Air Force Has Become Leaner and Meaner, But May Be Reaching Breaking Point
Since its heyday in the 1950s, the Air Force has seen its inventories slashed and many of its prized weapons systems jettisoned. And while the service has gotten smaller and more technologically sophisticated, the cost of the shrinking force has risen dramatically.
From 1950 to 2009, the Air Force saw its arsenal dwindle from 26,000 to about 6,500 aircraft and missiles. At the same time, “every element of air power goes up in cost each year,” says Christopher J. Bowie, corporate director of the Northrop Grumman Analysis Center.
Bowie is the co-author of “Arsenal of Airpower,” a comprehensive report published by the Air Force Association’sMitchell Institute that, for the first time, documents the history of a rapidly shrinking Air Force. James C. Ruehrmund Jr., a retired Air Force reserve colonel, conducted most of the research.
“The U.S. Air Force is currently facing a serious existential dilemma,” the study says.
For decades, the service has managed to remain the world’s most powerful by a combination of smart investments and well-timed force cutbacks, but its luck may be running out, the authors suggest. The current fleet is reaching unprecedented levels of longevity, while new aircraft procurement has slowed down considerably. With a budget crunch on the horizon, Air Force weapon-buyers and strategists are in for a tough ride, Bowie says during a Nov. 10 presentation at the Air Force Association, in Arlington, Va.
“Current signs indicate the USAF may reach a new ‘inflection point’ with yet another significant reduction in force levels,” the report says. “Budget forecasts show the Air Force may, at best, be able to maintain current budgetary top lines, but, more likely, it will see a decline.” The number of new aircraft is dropping off, while the average ages of aircraft are rising. Also complicating matters is that spending on personnel and operations is growing as a percentage of the overall budget. In all likelihood, the study predicts, the Air Force will be shrinking even further.
“How does the Air Force deal with this and maintain the current highly capable force?” Bowie asks. One way to do that is by slashing overhead, he offers. The biggest financial burden for the Air Force is not its combat force but its infrastructure and personnel. “You need a BRAC,” Bowie says, using Pentagon-speak for base closures and realignments. “If you eliminated all Air Force combat units you’d only save about 25 percent of the budget,” he says.
Making do with a smaller Air Force is not just a concern for blue-suiters but also for the entire Defense Department, he says. Most of the Air Force’s hardware is used by all branches of the military. Missions such as transportation, aerial fueling, space-based navigation and spying, intelligence collection, and surveillance are performed in support of air, naval and ground forces.
Another way of out the impending death spiral is to come up with a “game changing” system that would allow the Air Force to replace expensive aircraft with lower-cost alternatives — similarly to the way ballistic missiles took the place of manned bombers in the late 1950s and 1960s. Remotely piloted aircraft could be it, Bowie says. “The Air Force has to take a more aggressive attitude about unmanned systems,” he says. “Unmanned air systems are the ICBM game-changer for the Air Force.”
The Air Force has kept its aging fleet going by refurbishing airframes and installing modern avionics. A case in point is the KC-135 aerial refueling tanker, built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, to be an interim tanker. Instead, it has continued to upgrade it and now expects to be flying the tanker until the 2040. But substituting quality for quantity only goes so far, says Bowie. “Numbers do matter,” he says. “An infinitely capable system can only be in one place at one time. There’s a point at which quality would not make up for your lack of quantity,” he says. Where exactly is the point of no return is unclear.
Unpiloted aircraft are cheaper to build and to operate, says Bowie. Air Force officials have argued that remotely piloted craft are costly because they are labor intensive. Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has said it takes a crew of 120 to operate a single Predator UAV. But Bowie insists unmanned operations are still cheaper. For surveillance and reconnaissance missions, unmanned aircraft are “one-third the ownership cost of manned systems,” he says. “That means for every dollar I invest I get three times more capability.” Not only do UAVs have longer endurance but they require fewer training resources. “You can train on a computer,” says Bowie. A similar cost equation may apply to combat UAVs, although the Air Force has little data to prove that. High-altitude unmanned aircraft that have extra-long endurance, over time, could offer a lower-cost alternative to space systems, he says.
In a question-and-answer session following Bowie’s presentation, retired Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., former chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, questioned the assumption that unmanned aviation is the answer to the Air Force’s budget woes. “As an ‘attack guy,’ I’d say that we have to be careful about going to RPAs as our primary focus,” says Renuart. He warns that the Air Force has yet to build and deploy a high-end combat UAV. And it has not yet figured out how to design UAVs that can survive in hostile airspace. “We still haven’t come to grips with that,” says Renuart.
Renuart does support the idea of shifting to unmanned aircraft for non-combat missions such as cargo delivery. The next generation of C-17 transports could be unmanned, he says. But that could take years. “Right now the Air Force says we need a pilot,” Renuart asserts. The only immediate antidote to the current financial crisis is to tackle personnel costs, says Renuart. “Almost 67 percent of our budget today is personnel,” he says. It has soared mostly as a result of increased pay and benefits for the active force and retirees. Maintaining old airplanes also is draining the bank account, says Renuart. “That’s a challenge. We need help from Congress.”
Besides unmanned aircraft, Bowie contends, there is another possible silver bullet: directed-energy weapons. “Direct energy has the potential to offer an increase in capability similar to what we’ve seen in precision weapons,” he says. “It allows you to defend your systems, you have an unlimited magazine, enormous accuracy, speed of light muzzle velocity and a significant reduction in logistical requirements.” One hitch, however, is that laser weapons have been perennial failures. Since at least the 1960s, Bowie notes, “directed energy has been the ‘weapon of the future.’” But there’s always hope for a breakthrough one of these days.
The true geeks of military aviation history will find “Arsenal of Airpower” an enjoyable read. For those who remember the glory days, it may be a tad depressing. The report chronicles the Air Force’s startling growth that began in 1950 with the outbreak of the Korean War. The service peaked at more than 26,000 aircraft and missiles by 1956. The rise was fueled by a push from the Eisenhower administration to reduce overall military expenditures by relying on nuclear air and missile power provided by the Air Force. The administration shifted roughly 50 percent of the military budget to USAF accounts. It also helped that the Air Force executed a “masterful public policy advocacy campaign in Congress on the value of airpower in the new security environment,” the study points out. The Air Force procured more aircraft from 1952 to 1956 than it did from 1956 to 1990.
Following this peak, the advent of ICBMs led to three major shifts that marked the beginning of the inventory reductions. First, to reduce vulnerability to a Soviet first strike, the Air Force fielded a large force of tankers to improve the response time of the existing heavy bomber force. Second, the Air Force began deploying ICBMs — 1,000 Minuteman missiles and a small number of mighty Titans — as it concurrently retired roughly an equal number of bombers (primarily B-47 medium bombers). Third, the Soviet ICBM threat called into question the utility of the thousands of U.S. fighters devoted to continental air defense.
In the late 1950s, the Air Force began to reduce its continental air defense force of roughly 2,000 aircraft and 200,000 personnel. It continued to shrink this portion of the force during the 1960s and 1970s until only a few hundred aircraft were dedicated to the continental air defense mission, the study says. After the accelerated retirement of most of the air defense fleet in the late 1950s, the Air Force maintained a force level of about 15,000 aircraft and ICBMs until the early 1970s. As the Vietnam War wound down, the force declined to roughly 12,000 aircraft and ICBMs. Except for a slight growth during the Reagan years, it stayed at that level until 1991.
The next drop was even more precipitous. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reductions ordered under the “Base Force” plan of Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the USAF shrank quickly to approximately 6,500 aircraft and ICBMs. It has held steady at that level until the present day.
One lesson that can be drawn from the past six decades is that change is painful and creates upheaval, but strong leaders figure out a way to make it work, contends “Arsenal of Airpower.”
The study praises the “inventiveness of past planners when grappling with inexorably growing costs and limited resources. Fielding ICBMs as it retired some bombers, for example, must have presented a serious culture shock to an Air Force run, at the time, by ‘bomber barons,’” says the report. “Similarly, imagine the disruption and consternation caused by retiring 2,000 fighters and 200,000 personnel when the continental air defense force was cut. But these bold moves paved the way to a more capable and cost-effective force.”
As to what will happen next, the prognosis for the Air Force is one of yet more turbulence, Bowie and Ruehrmund predict. “As we move to the future, the force structure procured primarily during the Reagan buildup is approaching the end of its life; the average age of most elements of the force structure is reaching unprecedented levels. When front-line combat aircraft break apart during training missions, as occurred with an F-15C in November 2007, the nation is facing greater strategic risk. This dilemma will dominate the Air Force planning agenda for the next decade or more.”