Decaying Air Power Reflects Larger Problems
(Source: Lexington Institute; issued September 16, 2008)

(© Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)
Presentation by
Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
at the Air Force Assn. Annual Conference

The topic of today's panel is the decline of American air dominance and its implications for the Air Force's future roles.

Since my friend Rebecca Grant has already explained why it is essential for the military services to make a fast transition to fifth-generation fighters, I would like to speak more broadly about the causes and consequences of lagging investment in next-generation aerospace technology.

The good news is that America is spending as much as the rest of the world combined on advanced military technology.

The bad news is that we have not managed to spend that money efficiently, and the availability of funds for new weapons is likely to shrink considerably in the years ahead.

For many people inside the Air Force, it is hard to understand why our leaders do not feel a greater sense of urgency about replacing aging air fleets.

Air power is arguably the single most important war fighting tool we possess, and the air fleets are clearly overdue for renewal.

What I would like to do in the next 15 minutes is explain precisely why the political system has not been responsive to the challenge of aging aircraft, and why it will continue to be unresponsive in the future barring some unexpected surge in threats.

I will then draw some conclusions about what the slow pace of modernization means for the Air Force of tomorrow.

But let's begin by briefly detailing how serious the decay of America's air arsenal has already become.

Aging Air Fleets

During the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Air Force simplified the discussion of its mission capabilities by dividing them into three categories -- global strike, global mobility, and global awareness.

If we look at each of these areas, we see that age-related decay has now become generalized across the entire force.

With regard to strike capabilities, Rebecca has already noted that we have very few stealthy fighters in the force today, and the plan of record is to terminate the most capable next-generation fighter at less than half the stated requirement.

While the service will soon begin receiving a sizable number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to replace aging F-16s, the F-35 was designed to operate in tandem with the more capable F-22, so the fact that we may purchase less than half of the F-22s required does not bode well for the tactical air fleet.

The F-15 that the F-22 is supposed to replace has grown so aged that it trains on flight restriction due to metal fatigue, and has literally begun falling out of the sky.

These problems are made worse by the inability of the service to afford a next-generation escort jammer, since electronic warfare is our main alternative to stealth in protecting penetrating airframes.

The situation in the long-range bomber force is even worse, with less than 200 airframes remaining to cover the world.

Only 10% of the heavy bomber force is fully stealthy, and yet many observers doubt the service will be able to afford the recently announced next-generation bomber that is supposed to debut in ten years.

Even the nuclear part of the strike mission is eroding, with the bomber force gradually exiting strategic deterrence missions and the service planning to cease production of intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time in 50 years.

Turning to global mobility, we see a somewhat positive story on the airlift side arising from production of the highly capable C-17 and C-130J transports, but that story is undercut by the impending termination of C-17 at a number far short of what is likely to be needed in the future.

The aerial refueling component of the mobility mission area is an utter disaster, with no replacement in sight for 500 KC-135s that are approaching an average age of fifty years.

After trying for nearly a decade, the Air Force has not managed to award a contract for a next-generation tanker, and it looks unlikely that any bending of metal will commence for years to come -- even though tankers are the foundation of rapid force projection.

Turning finally to global awareness -- meaning intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance -- we see that there is no plan for replacement of cold war radar planes, no plan for recapitalizing airborne eavesdropping systems, and nothing especially interesting happening in space-based reconnaissance.

While major progress has been made in fielding a force of unmanned reconnaissance aircraft such as Global Hawk and Reaper, the inherent limitations of these systems means that failure to recapitalize aircraft such as AWACS and JSTARS will leave a big gap in high-end ISR collections as the fleet ages out in the years ahead.

I don't want to ignore the value of various networking initiatives in this decade aimed at generating a common operating picture from diverse sources, but our inability to field next-generation collection systems both in-orbit and within the atmosphere is leading to a crisis of global awareness in the near future.

So all three pillars of American air power are in gradual decline, and I haven't even mentioned the fact that China has learned how to target our aircraft carriers.

The question is, why hasn't the political system responded to this erosion in vital warfighting capabilities, especially given the fact that military outlays have doubled in this decade and we are greatly outspending every conceivable adversary combined?

The answer to that question is, if anything, more disturbing than the declining state of our air fleets.

Distracted Political Elites

During the first decade following the collapse of communism, there was a great deal of optimism about the future of global security, at least in America.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney killed the B-2 bomber and a hundred other military investment programs, arguing there would be little need for new weapons in the near term.

His successors followed Cheney's lead by balancing the federal budget through additional, sizable cuts to the military.

The immediate impact of these actions on military preparedness was not serious, because the force was still relatively new in the 1990s as a result of the Reagan defense buildup in the previous decade.

But by the end of the century, it was clear that much of the cold war arsenal would need to be replaced in the near future due to operational fatigue and technological obsolescence.

It was at precisely this moment that the Bush Administration took office with an ill-timed agenda to cut taxes and transform the joint force.

The reason it was ill-timed was that within months, the terrorist attacks of 9-11 had falsified the central premise of transformation -- that we had entered an era of diminished danger -- while greatly increasing the funding needs of the joint force.

But Bush was committed to his priorities, and sought to pursue a multi-front war on terror without increasing taxes or backing away from transformation.

The resulting triptych of tax cuts, transformation and counter-terrorism proved lethal to American air power, because the government lacked both the resources and the political will to arrest the decay of cold war air fleets.

Even though the defense budget increased from $300 billion when Bush took office to $700 billion at the end of his second term counting war-related appropriations, proponents of transformation argued that manned aircraft would not be especially important in combating the asymmetric threats of the future, and fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to confirm that.

It wasn't that air power wasn't helpful, just that we were fighting enemies who lacked their own air forces and air defenses, so existing U.S. assets were adequate to meet military needs despite their age.

With the federal debt growing by leaps and bounds each year due to the tax cuts, there was little money left for recapitalization once the higher priorities of transformation and counter-terrorism were funded.

To make matters worse, Bush's Pentagon team turned out to be mediocre managers, so even in areas where they got the aerospace part of the transformation story right -- like space and unmanned systems -- execution was disappointing.

When Air Force leaders pushed back against the priorities of the administration, they were marginalized and ultimately forced out, leaving the service with less influence in the joint command system and budgeting process than at any other time in its history.

So the Bush years -- which began so promisingly in the aftermath of air power's triumph in the Balkan war -- became a chronicle of decay and despair for those who thought air power might finally get its due from policymakers.

It would be nice to believe that in November the nation might elect a more competent team to run the government.

Unfortunately, whoever leads that team will face a daunting array of fiscal challenges that almost guarantees no additional funding for air power programs.

In fact, the two major parties sometimes seem to be actively conspiring to fashion a fiscal environment in which air power outlays must go down rather than up in the years ahead.

Here's why.

Fiscal Challenges

The Bush prescription of tax cuts, deregulation and free trade -- which worked so well for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s -- has backfired, undermining the nation's economic standing and fiscal health.

In the eight years since George Bush took office...

-- The U.S. share of the global economy has fallen from 31% to 27%.
-- The dollar has lost a quarter of its value.
-- The federal debt has ballooned 60% to over $9 trillion.
-- And the income of the average family has actually shrunk.

The performance of the economy under Bush has been so anemic that he is in danger of tying his father's record for the worst rate of private-sector job growth since World War Two.

Not surprisingly, voters are clamoring for relief from the high cost of housing, healthcare, education and energy.

Senator McCain's response is to cut taxes even more, while Senator Obama's response is to expand entitlements.

In McCain's case, just one of his dozen proposed tax initiatives -- the permanent extension of Bush income tax cuts to all families -- would deprive the federal government of a quarter trillion dollars in tax revenue each year after 2011.

In Obama's case, the plan to make healthcare a right for all Americans and expand coverage for children, the disabled and those with mental health problems promises to add a huge new burden to the federal treasury.

Neither candidate has offered a convincing explanation of how such initiatives can be accommodated within a government budget that is forecast to add another half trillion dollars to the national debt in the year they take office.

What that means in practical terms is that six months from now, no matter who is elected in November, the new president will be ransacking the federal budget for bill-payers so that he can make good on campaign promises.

There is little doubt that military spending will be eyed for savings, and that the cuts will fall first and deepest on investment accounts.

In fact, that process has already begun...

-- There isn't going to be a Space Radar.
-- There isn't going to be a Transformational Satellite Communications program.
-- There isn't going to Next Generation Bomber.

And there is reason to doubt whether five years from now we will still be producing the C-17 cargo plane or the F-22 fighter, even though we probably need 200 more of each plane to meet future military requirements.

The bottom line is that the Bush Administration has squandered its opportunity to revitalize the cold war arsenal, and now the political system is turning to other issues, mainly on the domestic front.

Maybe some huge new threat will materialize to rescue the military modernization plan from fiscal pressures in the years ahead, but don't bet on it.

Unless things change in a big way, weapons outlays are headed downward despite the age of our air fleet and despite the emergence of new threats overseas.

So what might that mean for the future roles of the Air Force?

Air Force Roles

I see four overarching implications.

First of all, despite its heavy investment in fifth-generation fighters, networks and unmanned vehicles, the Air Force will experience a gradual erosion in global air dominance over the next two decades. This will result from four factors...

-- The failure to purchase an adequate number of F-22 fighters.
-- The rapid aging of the aerial refueling and airborne sensor fleets.
-- The declining availability of overseas bases.
-- And the proliferation of integrated air defenses in potential adversary states.

I do not believe that overseas advances in air-to-air capabilities pose a major threat to U.S. air dominance in the near term, but the lesson of exercises such as Cope India is that we must have fifth-generation fighters in large numbers relatively soon to compensate for the geographical and other advantages that future adversaries may enjoy.

Turning to global strike capabilities in particular, the second implication I see is that the Air Force of the future will lack strike systems necessary for attacking the full range of emerging targets. That shortfall originates in at least five areas...

-- Failure to fund conventional systems suitable for prompt global strike.
-- Failure to fund continued modernization of land-based strategic missile systems.
-- Failure to fund replacement of aging cold war bombers.
-- Failure to recapitalize tanker and electronic warfare fleets.
-- And failure to bring the Airborne Laser to fruition in a reasonable timeframe.

There are some bright spots in the global strike mission space, most notably the impending deployment of F-35, the greatly improved networking of multi-source targeting intelligence, and the advent of unmanned hunter-killer vehicles such as Reaper.

Other promising innovations are also on the way, such as Raytheon's NCADE program that converts AMRAAM missiles into inexpensive weapons for attacking ballistic missiles in boost or ascent phase.

In addition, significant progress is being made in using non-kinetic mechanisms such as electromagnetic pulse and cyber attacks to disable adversaries.

Nonetheless, it appears that the sinews of Air Force global strike capability are gradually aging out, and that the service cannot count on being able to address the full range of prospective targets expeditiously in the future.

The third implication I see is that the Air Force's future mobility assets are unlikely to be adequate to satisfy the needs of the joint force for airlift and aerial refueling.

I base that assessment on three trends...

-- The tanker fleet has grown very aged, and yet no contract for a replacement aircraft is in place.
-- The inter-theater airlift requirements of the Army will grow considerably in the future, yet the Air Force plans to close out C-17 production at a mere 205 planes.
-- And the C-5 Galaxy which provides so much of joint airlift capacity continues to experience age-related readiness problems.

The good news is that the C-130J Super Hercules is proving to be a huge improvement over legacy Hercules, and promises to remain in production for decades to come.

But it makes little sense to terminate C-17 at 205 airframes when the decision has been made not to re-engine older Galaxies, and a more reasonable production goal for meeting future joint airlift needs is twice the number of C-17s currently programmed.

My fourth and final finding regarding future Air Force roles concerns global awareness -- meaning intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

There, I detect a migration away from orbital and manned airborne platforms in the future resulting from four trends...

-- Our reconnaissance satellites in low-earth orbit are increasingly vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons.
-- Efforts to build a new generation of more capable reconnaissance satellites have largely failed.
-- Funding has not materialized to recapitalize manned airborne reconnaissance systems.
-- And meanwhile, unmanned reconnaissance systems such as Global Hawk are proving to be uniquely useful.

Perhaps I should also add that changes in the threat make high-endurance unmanned systems more useful for some missions than either orbital or manned air-breathing systems.

Nonetheless, the Air Force's failure to build an E-10 replacement of JSTARS, or install radar technology improvements on the existing JSTARS airframe, will leave the force far less capable than it otherwise might have been in the future.

For all their utility in unconventional warfare, it is not clear that unmanned systems can take the place of more traditional collection platforms in a wide range of future missions.

The Air Force and other defense agencies will need to redouble efforts to achieve horizontal integration of diverse collection systems if global awareness capabilities are to meet the needs of the joint force in the future, especially given all the mis-steps in modernization during the Bush years.

In the future, military historians will look back wistfully at the Bush era in terms of what might have been, and wonder where all the money went.

It certainly didn't go into a focused program for preserving America's global air dominance.

Thank you.


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