It could be more than a decade before Air Force readiness levels are back to where they need to be for the service to truly be “ready” for the full range of missions the nation may ask it to perform.
The Fiscal 2017 budget request places a heavy emphasis on rebuilding the force by increasing Active Duty end strength from 311,000 to 317,000 and funding much-needed training improvements. However, the heavy operational tempo, coupled with the fact that today’s Air Force is the “smallest, oldest, and least ready” it has ever been, continues to take its toll on the service, Gen. David L. Goldfein, USAF vice chief of staff, told members of Congress in March.
For example, in 1991, 33 of the Air Force’s 134 combat-coded Total Force fighter squadrons deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm. At the time, there were 946,000 airmen in the service, the average aircraft was 17 years old, and 80 percent of the fighter force was ready for full-spectrum conflict.
The 80 percent goal still exists today—and is one the service is falling far short of meeting.
By comparison, the Air Force now has just 55 Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve fighter squadrons. Its Total Force is 30 percent smaller than it was during Desert Storm. The average age of its aircraft is now 27 years old, and less than 50 percent of the combat Air Force is ready for full-spectrum operations, said Goldfein.
“In order to maintain an effective fighting force, our budget submission … tries to balance capacity, capability, and readiness appropriately,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told members of the House Armed Services Committee on March 16. She added, “In terms of readiness, this budget funds flying hours to their maximum executable level, [invests] in weapon system sustainment, and ensures combat exercises like Red and Green Flag remain strong.”
The Air Force’s plan should stop the readiness decline, but mission preparedness is still expected to plateau over the next three to four years. It won’t “be back on a positive trajectory” until Fiscal 2019 at the earliest, said Maj. Gen. Scott A. Vander Hamm, assistant deputy chief of staff for operations on the Air Staff.
Importance of Readiness
Full-spectrum readiness is defined differently for each platform and mission set in the Air Force, and the time it takes to regain readiness varies just as widely. More complex missions, such as multirole fighters, will take longer to recover once readiness is lost.
For example, if an F-16 is tapped to deploy to the US Central Command area of responsibility to conduct close air support operations, its other mission areas, such as air-to-air combat, likely will atrophy. Vander Hamm compared it to a bodybuilder who only exercises one muscle. This results in an exceptionally strong right bicep, but “it will take time for that person to get in total fitness later on down the road,” he said.
That’s why exercises like Red Flag, giving airmen the chance to execute multidomain, full-spectrum operations, remain so important.
Fighter pilots will go into that and “they will see [maybe for the first time an] airborne interceptor and aggressor come at them. They will get a full complement of surface-to-air missile threats. They will be in a package of offensive and defensive counterair interdiction sorties, ISR, integrated space and cyber. There will be communication issues, and they’ll have to fight their way into integrated air defense system,” said Vander Hamm.
Pillars of Readiness
People and platforms are the foundation of a fully ready force, but there also are five “pillars of readiness” the service must consider, including critical skills availability, weapon system sustainment, training, the flying hour program, and the deployment-to-dwell cycle.
After years of cutting end strength, the service went too far. James said USAF must now “upsize our force” to address critical and overly stressed career fields, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, battlefield airmen, cyber, and maintenance.
Although the budget funds an additional 6,000 Active Duty airmen, James said mission demands require even more growth in Fiscal 2017. Speaking at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in February, James said she has the power through existing law to increase the congressionally approved end strength by up to two percent.
“So, in order to meet that demand, I plan to take a judicious approach to incrementally increase our Total Force beyond the current level, provided … that we can get the right talent,” James later told members of Congress.
Lt. Gen. John B. Cooper, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for logistics, engineering, and force protection, told House legislators in February that the service is 4,000 maintenance airmen short across the service, and the deficit continues to grow because the Air Force is bringing in two F-35s a month, each requiring 20 maintainers.
“We have the force structure that we’re not able to divest, and we’re growing F-35s,” he said, referencing legacy aircraft that are being maintained for the fight against ISIS and possible European and Pacific contingencies.
To fill the ranks of F-35 maintainers, the Air Force announced in February plans to draw 1,100 airmen from the A-10, F-16, and C-130 fleets. The positions will be backfilled by contractor personnel, but that’s just a short-term solution to ensure the Air Force can still meet the F-35A strike fighter’s initial operational capability date, said Cooper.
“This is one of many deliberate measures we are taking to help manage this shortage of experienced aircraft maintainers until we can grow and develop our new accessions,” he later said in a press release.
It takes five to seven years to recruit new airmen, push them through the training pipeline, and get them trained to a seven-level, where they are not only able to complete tasks on their own, but can also sign off tasks as being done properly, said Vander Hamm.
The risks the Air Force has taken across its entire maintenance portfolio directly relate to a gap in the service’s flying hour program.
The Fiscal 2017 budget request, updated to reflect the two-year bipartisan budget agreement, funds 1,165,203 flight hours, down nearly 50,000 from the Fiscal 2016 enacted flight hours, according to budget documents. The Air Force is only able to fund 92 percent of the minimum flight hours aircrews need to fly each year to successfully accomplish the mission set, said Vander Hamm.
“We’re only executing the flying hours to what we have the capacity to execute,” he added. “So even if we wanted to put money in flying hours to execute to 100 percent, I don’t have the maintainers to generate the combat sorties to build the program to get me to 100 percent of our flying hour program.”
The gap that is left is additional risk the Air Force is forced to take across its combat and mobility air forces.
Of all the pillars, operational tempo could make the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time, said Vander Hamm. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Just a few years ago, the service expected to be out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only did that not happen, but the Air Force is now regularly flying in Syria, and “Yemen is heating up,” too, he noted.
Russia continues to behave aggressively and violently in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
In response to a myriad of other threats, the Air Force has increased its posture in both the Pacific and Southeast Asia to counter rising tensions in the East and South China seas and to deter an increasingly bellicose North Korea that continues to threaten nuclear war.
Red Flag and comparable exercises can keep USAF ready for these contingencies, but the amount of time available is again a factor. “If it got more intense, then instead of plateauing and climbing out, then we could see a dip in readiness,” Vander Hamm cautioned.
Although the high operational tempo has made it more challenging for units to attend a flag exercise, they are still going. In fact, the Air Force has more flag exercises planned this year than it has previously.
Vander Hamm said this creates a “lack of white space in a unit’s schedule,” because even when airmen are home they sometimes have to leave their families so they can train to regain the competencies lost while deployed downrange.
Red Flag continues to get more complex to accommodate the changing security environment, but the Air Force is still lacking capacity when it comes to adversary air.
“As we continue to grow out the F-35 and increase the fifth gen requirement, that’s going to cause an even greater demand signal for more adversary air,” said Vander Hamm.
Just as it did with the maintenance shortfall, the Air Force is looking at contract adversary air to fill that gap.
The US Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nev., signed a contract with Draken International in 2015 to provide some of its “Red Air” capability after the school inactivated its own F-15 aggressor squadron. Vander Hamm said right now such contracts are a “small slice” of USAF adversary air and it’s not yet clear if that will grow in the future.
“We’ll see how that goes and then we’ll adjust fire down the road,” he said.
However, USAF won’t be able to fully meet the requirement for adversary air without the addition of virtual and constructive training.
“Our capacity now does not meet the demand. As we look at the capacity at the end of the [Future Year Defense Program], it still doesn’t meet the demand,” he said. “So, a lot of work is going on right now because much of the high-end fight in the fifth generation fighters is going to be done and can be done in that virtual and constructive environment.”
But virtual training is not limited to the flying community. It is used by nearly every discipline in the service.
Currently, the Air Force is looking to expand virtual and constructive training for its cyber force so airmen can train offline where adversaries cannot see what they are doing. Air Mobility Command is taking advantage of emerging technology so aircrews can use high-fidelity simulators to accomplish more rigorous mission sets, said Col. Nathan A. Allerheiligen, the assistant director of operations for Headquarters Air Mobility Command.
“There will always be live training, but as we move to the future, I think we will see a shift in that balance,” Vander Hamm said.
Red Flag has been so successful for the combat air force, AMC wants to mimic it for mobility forces.
The command will conduct its first large-full, full-spectrum, Red Flag-type exercise in July 2017. Dubbed Mobility Guardian, the exercise will include participation from other areas of the service, as well as joint and coalition partners, said Allerheiligen.
Although Red Flag is held multiple times a year at Nellis, Mobility Guardian will be held every two years. The hub will be JB Lewis-McChord, Wash., although it will utilize training ranges throughout the northwest.
Planners are still developing specific scenarios, but Allerheiligen said training tasks will include operating out of austere air bases, handling cargo from unimproved airfields, joint forcible entry, and humanitarian relief operations.
“We have relooked at what does the mobility air force need in order to be ready for those big, large operations that require a large portion of our force to be engaged for an extended period of time,” he said.
Although the bipartisan budget agreement provided the Defense Department the stability and predictability it has been seeking, the Air Force is still short about $3.4 billion from its original Fiscal 2017 budget request. The shortfall makes it difficult to find the right balance between readiness and modernization.
The Air Force’s budget strives to protect funding for its top three acquisition programs: the KC-46 tanker, the B-21 Long-Range Strike Bomber, and the F-35A strike fighter. It provides funds to modernize nuclear command and control, replace outdated Minuteman III ICBM equipment, build the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program, and continue developing a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile. The budget delays retiring the A-10 Warthog, which is being used heavily in anti-ISIS operations, and the EC-130 electronic combat aircraft.
However, the Air Force had to delay procurement of five F-35A strike fighters and three C-130Js, and it is slowing modernization of fourth generation aircraft. Air Force leaders said additional funding would have ensured the service could invest in those capabilities now to avoid having them compete for critical nuclear and space requirements in the future.
“These are not things we’d love to do, certainly,” DOD Comptroller Michael J. McCord said during the budget rollout in February, but the Pentagon chose to cut some modernization to protect readiness and human capital.
The Air Force had to make other difficult choices as well, including once again delaying investment in aging infrastructure, such as airfields and taxiways. In their prepared statement to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense panel in February, James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said USAF has repeatedly delayed such upgrades since sequestration was implemented in Fiscal 2013.
“Every year we delay these repairs, operations are affected and the eventual cost of improvements grows substantially,” according to James’ and Welsh’s statement.
Fiscal 2013 was a brutal year for the Air Force. Because of the draconian nature of the Budget Control Act, 31 of the service’s 55 fighter squadrons were forced to stop flying and the ripple effect was felt across the enterprise, said Goldfein.
Air Combat Command boss Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle said even though budget agreements have temporarily halted the sequester and provided additional funds to the service, the command is so busy it has not had time do all the continuation training it needs to get back what it lost. The Air Force is still digging out from sequestration.
A return to sequester-level funding in Fiscal 2018 would be devastating to the service, certainly leading to even more lost readiness—or worse.
“If we return to sequestration and we once again have to park jets and take some of those very dire effects that we did the last time around, there’s just no question in my mind this means that we will enter possibly a future conflict less prepared,” said James in her House Armed Service Committee testimony. “History teaches us that the consequences of insufficient preparation are prolonged conflict and increased loss of life.”
Air Force leaders have repeatedly cautioned that the technological gap between the US and its adversaries is quickly closing and, in the 2016 posture statement, said a deteriorating military strength could serve as an “invitation for conflict” for “unstable powers” seeking to capitalize on “our eroding competitive advantage.
The Air Force has enjoyed “uninterrupted” air superiority since the early 1990s, but that’s not likely to be the case for much longer. Other countries have closely watched US capabilities and are increasing their own defense funding.
Sophisticated air defense systems are much more common. Advanced military capabilities such as nuclear weapons, cruise and ballistic missiles, and precision guided weapons, are much more affordable today than they were during Desert Storm—and they continue to proliferate.
The readiness gap has been closing for the last couple years, and the Air Force is setting the conditions to close it further, but there is still much ground to be made up.
“Air forces [that] don’t modernize eventually fail, and when the Air Force fails, the joint team fails,” said Goldfein.