Analysts had warned in recent years that the Air Force should brace for drastic cuts in its aircraft procurement programs. The administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2007, however, not only preserves the service’s key acquisition accounts, but also contains seed money to begin research and development for new generations of aircraft.
But the ramping up of new programs, such as a tanker replacement, a long-range bomber, and ongoing efforts such as the joint strike fighter and the F-22A Raptor, may mean some budget crunches in the near-term, experts predicted. Meanwhile, none of the Air Force’s major programs face cancellation.
“They got their share of the budget, that’s for sure,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for the Teal Group. “They preserved key programs and, in general, seem to be on track for their vision.”
The Air Force requested $105.9 billion in fiscal 2007 – with $37.4 billion allocated to procurement.
Doug Berenson, a military analyst for DFI International, said, “I think the Air Force got most of what it was looking for out of this last [Quadrennial Defense Review] and budget cycle.”
The crunch will come in 2008, when many of the modernization programs begin in earnest, the analysts said.
At the top of the Air Force’s wish list was preserving and “preventing further erosion” in the F-22A program, Berenson added. The restructuring through fiscal year 2010 is a hedge against any glitches in the development of the F-35 joint strike fighter, the QDR said. Plans call for seven squadrons and 183 aircraft.
The roadmap “allows us to keep the production line open as an insurance policy for the nation until we get the JSF — not only fielded — but procured in numbers,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Wood, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs.
In the long term, renewed emphasis on unmanned aircraft and long-range strike could soon be competing for resources with manned fighter jets, said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “I would be surprised if the F-22 and the F-35 survive completely intact in their current form,” he added.
Proponents of a new bomber got their wish with the Air Force proclaiming that it would have a new aircraft fielded by 2018. In the short term, the Defense Department wants to reduce the number of B-52 Stratofortresses it keeps on hand from 94 down to 56, and put the savings into revitalizing the B-1s, B-2s and the remainder of the B-52 fleet. The service has proposed retiring 18 of the bombers this year and 20 in 2007.
Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told the House Armed Services Committee that it is time to replace the aging B-52. “Their ability to penetrate and conduct an engagement in a defended area is increasingly problematic,” Wynne said. “We know we need to start the wheels turning and get a new bomber.”
How fast the wheels are turning, what shape the new bomber will take and whether the Air Force can meet the 2018 deadline are matters of debate.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., indicated that reducing the number of B-52s will — as it has in the past — face congressional opposition. He questioned whether the Air Force will have enough bombers in its inventory. “If you add some attrition to those tiny numbers, then we’re in what I call ‘real trouble,’” Hunter said.
O’Hanlon said he won’t take Air Force plans to start developing a new bomber seriously until at least $100 million to $200 million is allocated per year on the project.
Gen. Michael Moseley, Air Force chief of staff, told the committee there is $6 billion scheduled in the 2007-2011 budgets for a three-phase bomber revitalization plan. Phase one, however, will only consist of modifications to the B-1, B-2 and B-52 fleets. In phase two, there will be $1.6 billion for future systems. Asked if the Air Force had carried out any preliminary research on long-range strike technology, Moseley said he would have to brief the committee in a classified setting.
Analysts said there is a possibility that some work has been done in a top-secret program.
“Either the schedule is nonsense or they’ve been doing something that’s black, and in the pipeline,” Aboulafia said.
Meeting the 2018 date is possible if the Air Force leverages existing technology rather than starts from scratch, Berenson added.
There will also some be debate on whether the future bomber should be manned or unmanned. The QDR calls for approximately 45 percent of the future long-range strike force to be unmanned. The question will be whether the general public and U.S. allies would accept such an aircraft carrying nuclear weapons, Berenson said.
The Air Force may also face some quandaries as it replaces the KC-135 Stratotanker. Moseley said requests for information will go out this spring and requests for proposals in September. For the most part, potential bidders already know what the Air Force wants, Moseley said. It is looking for a refueling system that has the flexibility to do airlift.
Moseley doesn’t think it will be a one-for-one replacement program. The so-called KC-X would be more efficient and generate more sorties. He predicted a much slower rollout for the new tanker. KC-135s were built during a seven-year stretch. About 15 to 20 aircraft would be built per year during a 25 to 30 year period, he said.
There are 530 Stratotankers in the U.S. military inventory, including 220 assigned to the National Guard and 75 to the Air Force Reserves.
Analysts said the new tanker and the C-17 Globemaster will be competing for funding. The Air Force has indicated that it wants the new tanker to have some lift capabilities, although its capacity would be on par with an air courier service such as Federal Express, and not something that could ferry Humvees or helicopters.
“[The budget] works fine as long as Congress agrees to kill the C-17,” said Aboulafia. “If they don’t, there’s a real question on where the cash will come from.”
Current plans call for the C-17 to complete production in fiscal year 2008, with the tooling to be placed in storage. The inventory would be capped at 180 aircraft. However, Moseley and Wynne told Congress an additional seven aircraft is at the top of the service’s “unfunded requirement” list.
Wynne said the C-17 is being used in ways the service never expected. For example, it has been employed as an airborne hospital or for intra-theater lift. The additional seven aircraft were needed as a hedge against “wear and tear due to operations,” he said.
Several members of the committee criticized the Air Force for sending mixed signals.
The ramp-up costs to replace the tanker swallows the C-17’s budget, Aboulafia said. The Air Force always compares and contrasts programs, he noted. “In a budget sense, and a strategic sense, and an organizational mindset sense, they’re very direct competitors.”
Also in the works is the joint cargo aircraft, a program shared with the Army, and intended to replace its C-23 Sherpa. A turf war between the services about who will oversee the program has been settled, and development is expected to proceed this year. The program solves a need to provide intra-theater lift on short runways. About 100 to 150 aircraft are being sought, Moseley said.
On the space side, there is little chance that expensive defense systems to protect U.S. satellites will receive significant funding, according to Col. Anthony Russo, division chief of the U.S. Strategic Command’s space and global strike component. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld considered space defense a top priority before 9/11, but afterwards, it quickly fell off his list, Russo told military reporters recently.
“People will nod their head and say this is something we need to do, but there won’t be money to go out and do it,” Russo said. “I’m lucky if I can hold the line on the programs that are out there,” he added.
However, the Defense Department will look to purchase more commercial services in the coming years because of the ongoing conflicts. The Air Force will seek providers who can deliver communication and remote sensing capabilities
“Our demands are constantly outstripping our capacity,” Russo said.
The need for satellite communication capacity usually soars during times of conflict, but the surge isn’t expected to end anytime soon, he said. The Air Force is also looking for small, inexpensive remote sensing or communication satellites that can be launched quickly in times of conflict, he added.
As unmanned reconnaissance capabilities increase, the need for remote sensing satellites may decrease, O’Hanlon said. While their capabilities often complement each other, the need to peer deep inside the Eurasian landmass is waning. A potential conflict with China over Taiwan would largely be a coastal battle where unmanned aerial vehicles could be employed, he added
The Air Force is proposing sharp up-ticks to the Predator and Global Hawk UAV programs, while the space budget has remained flat.
The Air Force will slow down development of the transformational satellite program, a communication system that will employ laser-based Internet protocol, and space radar, a remote sensing system designed to peer through clouds.
Berenson said the restructuring was also a budget win for the Air Force. The office of the secretary of defense “wanted to stomp on the gas pedal,” while Air Force leadership wanted to ease up.
“The Air Force has been much more concerned with the budgetary implications of that, and the real-world practicalities on how quickly you can mature the technologies.”