The United States Department of Defense’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request included a raft of changes to the aircraft fleets, future procurements and, as a consequence, future plans, of the US air force. In addressing the reduced funding, the air force has been willing to trade some quantity to secure quality. On top of the proposed reductions in size, the air force is coping also with delays to new aircraft and the ageing of large parts of its existing fleet. Beyond these challenges comes the risk – confronting the entire DoD – that Congress will mandate further large spending cuts as part of a ‘sequestration’ process.
In terms of numbers, the force reductions are not insignificant. In its 2012 posture statement the air force noted that it was now ‘the smallest force [in personnel terms] since our inception in 1947 … Meanwhile, the average age of Air Force aircraft has risen dramatically.’ Nevertheless, the USAF remains, both in terms of size and capability, the yardstick against which other air forces are measured. It will continue to hold a very large inventory of combat and support types, and is pursuing wholesale fleet-recapitalisation plans through the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the Long-Range Strike Bomber, and the KC-46A tanker. The US military fields more than three times as many fourth-generation combat aircraft as Russia and four times as many as China. It also remains the only nation to operate low-observable fighter and bomber fleets.
Last year Congress, under the Budget Control Act, mandated that the DoD reduce spending by $487 billion over ten years and, in January, the Pentagon unveiled how it planned to achieve the first half of these cuts, shaving $259bn from total expenditure over the next five years. As part of its efforts to meet its allotted share of the planned $259bn, the USAF is proposing to eliminate 280 aircraft from its force structure over the period from FY2013 to FY2017. This includes reducing from 60 to 54 fighter squadrons (31 active and 23 reserve squadrons). It will remove from its fleet 102 A-10 close air support aircraft, 21 F-16 Block 30 fighter aircraft, 27 C-5A Galaxy strategic airlift aircraft, 65 C-130H Hercules tactical airlifters, 38 C-27J smaller airlifters and 31 RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft. The USAF is also planning to cut its personnel by 9,900 by the end of FY13, a near 2% reduction on its present strength of 510,900. But the Budget Control Act also noted that if legislators do not agree on $1.2 trillion of other public spending cuts, the sequestration process will be triggered during 2013, with DoD spending then falling by an additional $500bn over ten years. The absence of signs of political compromise suggests that sequestration remains a possibility.
The USAF’s reaction to the budgetary constraints has been determined by a desire to avoid ‘hollowing out’ the force, so that cuts are not simply implemented across the board without reference to future planning. The budget request and its 2012 posture statement constitute a bid to sustain only fleet numbers it believes it can afford to support adequately, while also pursuing core next-generation programmes. In determining its new structure, the USAF is seeking to address financial constraints while accommodating the Pentagon’s revised strategic guidance, which puts an increased emphasis on Asia-Pacific security and less on that of Europe. Its plan trades quantity for quality: a smaller force maintained at a high state of readiness rather than a numerically larger but less combat-ready structure. Investment in modernisation is to be kept up.
While the ‘pivot to Asia’ will take time, it is likely to imply a bias towards aerial and naval capabilities after a decade in which land campaigns have predominated. A central tenet of future doctrine is the ability to counter the so-called ‘anti-access/area denial’ (A2/AD) capacity that the DoD considers countries such as China and Iran to be pursuing. Meanwhile, long-running operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan are to be avoided: the strategic guidance emphasises that ‘US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations’.
Behind the proposed budget cuts is the expectation that there will be less need to supply and support ground operations following the planned pull-out from Afghanistan in 2014 (hence the reductions in transport aircraft and the A-10). However, the USAF also has to cope with the rising age of many of its combat aircraft and delays to the F-35A (the air force wants to acquire 1,763 F-35As).
The F-35A is the intended successor to the F-16, which makes up half of the USAF’s fighter fleet and has an average age of 19 years. According to Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley, the service has an ‘extreme requirement for modernisation’, not least in its tactical fighter fleets, which also include the Raptor and the F-15. Managing these types and planning the remainder of their service lives is complicated by the problems experienced by the F-35. The aircraft is already delayed by seven years: when the system-development and demonstration phase of the programme got under way in 2001 it was envisaged that the A-model would reach initial operational capability in 2011, but the current expectation is that this will be 2018. This is the result of technical and other issues that have caused the delivery schedule to be repeatedly revised. The structure of the programme, with development, testing and production running concurrently, has been a significant contributory factor to delay and cost escalation.
In trying to manage the impact of concurrency and to make cost savings, the budget proposal slows the planned ramping up of production. The air force reduced its FY2013 order from 24 to 19 F-35A aircraft, while in total it has deferred the acquisition of 98 A-model aircraft from the previous total of 264 out to FY2017.
The air force has taken steps to mitigate the F-35 shortfall, and at least 300 F-16s will undergo a service-life extension and upgrade, including the introduction of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, the aim being to sustain Block 40 and Block 52 aircraft beyond 2025. It has also had to manage the smaller-than-expected purchase of the first fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor. It had originally planned to buy 750 F-22s in order to replace the F-15 in the air-superiority role, but over the course of the programme this was scaled down to 187, as a result of the changed strategic environment after the end of the Cold War. As a result, the USAF plans to upgrade a total of 175 F-15Cs – which are on average already 25 years old – with AESA radar and a better mission computer so that they can stay in service until 2030–35. The F-15E strike variant will also be retained until 2035 or later. The delays mean that the USAF will have to operate more of its legacy fleet of fourth-generation fighters for longer than it planned. These aircraft were not designed to have low-observable characteristics, but the most demanding future combat environment – that of dealing with A2/AD – will require stealth as a prerequisite. ‘Legacy fourth-generation aircraft simply cannot survive to operate and achieve the effects necessary to win in an integrated, anti-access and area denial environment,’ the air force said. Fifth-generation low-observable platforms, such as the B-2 bomber, the F-22 Raptor and the F-35, as well as a proposed new bomber, the Long-Range Strike-B (LRS-B), would be used for any initial A2/AD operation – though less stealthy aircraft could be used later, once the principal threats had been countered.
The problem of ageing is not confined to fighter aircraft. The average age of the B-52 bomber is approaching 50 years, and the B-1B bomber 24 years. A plan to procure the LRS-B was retained in the January budget plan. The air force wants to buy 80–100 of these, with the aircraft entering service from the mid-2020s. Manned and unmanned versions are envisioned, and the DoD is planning to use proven technology and existing systems in an effort to manage risk and cost.
Manned trumps unmanned
One notable element of the budget proposal was the decision to axe an unmanned aircraft variant and to retain in its place a version of the venerable U-2 manned reconnaissance aircraft (the first flight of the original design took place in 1955). The USAF had planned to buy 31 of the Block 30 variant of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, of which 18 had already been delivered (and will now be mothballed), but instead chose to retain 33 U-2S aircraft.
This followed a series of purchases of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which have taken an ever-greater role in operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The decision was taken primarily on the grounds of cost, and because the sensor suite on the RQ-4 Block 30 was less capable than that of the U-2S. Given that the air force already considered the U-2S to be expensive, the decision suggested that unmanned systems could not always be viewed as a low-cost option – though the USAF continues to pursue a broad range of UAV projects.
Given the age of the U-2, the decision left open the possibility that the DoD might be considering a new surveillance platform that, unlike the U-2, could be relied upon to penetrate and operate in contested air space against advanced Russian- and Chinese-made surface-to-air missiles. Investment in the RQ-170 low-observable UAV, of which no details have been published, could also have influenced the decision on the Block 30 Global Hawks.
Hard decisions and worse to follow
Air Force Secretary Donley explained that the USAF budget request was the culmination of ‘many hard decisions’ which sought to strike a balance between force structure, readiness and modernisation. The intent was to protect the air force’s ‘top priorities’.
However, a problem for the USAF is that its own assessment of top priorities does not always chime with the views of lawmakers. For example, the USAF is proposing larger cuts in the numbers of the air force reserve and the air national guard (ANG) than those in front-line capabilities. This would affect many political constituencies. Thus, the air force’s strategic vision is at risk – as has occurred before – from the narrower interests of domestic politics. Senators and congressmen may intercede to try to sustain numbers, units or bases under threat. Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Senator Carl Levin said: ‘A very troubling aspect of the budget proposal is that within these force structure changes the cuts in manpower and aircraft are falling disproportionately on the Air National Guard … The air force is proposing a cut of almost one third in the A-10 force, with that cut weighted heavily toward the ANG. I have serious doubts and many questions about the wisdom of doing that and the disproportionate impact of these cuts on the ANG.’
The air force is concerned that any such political interventions would jeopardise the coherence of its future plans. General Norton A. Schwartz, the USAF chief of staff, has cautioned that the service would be forced to reverse proposed cuts, for example with regard to aircraft, but without receiving any additional funding: ‘the fastest way to go hollow is to get force structure back without the resources.’
Beyond these familiar concerns, sequestration is the wrecking ball that threatens the USAF’s restructuring plan. It would result in a ‘10% reduction in each of the accounts in the air force’, according to Donley. If personnel numbers were to be excluded from the process, the funding reductions elsewhere would increase to 13%. ‘This would affect all of our major [acquisition] programmes’, Donley told the Senate Armed Services Committee. Schwartz has argued in turn that sequestration would ‘dramatically change the complexion of our thoroughly deliberated defence strategy’, and that it would mean going ‘back to the drawing board because of indiscriminate salami slicing of the budget’.