In previous articles on this blog (here and here) I've examined the unacceptable cost inflation of military aircraft. I won't repeat those comments here except in passing. I'd like to suggest that if you haven't read those earlier articles, doing so now would provide good background material for this article.
The United States Air Force (USAF) is exhibiting all the signs of a failing organization. If it were a commercial enterprise, and had the same number and seriousness of problems, analysts would undoubtedly be downgrading its stock, and advising potential purchasers of its products to reconsider their options. Let's take a look at some of the problems, then examine how the USAF got itself into such a hole, and finally consider ways it can regroup and get itself back on a firm foundation for the future.
The current problems of the USAF are legion. To list only the better-known, in no particular order of importance:
- Its procurement of new tanker aircraft is running years behind schedule, and has been dogged by scandal, from an improperly awarded lease contract to a badly-managed selection process that has just culminated in the Government Accountability Office (GAO) upholding a protest from a failed competitor. As a result, many of its tanker aircraft date from the Eisenhower administration. Such ancient aircraft are prone to failure and are extremely expensive to maintain.
- The USAF's aircraft are getting very old. Since the first Bush administration, no new fighters or fighter-bombers except the F-22 have been ordered. The backbone of the fleet, the F-15's and F-16's, are in many cases nearing the end of their service lives, and no replacements are expected in the short term. Even if the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program succeeds and is cost-effective (and, as noted in earlier articles, this is anything but guaranteed), the USAF has stated publicly that it cannot afford to fund procurement of the new aircraft in sufficient quantities to replace older aircraft as they wear out. Also, the USAF's transport fleet is too small for the demands placed upon it, and political interference from Congress has contributed to it not being able to replace its transports timeously or with aircraft of sufficient capacity. Many of its transports are over 40 years old, and are exhibiting major airframe problems requiring expensive fixes that may not be cost-effective in the long term. Meanwhile, the USAF is forced to rely on expensive private charter flights to supplement its fleet, including the use of Russian transport aircraft, like the Antonov AN-124 shown below, for some large items of freight that can't be handled by US resources.
- The USAF's mishandling of nuclear weapons and materials is growing into a major scandal. From inefficient storage of nuclear devices, leading to operational errors, to shipping highly classified nuclear components to an allied country in error, to 'hundreds' of sensitive components that allegedly cannot be located, the situation appears to be a real mess.
- The immense cost of new aircraft is a huge limitation on the numbers that can be purchased. The USAF tries to disguise this cost by referring to 'fly-away price' - the cost of a given aircraft at the time of its production, ignoring all the money spent on research and development to bring it to that point. This is, to put it bluntly, false and fraudulent accounting. The actual cost of an aircraft program includes every cent spent on it - research, development, testing, production, etc. That total cost should be divided by the number of aircraft purchased, to arrive at an actual cost per aircraft. By this measure, the true extent of financial deception practised by the USAF and its suppliers can be revealed. For example, the actual cost of an F-22 fighter, based on total program expenditure, is in excess of $350 million, whereas early in the program, in 1986, the USAF and Lockheed were promising a 'fly-away' cost of $35 million apiece. Do the math. Someone was lying - big-time. The same financial legerdemain is being practised in connection with the F-35 aircraft (shown below), as noted previously on this blog. A good (and critical) look at the aircraft cost issue may be found here.
- The same issue - the cost of new equipment - is driving policies that are almost certainly detrimental to the long-term health of the USAF. For example, the just-resigned Secretary of the Air Force and its Commanding Officer planned to reduce USAF personnel by 40,000 to free up funds for equipment purchases. This, in a service that can't maintain its existing fleet due to lack of qualified personnel! Existing personnel are often not properly trained or assigned to core mission responsibilities. USAF Wings have traditionally been commanded by Colonels, but today there are more and more Brigadier-Generals occupying these command slots. The USAF offices in the Pentagon are stuffed with literally thousands of administrative staff who are pushing papers from desk to desk, fulfilling no useful purpose except that of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy.
- There is disarray in the running of the USAF. Generals argue with one another and with the civilian leadership of the Armed Forces over what is required (for only one recent example, see here and here). Internal reorganizations are conducted with no apparent thought as to their long-term effectiveness (an excellent example is the structure of USAF maintenance units, which have been 'reorganized' no less than three times since the end of the Cold War, going back and forth between different approaches and models). Far too much time is spent competing with other branches of the US Armed Forces instead of concentrating on the USAF's mission (for example, see here, here and here). In particular, the USAF seems to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort to ensure that it alone operates all airborne assets that it regards as 'significant', rather than allow other services to 'encroach' upon its 'territory'. This dog-in-the-manger attitude is counter-productive, to say the least.
- The USAF has mounted an immense effort to develop its new Cyber Command. The question is, why? What is it about this mission that makes it primarily USAF territory? Could the same mission not be handled by other services, or by a new command independent from existing services? Why is the USAF putting so much emphasis on a new command when it can't even get its existing commands and problems sorted out?
- The same applies to operations in space. There's no 'Air' in space - so why is the USAF seemingly determined to maintain control of all military space operations? Why should it be allowed to do so? Shouldn't it rather focus on meeting the operational demands of its primary commitments, instead of diverting immense resources to other areas? For that matter, a spaceship would appear to have more in common with a submarine than an aircraft - it's 'immersed' in a hostile environment, which has to be kept out at all costs. That being the case, why not let the Navy in on the act? If that's undesirable, what makes Air Force involvement any more desirable? Why not establish a completely separate 'US Space Force' to take care of that environment?
- The USAF seems dominated by a clique of pilots who regard piloting skills as the ne plus ultra of excellence in its officers. They've taken this to such a ridiculous extent that even the USAF's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's) are operated by trained pilots. Very few other military organizations in the world do this - for example, the US Army trains NCO's and officers from non-aviation backgrounds to do the same job, with great success. However, the USAF appears to worry that if non-pilots gain such operational exposure, the value of pilots as senior leaders may be drawn into question. Personally, I think that's long overdue. The fact that someone may be a good pilot has no bearing whatsoever on his or her qualifications for senior military leadership. The commercial world doesn't require all the senior executives of an oil company to have begun their careers as drillers or refinery technicians; hospitals don't require all their administrators and managers to be skilled doctors; auto executives needn't have begun on the assembly line; so why should the USAF require most of its leadership cadre to be pilots?
These are only some of the problems confronting the USAF at this time. The issue is of great concern to many commentators, politicians and military leaders. Partially in response to these concerns (particularly the disarray in nuclear operations), the US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, earlier this month demanded (and received) the resignations of the Secretary of the Air Force and its Commanding General.
Solutions aren't easy to find. They're made more complicated by science and technology, which are racing ahead at a feverish pace, producing concepts and ideas that until a very short time ago were the realm of science fiction and fantasy writers. To give just one example, metamaterials are now being actively considered for applications such as conformal antennas; flat 'lenses', also called 'superlenses', that can overcome the so-called 'diffraction limit'; so-called 'invisibility cloaks'; rendering submarines invisible to sonar; deflecting laser beam weapons from ships; one-way invisible battlefield shields that protect friendly forces, yet allow them to shoot through the shields at the enemy; transparent data displays; and even levitation.
Clearly, with such dramatic advances in materials and applications, it's no longer acceptable to have a twenty-year-plus development cycle for a new aircraft and its systems. The 'state of the art' at the beginning of that cycle will be hopelessly obsolete by the time the aircraft enters service. A classic example is the F-35. According to the USAF itself, the origins of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program date back to the early 1980's. The JSF initial development contract was signed in 1996. The first examples of the F-35 will enter squadron service in the forthcoming decade. In other words, from conception to initial in-service operation will have taken the program almost thirty years! The F-35's technology can no longer be described as 'state-of-the-art' - indeed, a lot of it is at least ten years behind the current state of the art, and will be even further behind by the time it enters service.
Effectively, our understanding of an aircraft will have to evolve to where it's considered no more than a vehicle to transport a system or weapon using these new technologies: and there are going to be many options other than conventional aircraft to transport them. Indeed, given the advent on the battlefield of light-speed beam weapons (which is certain to occur during the next twenty to thirty years), it's possible that no conventional aircraft will be able to survive within line-of-sight of such weapons. If they can detect it, they'll be able to shoot it down, simply by putting their sights on it. At light speed, there'll be no possibility of evading the beam from such weapons.
Unless stealth technology develops to hitherto unimaginable efficiencies, this may mean the end of piloted aircraft over any area protected by such systems. In the absence of such stealth technology, to fly over them would be to commit suicide. Furthermore, today's stealth aircraft carry their weapons internally, opening a weapons bay to drop or fire them. While those bays are open, the aircraft's radar signature is greatly increased. Beam weapons may well be able to lock on to the suddenly-enlarged signature and fire at it in only a few seconds: so, while a stealth aircraft may be able to get near such systems, it may not be able to hit them before it's destroyed by them, and the weapons it drops or fires will also be targeted. Artillery shells and rockets, and mortar bombs, have already been destroyed in flight by today's relatively primitive first- and second-generation beam weapons. The photographs below show a Katyusha artillery rocket being destroyed by Northrop Grumman's THEL laser in 2004.
To do the same to aircraft, and to aircraft-launched bombs and missiles, isn't much more difficult: and beam weapons and their guidance systems are improving by leaps and bounds. They're getting smaller, lighter, more mobile, and much more powerful. It's foreseeable that in the next fifty years, they may even be mounted on aircraft as primary offensive and defensive armament, replacing cannon and some missiles in that role.
What's more, the same explosion in new technology is giving new capabilities to other branches of the armed forces. The use of 'metamaterials' has already been noted above. There are also new targeting technologies and new support weapons to take advantage of them. UAV's are being developed in entirely new directions by other services and nations, including giving them full electronic warfare capabilities and other features. (Please note that the linked news reports in this paragraph are only a few out of literally hundreds of examples that could have been selected.)
The other US armed services are pushing ahead with their own plans and developments, which may well take over some of the USAF's traditional responsibilities in their support. They're doing so partly because the new technologies make it possible, but also partly because they're so fed up with trying - often fruitlessly - to get the USAF to co-operate and meet their needs. The US Army's recent requirement for a new in-theater cargo aircraft was the subject of a 'take-over attempt' by the USAF, which clearly didn't want the Army operating such fixed-wing transports. The two services, directed by Congress, held the Joint Cargo Aircraft competition. This resulted in the selection of the Alenia C-27J (shown below) as the winning candidate, but even today the USAF has still not placed orders for its share of production. Indeed, the USAF and its allies in Congress appear to have mounted yet another effort to take this aircraft away from the Army. So far, thankfully (given the history of other USAF problems) this effort hasn't succeeded . . . but I'm not betting that the USAF won't try again.
The same applies to a critical mission like close air support (CAS). The USAF's 'fighter jockey' leaders absolutely loathe the slow, low-tech A-10 Thunderbolt II (shown below), which has been supremely successful in this field.
They've continually tried to kill it. Even the current upgrade to the A-10 has been crippled by the USAF's refusal to spend money on new and more powerful engines (they've reserved the funds to procure more hi-tech stealth jets, which can't perform the CAS mission). The same thinking seems to have influenced the USAF's withdrawal from the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (JUCAS) project. The USAF appears to have morphed its requirements into a strategic rather than a tactical context. It's also alleged that the USAF may have felt that JUCAS offered too much potential competition to the F-35 program, on which it's 'bet the farm'. In the light of the USAF's previous actions, the latter seems more than feasible to me.
I submit that if the USAF isn't prepared to accept that it's only one of a number of players in the military field, all of whom must co-operate to fulfil their joint mission, then it should be stripped of its responsibilities (and personnel, and budget) in the areas where it won't 'play the game'. These should be handed over to its sister services, to allow them to do the job themselves. Current USAF attitudes are simply unacceptable. The US Marine Corps does a superb job of CAS - so why not let them teach the Army how to do it, and let the Army operate its own CAS forces? Alternatively, why not let the Marines (who already have a perfectly serviceable air organization) provide CAS for the army as well, taking over all the USAF assets currently assigned to this function? The same goes for in-theater air transport services. Why not let the Army handle it all? If the USAF won't 'play ball', take the ball away from them and give it to a service that'll do what's needed.
Amid the explosion of new technologies, the basic missions of the USAF have to be fulfilled, and new answers found to provide some missions that will not be practicable with current aircraft and weapons systems. The basic enterprise must be 'fixed', and put into a condition where it can respond to the new challenges confronting it.
The first reality is that money isn't available to purchase all the aircraft the USAF wants or needs. It's already complaining that it needs $20 billion more per year to fund acquisitions: but that money simply isn't there. Nor is there any likelihood that Congress will make it available. Therefore, the USAF will have to cut its coat according to its cloth, and stop living in a dream world where it can blame a lack of aircraft on the non-availability of funds. Instead, it has to purchase aircraft it can afford, even if these aren't the flashiest and newest available: and it has to cut out irrelevant expenditure to concentrate on its core mission.
This also means that much stricter control must be exercised over weapons development, procurement and planning. The GAO has raised many questions concerning the USAF's forecasts for program and production costs of aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35, the Global Strike concept, integrated intelligence programs, and other systems (including, to be fair, Navy and Army systems too, such as the Future Combat Systems project). The Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) has pilloried Lockheed Martin for its unacceptable performance on the F-35 program.
The entire military procurement system in the USA (not just affecting the USAF) appears to be in serious need of reform. The following video report highlights the problem.
It appears that political leaders recognize the need for reform . . . but it's questionable whether they'll provide the necessary leadership to ensure it happens. After all, the defense industry isn't spending so many millions of dollars in political lobbying each year out of the goodness of their hearts!
Politicians are scrutinizing the USAF more carefully(see, for example, here and here). Defense Secretary Robert Gates is also providing strong leadership in the fight to reform the USAF. He's outlined a clear vision of what the organization needs, and, as mentioned above, recently fired its civilian and military leadership. He's appointed new leaders who appear to have a better grasp of reality, and who can be expected to push the reforms that are required. However, they'll face a built-in bureaucratic inertia and resistance to change that'll make their job very difficult.
I submit that a number of steps are essential to reforming the USAF. Here they are, in no particular order of importance.
- I believe that the USAF must get away from its 'pie-in-the-sky' dream that the politicians will provide it with all the money it needs to do all it wants. This is not going to happen. Period. Therefore, the various missions confronting the USAF must be not only task-prioritized, but cost-justified. If cheaper alternatives are available, then they must be selected, and the more expensive services terminated. This is an absolute imperative that has become inescapable. I'll have more to say about specific USAF areas of responsibility below in this regard. The USAF budget must be presented to Congress in its entirety (no extra-budgetary 'wish lists' allowed), and explained to the politicians who must approve it. There can be no more 'fudging the figures'. Budgetary requests must also take account of the USA's fiscal reality, as outlined recently by the former Comptroller-General of the USA, Mr. David Walker.
- The management of USAF procurement must be radically reformed (including axing many of those who currently run it). When the GAO, DCMA and other Government agencies persistently disagree with the USAF about its project management, funding estimates, etc., there's clearly something very wrong. Given the history of over-budget, under-performing USAF aircraft and systems, I think it's clear that the GAO and DCMA know far more about this area than the USAF's staff. The latter need to have their thinking adjusted - or be fired. There can be no more fiascos like the CSAR-X or KC-X competitions.
- The USAF must stop its 'dog-in-the-manger' approach to other branches of the Armed Forces operating their own aircraft. It should get out of the C-27 and V-22 programs altogether. They're not part of the USAF's core mission, and they're wasting USAF resources that can be better applied to that core mission. The 'turf wars' have got to end.
- There can be no more ruinously expensive and cost-unjustifiable programs such as the F-22 and F-35. The 'cost bloat' of these programs, as highlighted by the GAO and DCMA, is absolutely unacceptable. Not a single F-22 has so far flown in support of current US operations in Iraq or Afghanistan - so the tens of billions of dollars sunk into this program are effectively useless in dealing with current military conflicts. I agree that an air superiority fighter is necessary, and we probably need more than the minimal number of F-22's authorized for that function (the F-35 is a strike aircraft with self-defense capabilities, not a dedicated air-to-air fighter, and therefore won't be as useful as the F-22 in the latter role). However, the F-22 was developed as an air-to-air vehicle only. This is simply not cost-justifiable any more. It will probably never again be cost-justifiable to do this. A combat aircraft has to be a multi-purpose weapons systems platform, in order to justify the immense costs involved in modern aircraft development.
- The USAF is on record as stating that it cannot afford to purchase the F-35 in sufficient numbers to replace all its older-technology fighters as they reach the end of their service lives. There's also no guarantee that the current purchase price figures being bandied about will be attainable. I therefore submit that the USAF should begin to purchase a limited number of the latest-technology F-16 fighters each year, to shore up the 'legacy fighter' force and keep its fleet numbers at an acceptable level. The Israeli F-16I (pictured below), UAE F-16 Block 60 and proposed Indian F-16IN are all far more advanced than any F-16 (and some of the earlier F-15's) in the USAF inventory, and are available at a fly-away cost of about $50 million (no development costs would be incurred - these were amortized long ago). Buying, say, 24 per year would replace the oldest F-15's and F-16's as they are retired, and allow the lower-rate F-35 production that the USAF protests is all it can afford, without unduly drawing down the overall numbers of the USAF's fighter fleet. For those who complain that this is spending money on older technology - hey, we're selling these aircraft to our allies as the latest and best available. If they're good enough for them, why aren't they good enough for us? It's also worth noting that Israeli experts have spoken of flying their F-16I's in co-operation with their F-35's in future, operating as a 'networked' force, letting the latter communicate sensor information to the former and thereby upgrading the performance of its fleet overall. The USAF could easily do likewise.
- The USAF should retire as many older single-purpose aircraft as possible. For example, the older F-15's are air-to-air fighters only. They can't manage bombing missions as well. We can't afford to keep them operational for such missions when multi-purpose aircraft such as the F-16 and later-generation F-15's can do their job, and more. The same applies to the nuclear bomber fleet. We need aircraft that can drop conventional as well as nuclear weapons. In fact, it's arguable that the likelihood of needing to drop nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future is so small that the retention of a dedicated nuclear bomber fleet simply can't be cost-justified. Why not leave the nuclear mission to USAF and US Navy ballistic and cruise missiles, and scrap all the bombers currently assigned to nuclear deterrence? Keep enough bombers to handle the conventional bombing mission (and upgrade the B-52 fleet with more economical engines and modern avionics while we're at it), and retire the rest.
- The entire B-1 fleet should be retired. This aircraft is very capable, but it's also very expensive to maintain, and its missions can be handled by the B-52's and B-2's. In 2001 the USAF announced that it would retire a large number of B-1's, and use the savings thus generated to upgrade the remainder. It retired the aircraft, but didn't spend the money saved on upgrades. Someone lied. In the absence of those upgrades, keeping the current B-1 fleet in the air is just too costly. Hard choices have to be made - and I submit this is one of them. The B-1 (shown below) is the least cost-effective (in relation to capability) of the three bombers currently in the USAF fleet, and the Air Force can't afford it in the current budgetary climate, no matter how good it may be.
- The USAF should actively seek synergy with other services where a single aircraft type, or a single service, can handle missions currently performed by more than one service. For example, the USAF's J-STARS aircraft are getting old, and upgrades for their critical systems are financially not feasible. The E-10 program, which was to replace it, has been canceled due to budgetary constraints. The Navy is launching its EPX program to replace its EP-3E aircraft, and EPX looks very much as if it might be able to handle the J-STARS mission too. If so, why not let the Navy handle it? The USAF doesn't have to duplicate that mission. If military realities necessitate the USAF retaining the mission, why not participate with the US Navy in the EPX program, thus saving the expense of developing another aircraft for a similar purpose? Let the Navy take the lead, and buy some of its aircraft.
- The USAF should abandon upgrades to older aircraft that are already nearing the end of their service lives. A good example is the avionics upgrade for older C-130's. This is an expensive program, and the airframes of the C-130's have been over-stressed by the demands of supporting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past five years. The older C-130's (particularly the E models) should be mothballed as soon as possible, and replaced by new-production C-130J's and C-17's. This would be more cost-effective than spending money on expensive upgrades that will be in service for only a few years. The USAF has already adopted this approach to its C-5 Galaxy fleet, with only newer C-5B's (shown below) and -C's receiving new engines and avionics. The older C-5A's may receive avionics upgrades, but not new engines, and may indeed be retired soon instead of upgrading them.
- By mothballing the older aircraft referred to above, the USAF should be able to save enough money to afford to buy new aircraft to augment its current fleet, which is wearing out. The USAF has allowed its aircraft to get old and wear out, which was a bad mistake. It now needs to rectify that situation as a matter of urgency. Its fighters must be supplemented by new-production F-16's, as mentioned above, just as the US Navy has supplemented its fleet with new-production F-18E/F Super Hornets while waiting for the F-35 to enter production. It should replace older-model C-130's with new-production C-130J's, continue production of the C-17, and consider foreign transports such as the Airbus A400M or Antonov AN-70 (pictured below). The latter is produced in the Ukraine, a state we are trying to help, and which has been a NATO partner nation since 1994. Production of the AN-70 there would also take some pressure off US production lines: and buying one transport type (out of several in service) from a foreign supplier would hardly threaten US self-sufficiency in aircraft production.
- The USAF must realize that air power alone cannot and will not win wars. It is merely one component of the US armed forces, all of which are necessary to the military protection of the USA. It's time for the old school of thought, that maintained that strategic air power was a war-winning tool in and of itself, to be rooted out once and for all.
- The USAF must prioritize the redeployment and reorientation of its personnel. Far from cutting numbers, it must use them better, to support operational requirements rather than administration, bureaucracy and turf battles, and train them in the areas most required by today's operations. It must do so in liaison with the other armed forces, paying particular attention to where the other forces are developing their own systems and solutions. It can profitably allow those new areas to be addressed by the other services, redeploying its own staff to service those activities that will require USAF participation.
- The USAF must be constantly aware of the impact of new technologies on its mission. I personally think it's doubtful that manned aircraft will be as important twenty years from now as they are today. It's already technically feasible to fly an aircraft from airport to airport without any pilot at all - even a large commercial airliner or freighter. I'm sure this will become a reality in the commercial transport field before too long, and in military transport as well. Combat missions are already flown on the same basis, albeit without aerial opposition, and even the latter will probably be handled by UAV's within a decade or two. The pilots who currently dominate the USAF's leadership structure must accept this - or be replaced by others with greater breadth and depth of vision.
Well, that's the situation as it exists today, and those are my thoughts as to how to rectify it. What about you, readers? Any ideas or suggestions?