Washington Watch

March 1, 2010

“Calibrated Ambition”

To handle multiplying missions without more people, the Air Force won’t be able to do all its assigned tasks as comprehensively as it once did, and will be aiming instead for simple sufficiency in areas where it’s been accustomed to dominance.

That was the assessment from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, in an interview shortly after the Fiscal 2011 defense budget was unveiled. The Air Force, Schwartz said, will remain fixed at 332,000 people, but with increasing demands on its manpower in remotely piloted aircraft, irregular warfare, and other emerging missions, it won’t have the money to pursue full-up capabilities as it always has.

“We will not grow because we can’t afford it,” Schwartz said. Manpower is the single largest expense facing the Air Force, and the growth of pay and benefits expenses is eating deep into hardware budgets.

“If we grow people, that will force out content in our programming, and we’re just not going to do that,” Schwartz said.

The content, though, is going to be scaled back to live within the service’s limited means. The new long-range strike system, postponed from 2018 to “the mid-2020s,” Schwartz said, won’t be survivable against the toughest air defenses, because the Air Force can’t afford to make it so. New satellites will be smaller and cheaper, with less capability. The F-35, which the Air Force wanted to buy at 110 a year or better to address its aging fighter problem, will only be bought at 80 per year. No strategic airlifters will be bought for more than a decade.

Speaking a few days after the first flight of Russia’s fifth generation PAK FA fighter, which bears a close resemblance to USAF’s F-22, Schwartz said the event “clearly reinforces the notion that we need to press on with the F-35 … in sufficient numbers,” and that maintaining “a force of 4.5 generation fighters is not where the Air Force wants to be in the medium term.”

Schwartz declined to answer directly whether the progress of the PAK FA demands reconsideration of the F-22—curtailed last year at 187 aircraft—reiterating that USAF should concentrate on the F-35, which has less power and agility. Asked if the F-35 will be sufficient to maintain air dominance, he said, “Not forever. But … for the near term, yes.”

The “theme” of this reshaped Air Force, Schwartz said, can be summed up as “calibrated ambition”—reaching for only those systems that are urgently needed, and with high confidence of near-term success. Systems that cost too much or bear too much risk won’t even get out of the gate.

On the new bomber, for example, “we will probably not invent totally new things,” said Schwartz. “What this will be is integration, … manufacturing process improvement, and … making sure that we can deliver what we promise.”

Nonperforming programs “are going to get killed,” he asserted, and “nonperforming program managers will probably find other work.” Those who are successful “are going to be heroes,” he added.

Only those systems deemed most relevant to the most-likely missions will be pursued, and only if they have application to many kinds of missions.

Systems asked to do too many missions often collapse from what is called mission creep, but Schwartz pledged that the Air Force will exercise extreme discipline in setting realistic initial requirements and sticking to them, without changes to a program’s baseline.

The long-range strike system will get going in 2013, Schwartz forecast, although he cautioned “that’s not a signed, sealed, and delivered arrangement.” It will be part of a portfolio of systems including standoff weapons and possible penetrating remotely piloted aircraft, as well as a Prompt Global Strike system able to hit targets half a world away in a few minutes.

The new bomber will follow the block upgrade approach, and Schwartz said the “A” model “may not do everything onboard to accomplish the mission,” but will rely on other aircraft, offboard sensors, and standoff munitions.

“My hunch is that long-range strike systems will become more self-sufficient over time,” he said. When asked if the initial version would be able to penetrate the toughest enemy airspace by itself, he answered, “At the extreme end of the threat, probably not.” However, in “something less than an extreme threat, it will be very capable.” He said that ambition for the system will have to be confined largely to the existing, deliverable status of technology, and “not trying to stretch ourselves … too much.”

With regard to the bomber, “the ‘B’ model will incorporate new things, no doubt. But I think the focus here is things that are relatively mature technologies, that we can incorporate and integrate and readily manufacture.”

In most systems, the Air Force will be “less insistent on doing it all by ourselves, or all on a single platform.”

As missions expand but the manpower doesn’t, Schwartz said, USAF will have to be “ingenious” in figuring out ways to do more with fewer people. He expects a big push in automation to reduce, for example, the manpower requirements of remotely piloted aircraft. Each one demands 140 people to launch and fly, a number that Schwartz said is not sustainable.

Schwartz said that in space, the Air Force won’t be buying $2 billion satellites anymore, and will instead rely increasingly on commercial providers of visual and radar imagery.

Schwartz said he agrees with Air Force Space Command chief Gen. C. Robert Kehler that “for military or national security space, at least on the DOD side, we need to approach this with less complex satellites that presumably would cost less and maybe be not quite as versatile, but would satisfy military requirements.”

He doesn’t doubt there will be exceptions to the rule “in those cases where there’s a requirement for exquisite capability.”

The combat search and rescue helicopter mission is exemplary of the Air Force’s new approach, and Schwartz acknowledged that the service has abandoned the effort to buy a CSAR-X helicopter.

The existing HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters do the CSAR mission reasonably well, and recapitalizing the existing worn-out aircraft with a “modern generation descendant” of the same airframe will provide about 80 percent of the capability USAF wanted from a new machine. That’ll have to be enough, because that’s all the Air Force can afford.

Likewise, whenever the Air Force can rely on existing production lines, such as the C-130J, to provide a common basic aircraft for missions as diverse as weather and gunships, it will do so, because it must take advantage of economies of scale, Schwartz said.

The Air Force doesn’t need any more C-17s, he asserted, and likely won’t pursue a “stretched” version, given the performance so far of the re-engined and upgraded C-5M. However, he said the C-17 fleet will “need to be tidied up” with structural and other improvements following its heavy wartime use.

In the face of these scaled-back acquisition plans, is Schwartz concerned about the long-term health of industrial base

“In some [cases], we will have to pay close attention,” he said. “In the aircraft area, the low observable [stealth] industrial base is certainly a consideration,” and that concern underlies a $1.7 billion five-year effort to keep stealth technologies developing. He’s also worried about solid rocket motor production, especially if NASA’s need for launch vehicles declines, as seems likely with the demise of the moon program.

Schwartz said the Air Force must confront the fact that as the nation runs up “trillion dollar deficits,” the service will have to get by with fewer resources.

Throttling Back the F-35

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired the F-35 program manager, took away $614 million in award fees from the contractor, and slowed the program in early February, saying it had gotten off track and was too important not to get right. He also elevated the program manager’s job from a two-star to a three-star general officer.

Speaking at a press conference to unveil the Fiscal 2011 budget, Gates said his spending plan of $10.7 billion to buy 42 F-35s represented “a strategy to stabilize its cost and schedule.” The plan had been to buy more F-35s, but testing delays and alarms raised by various cost assessment groups caused him to adopt a slower approach, he said.

The F-35 faces “no insurmountable problems,” but is a “critically important” program, he asserted.

“Possibly more” of the fighters could be bought, “depending on contractor performance,” Gates noted. Program executives at Lockheed Martin, the F-35 prime contractor, later said they’ve been told the F-35 will move to a “buy to budget” arrangement, wherein the services can buy more F-35s within a fixed budget if costs come down, and they could still receive the docked funding if cost and schedule improve. Overall funding, however, will not increase, they said.

Gates removed Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David R. Heinz, the Lightning II stealth fighter program manager, saying, “One cannot absorb the additional costs that we have in this program, and the delays, without people being held accountable.”

He visited the F-35 plant in Fort Worth, Tex., late last summer and proclaimed himself pleased with the fighter’s progress. However, after the estimating teams looked the program over and Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief Ashton B. Carter “immersed himself” in the program over several months, “it was clear that there were more problems than we were aware of when I visited Fort Worth,” Gates said.

“I think that the restructuring program that Dr. Carter has put in place will work. It is realistic; the cost estimates are now in accord with what the joint estimating teams are predicting, rather than what the program is predicting.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, speaking to reporters a week before the budget announcement, said the F-35 move was being made to “reduce concurrency, to lengthen the period associated with testing, to increase the number of test assets, and make the production rate somewhat less ambitious.” Schwartz said the Air Force was still committed to the F-35 and that the program delays wouldn’t affect his plans to retire early some 250 legacy fighters from the USAF fleet.

Carter and others had concluded “that the path we were on was too aggressive,” Schwartz said.

Gates has not tolerated disagreements with his thinking on major programs, having fired other generals and leaders for taking contrary positions. He fired a former Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Air Force partly as a result of disagreements about the F-22, for example.

Heinz, who had been the F-35 program manager just nine months, had expressed the opinion that the F-35 program should carry two engines into production to preserve competition. Gates has tried to terminate the second F-35 engine in each of his budget proposals, saying it is unnecessary. Congress has rebuffed him each time.

One of the arguments against halting the F-22 last year was that the F-35 might run into significant problems, but Gates cursorily dismissed any notion that the Raptor’s termination should be rethought.

“I don’t think there’s any need to go on with the F-22,” he said flatly.

If programs break their cost and schedule by too much, they incur a “Nunn-McCurdy breach,” so-called after the law setting the limits. Such a breach demands a program be terminated, or, if it is too critical to cancel, be restructured and scaled back to live within its funding. Asked if the F-35 will incur a Nunn-McCurdy breach, Gates said, “I’m not sure.”

Lockheed Martin program executives, in a telecon with reporters the next day, said a Nunn-McCurdy breach would be the government’s “call” to make. Lockheed officials said they don’t see it happening, but noted that they don’t have control over a program’s total costs. Personnel, military construction, and government-furnished equipment also figure in program cost.

They noted that the Pentagon would issue its revised selected acquisition reports—costs for its various programs—this month, and if a breach were incurred, it would be announced with the SAR.