, or soon will have, a limited operational capability with CHAMP, flown aboard an AGM-86B Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missile. However, because the inventory of CALCMs is so low, ACC will be starting a program to put a CHAMP-like capability on the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range, or JASSM-ER. It’s “an exceptionally high priority for me,” Carlisle told reporters.

Yet another new podded system is being explored under the Talon Hate program, which will give a near-term, interim capability allowing “fifth generation” fighters, such as the F-22 and F-35, to communicate with fourth generation jets, such as the F-15 and F-16. USAF had originally planned for an all-fifth generation force of fighters—Welsh observed to reporters “those days are gone”—and so covert communications between those jets, but not the older ones, were developed. The eventual system will be the Multi-domain Adaptable Processing System, or MAPS, that will allow not only voice but data communications among all USAF fighters.

As for other new weapons, Carlisle said he “had to be careful” not to reveal anything classified, but allowed that USAF is diligently pursuing hypersonic missiles as well as longer-ranged air-to-air weapons to equip the fighter force. A Chinese air-to-air missile, the PL-15, he identified as one with exceptional range that the Air Force will have to out-reach. He did not say whether USAF is looking at further improvements to the AIM-120 AMRAAM, a new variant of that missile, or a wholly new weapon.

Dreaming Of The Raptor

Asked by reporters if the Air Force might resolve some of its fighter capability and capacity shortfalls by reopening the F-22 production line, Carlisle said, “I dream about it every night,” but he doesn’t think budget will allow such a possibility.

The No. 1 new capability wanted by Air Force Special Operations Command is a way to see below the clouds in a combat situation, Lt. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold said. In the “Four-Star Forum” question-and-answer session of the conference, Heithold said he wants to “take the cover of weather away from the enemy” by deploying small unmanned aerial vehicles from gunships like the AC-130. He wants to put these “tactical, offboard” sensors “below the weather deck” to “tell me what’s down there, and then shoot it and kill it.” He described this as “not that daunting of a challenge. The technology is there,” and he has invited industry to offer solutions to this requirement.

Heithold’s second-highest priority is to install high-energy lasers on his gunships, both to defend against enemy missiles and “to use these things offensively to engage targets.” In the offensive role, the lasers would be silent destroyers, “quick-working in the middle of the night, without anybody knowing it.”

Air Force Global Strike Command, recently elevated to a four-star command, sees its top modernization projects as being in nuclear command and control, recapitalization of the Minuteman ICBM force, modifications to the existing bomber fleet, the LRS-B, and a replacement for the command’s obsolete UH-1N helicopters, according to its chief, Gen. Robin Rand.

Speaking at the Four-Star Forum, Rand said USAF owns “about 75 percent” of the capabilities that make it possible for the national command authorities and the President to communicate with nuclear forces, but much of it is badly dated.

“That’s a big priority,” Rand said, noting that he would “work collaboratively” with the other USAF major commands to deliver improved capability. The ICBM fleet will be recapitalized “where we can” and he pledged to keep the LRS-B on track so that it delivers an initial capability “in the mid-2020s.” Air Force Global Strike Command is also working on a new Long-Range Stand-Off missile, or LRSO, but USAF leaders have declined to discuss the weapon or its anticipated capabilities. They have suggested a capability in the late 2020s timeframe.

Mark J. Lewis, a former chief scientist of the Air Force and now with the Institute for Defense Analyses, said in a panel discussion USAF must also pay attention to maintaining its infrastructure for testing new capabilities; specifically, wind tunnels that will help develop and refine hypersonic systems. As good as modern computers and computational fluid dynamics programs are, he said, they cannot substitute for the hands-on value of trying

designs out in the tunnel.

Ragged Edge Of Readiness

Carlisle said that beyond modernization, his forces are “on the ragged edge” and can’t continue to maintain the operational tempo they have been on without an infusion of more money. But training and readiness won’t matter much if USAF has second-rate—or even equal—equipment, versus potential enemies.

“If those budget pressures continue, and we continue to get cut, and between now and 2020 we don’t get relief from the Budget Control Act,” Carlisle told reporters, “our Air Force’s capacity will be down to the point where we’ll be able to do [only] one thing at a time. We won’t be able to be everywhere because we just won’t have enough capacity.”