Air Force Trades Quantity For Quality
At the top of the list are aging fighters, bombers and air-refueling tankers. The service is bent on replacing or beginning to buy upgrades for all three within a decade, even if it means foregoing other programs, according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.
“The bottom line is, these are important capabilities for the nation and ones we will make sacrifices elsewhere to sustain,” Schwartz said at a Pentagon news conference. “The challenge is sequencing these programs in a way that meets budget targets.”
The Air Force’s fleets are already smaller and older than when the military made a similar reduction in budget and force after the Cold War. The effort is all the more important after 10 years of conflict that emphasized equipping ground forces.
Using that logic, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula said these modernization programs are long overdue.
“We have a geriatric Air Force,” he told National Defense. “We’re flying 50-plus year old bombers, we’re flying 50-plus year old tankers and our fighters are falling out of the sky because we’re putting more hours and years on them than they were designed for.
“We saw over the last decade a dramatic increase in funding for the Army and Marine Corps to the detriment of the Air Force,” he said. “Now it’s time to shift resources to the things that have been neglected. These are important capabilities needed for national security. It becomes an entire defense enterprise issue. Cuts should come from across service lines, not just within the Air Force.”
The Obama administration’s strategic guidance places a premium on policing Pacific waters, especially in the face of a rising China. That in turn places a premium on technologies that can reach across thousands of miles of ocean. Hence Air Force leaders’ dedication to not just a new long-range strike bomber, but the KC-46 refueling tanker. Add to the list service-life extension for the F-16 fleet, and the procurement of new satellites and space-launch vehicles.
Fleets have traditionally been modernized one at a time over a decade apiece. In the 1970s, funding went to updating the fighter fleet. In the 1980s, bombers were the priority, followed by airlift and tanker aircraft during the 1990s, he said.
The timelines for introduction of the F-35 and procurement of both a new tanker and new bomber are more compressed this time around. The Air Force hopes to begin taking delivery of its new tanker sometime in the fiscal year 2015 to 2016 timeframe. New bombers are scheduled to come online sometime after 2020. With the F-35 already in limited production, the three systems will be in concurrent production and competing for funds within eight years.
That worries Richard Aboulafia, an industry analyst with Teal Group. But, he agreed the Air Force is deserving of future investment.
“The Air Force missed an up-cycle 100 percent,” he said. “The military had this tremendous increase in defense spending, but it all went to body armor and [mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles]. It was all Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than actual technology. All the money went to bullets, beans and black oil, as they say.”
The bomber and tanker have become “viable programs,” Aboulafia said. But he predicts the Air Force will struggle to fund both programs at the levels that would be needed to ramp up production in the 2020s.
“There’s just no way to make this all good,” he said. “Accommodating JSF plans, just purely the minimum level of tactical aircraft needed to maintain force structure; that’s going to be a challenge. You add on to that the KC-46 tanker and next-generation bomber and the idea of being able to recapitalize so many different platforms in this budget environment is something of a fantasy.”
With multiple aging fleets needing upgrades, simultaneous production could overtax budgets and hamstring procurement. Some juggling will be required to ramp up production of big-budget projects over the next decade, but leaders at the highest levels remain committed to those modernization programs.
Keeping all three balls in the air will require F-35 production to be scaled back dramatically, Aboulafia said. The Air Force has done just that, but has yet to specify how deep the cuts will go or how drastically production will be delayed. Aboulafia recommended JSF production be dialed down to at least 48 or so per year from the current 72-per-year plan, he said.
The wish list comes at the expense of several current programs, including personnel. Air Force end strength will be cut by about 10,000 as a result of force restructuring, Schwartz said.
The service is seeking to eliminate six squadrons from the total of 60 in service.
Five of those squadrons fly the A-10, a close-air support plane that is popular with the Army. The Air Force has 348 A-10s that are organized into 15 squadrons. Of the 123 fighters cut from the fleet, 102 are A-10s. The remaining 21 are older F-16 fighters.
The resultant gap will be filled by the F-35, which remains in limited production pending “testing and … developmental changes to minimize concurrency issues before buying in significant quantities,” according to a Pentagon document outlining spending cuts.
Programs that are seeking revolutionary new technology such as the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform, Light Mobility Aircraft, and Light Attack and Armed Reconnaissance aircraft, were canceled outright.
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities remain a top priority — one in which Schwartz foresaw increased investment, but did not go unscathed. But the Air Force is cutting one platform it says is redundant and prohibitively expensive.
The Global Hawk Block 30, an unmanned stand-in for the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane, is no more. Beyond the three more it is contracted to purchase from Northrop Grumman, the drones will be mothballed while the U-2, built by Lockheed Martin, will continue its role of taking pictures from the air.
“The delta between the Global Hawk [Block 30] and the U-2 was not sufficient to retain both for the same mission,” Schwartz said.
Global Hawk Block 40, which has a more-powerful sensor suite than the Block 30, will not be touched by reductions. Procurement of both the Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft and NATO’s version of the same plane will continue. Northrop Grumman reacted swiftly to the program cancellation, saying it was “disappointed with the Pentagon’s decision,” and promised to seek “alternatives to program termination.”
Some cash will be freed up by a reduction in the Air Force’s strategic airlift fleet — a downsizing made possible by parallel reductions in Army personnel. The fleet will lose 27 C-5A heavy cargo planes and 65 C-130 transports.
The service will also sell off the 38 C-27 medium-transport aircraft it bought to carry cargo and troops in Afghanistan. Their role will be taken over by C-130s, though 65 of those will be retired as well.
A fleet of 275 aircraft — 223 C-17s and 52 C-5s — “will be sufficient to satisfy dedicated military airlift needs,” Schwartz said.
As it gets smaller, the Air Force will rely more heavily on its nuclear triad as a deterrent, Schwartz said. None of the Defense Department’s three legs – ballistic missiles, submarines and bombers — will be threatened by budget cuts, though an overall reduction in the number of nuclear warheads is called for.
The Air Force is still on track to begin a series of new-start technologies by Feb. 2018 with the goal of establishing an arsenal of 700 strategic delivery vehicles deployed, with another 100 in reserve, coupled with 1,550 warheads, Schwartz said.
“I think each of the three legs is necessary,” said retired Air Force Gen. Henry Obering III. “The recall capability of the bomber, the incredible reaction time of ICBMs and the survivability of submarines are mutually supportive and equally important. When you begin to appear weak or susceptible in one area, that’s when you invite threats.”