Study: U.S. Combat Aviation Stuck in the Industrial Age
U.S. combat air forces are ill equipped to fight a technologically empowered enemy, and it could be years or decades before the Pentagon deploys more advanced weapons. Such is the grim picture painted in anew study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The authors, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula and CSBA analyst Mark Gunzinger, make the case that aviation forces are not up to the challenges of 21st century warfare and the Pentagon has only itself to blame.
"Fourteen years into the 21st century, the U.S. military is still living off investments in combat aircraft that were made prior to or during the Reagan administration," Gunzinger told an Air Force Association forum in Arlington, Va.
For instance, the Air Force’s combat force primarily consists of aging A-10s, F-15s, F-16s, B-1s, B-52s, B-2s, and a handful of new F-22s. "Overall, the Air Force’s combat force is the smallest and oldest that it has ever fielded," he said.
Shortsighted Pentagon budget decisions have weakened the aviation fleet, the authors contend. The United States Air Force only has a small number of its most advanced aerial weapons — the B-2 bomber and the F-22 fighter jet — and the next generation of systems is still years away. The Pentagon terminated production of the B-2 bomber in 2000 at 20 aircraft and the F-22 stealth fighter in 2010 at 187 airplanes. The thinking was that these aircraft were too expensive and soon would be replaced with more affordable alternatives. "Apparently this saved money," Deptula said with sarcasm. In hindsight, the military is paying a big price for these decisions, he said, because new systems are far more expensive and nowhere close to being ready. "Numbers matter," he said. The Air Force is buying new aircraft today, but most are cargo planes or unmanned surveillance drones. The military has more than 11,000 unmanned aircraft, but most are not equipped to survive enemy air-defense missiles.
Although no enemy air force has yet challenged the United States, the study predicts it is only a matter of time before the U.S. military is put to the test.
The risk posed by enemy technologies also applies to the Navy and Marine Corps, the study noted. The Corps continues to rely on non-stealthy AV-8B vertical/short takeoff and landing ground attack aircraft that were designed in the 1970s. The replacement F-35B Joint Strike Fighter is still in development.
“The Navy’s fixed-wing combat aircraft force is not as old as the Air Force’s because it is just completing its F/A-18 fighter program,” Gunzinger said. “However, the F/A-18 is non-stealthy, and the wisdom of deploying carriers within range of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles so their short-range fighters can reach their objective areas is doubtful at best.”
With the exception of the F-22s and B-2, the Pentagon’s fighters and bombers have “lost their ability to operate in high-threat areas without the risk of significant losses or the need for very large supporting force packages to suppress enemy air defenses,” the CSBA study said. "America’s recent focus on counterinsurgency operations has given China, Iran, North Korea, and other competitors breathing room to develop anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities that could threaten U.S. access to areas of vital interest," the report said. "The proliferation of guided ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-satellite weapons, cyber threats, integrated air defense systems and other asymmetric threats are intended to erode the U.S. military’s ability to effectively intervene in crisis situations."
The term A2/AD is Pentagon-speak for an enemy's ability to neutralize the traditional advantages of U.S. weaponry. Command and control networks may susceptible to electronic jamming. Air bases may be vulnerable to precision-guided missiles, and U.S. non-stealthy aircraft — manned and unmanned — may not be able to enter hostile airspace without risking major losses. "Enemy antiship ballistic and cruise missiles that are supported by space-based sensors and long-range surveillance aircraft may force U.S. aircraft carriers to operate a thousand miles or more offshore," the study said.
To overcome enemy technologies, the U.S. military needs more than just new hardware, Deptula said. It needs its weapon systems to operate like a network, where information is shared across all services. The Pentagon has championed for decades the idea of “network centric” warfare, but in reality each service and each program operate independently, he said. “We're in the era of information-age warfare, and we are having a bit of a challenge managing that transition,” said Deptula. “We need to think how we can better share information that turns into relevant knowledge and we need to do it automatically.” The Pentagon functions in budget-line items, not as an integrated enterprise, he said. “You need to get beyond the traditional labeling of systems, which is last century’s perspective. We need to think about how all systems in space, land and sea and air can operate in an integrated fashion.”
The need for information-focused weapon systems will be the subject of an 18-month study by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute, which Deptula leads. The military should have for a "combat cloud" where information can be shared regardless of what weapon system is used, he said. “It is difficult to explain, and that is one of our challenges as it is not a ‘thing’ or even a collection of ‘things,’ but rather an approach.” Deptula told National Defense. Aircraft today are connected as sensors and shooters. “While this limited collaboration is positive, future developments in data sharing promise to dramatically enhance the way in which combat effects are attained as individual airborne assets are fully integrated with sea, land, space and cyber systems,” he explained. “Individual systems connected to the broader ‘combat cloud’ are able to leverage their respective strengths.”
To move its weapons into the 21st century, the Pentagon also needs help from Congress, Deptula added.
If the recent round of military oversight hearings on Capitol Hill is any guide, Congress is less worried about the modernization of the U.S. fleet than it is about protecting favored projects and jobs in members' home districts.
Air Force leaders have argued that, in times of declining budgets, they cannot afford to continue to sink money into aging airplanes and should redirect funding to new systems such as the F-35, a refueling tanker and a long-range bomber. While the plan sounds reasonable in theory, it has turned into a political football. Air Force officials have been hammered by lawmakers for their proposal to retire the entire A-10 fighter force, 46 older C-130 aircraft and the entire U-2 reconnaissance aircraft fleet.
These budget quagmires only keep the military saddled with older technology, the CSBA study said, and contribute to the erosion of the nation’s manufacturing base. “Fifty years ago, the Defense Department was in the process of building six fighters, three bombers, and two antisubmarine warfare aircraft,” said the report. Today, there is one new American fighter in production — the F-35 — and three that are about to end their production runs. “With the exception of the Air Force long-range bomber, the Navy’s P-8 maritime aircraft, and possibly a carrier unmanned combat aircraft, there are no other major new combat aircraft in the Defense Department’s program of record.”