The United States Air Force in 2014
September 16, 2014
Top U.S. Air Force (USAF) leaders convene this week in the Washington, DC area for the Air Force Association Air and Space Conference. The annual conference gathers active duty and retired uniformed and civilian USAF officials, defense analysts, defense companies, the media, and foreign allies and partners. USAF leaders face tough questions with the threefold pressures of a shrinking budget, growing global operational requirements in a highly complex environment, and increasing threats to future U.S. air dominance.
Q1. What is the Air Force in 2014?
A1. The Air Force is far more than fighters and bombers, and it arguably has the most complex, varied, and numerous missions of any military service today. In its recently released 30-year strategy, the USAF identified its five key mission areas as: “air and space superiority; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; rapid global mobility; global strike; and command and control.” As part of the global strike mission, the Air Force is responsible for two legs of the nuclear triad—fighter and bomber gravity and cruise missile-delivered warheads, and silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Over the past several decades, the United States military has increasingly shifted to a globally connected and networked approach to warfare. The USAF is at the center of this approach to war, providing the enabling back-end architecture, from space-based communications, to remotely-piloted aircraft providing full-motion video, to the remarkable advances in treating wounded soldiers that move them rapidly from the battlefield to distant hospitals.
The USAF now faces serious tradeoffs between what they view as the heart and soul of their service – a high-end combat scenario dependent upon air supremacy – and the backbone enablers that underpin the joint force. Top USAF officials have made clear over the past year that, in light of budget pressures, they plan to reduce current capacity across this diverse range of missions and joint enabling capabilities in order to prepare for future contingencies and reprioritize major combat operations.
With an expanding use of U.S. airpower in operations from the Sahel to the Pakistan border—particularly in the Middle East—the question remains of how deep Air Force cuts to current capacity can and should go. Planned reductions in assets such as armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS) begin in FY15 with a reduction from 65 to 55 combat air patrols (CAPs). During this timeframe Congress has fought other budget-saving planned retirements such as the A-10 and U-2. Should sequester-level budget caps return in FY16, these capacity cuts would go deeper. The USAF would cut UAS to 45 CAPs, divest the KC-10 tanker and Global Hawk Block 40 fleets, and further reduce investment in enabling capabilities, including radars, sensors, and communications.
Q2. How can the Air Force prepare for the next war while winning today’s wars?
A2. In the words of the 2014 National Defense Panel, the USAF today “fields the smallest and oldest force of combat aircraft in its history.” Over the next decade, it has a daunting set of acquisition objectives to restore that force, including the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), the KC-46 tanker, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. USAF leaders have identified these programs as their highest priorities for the future of the force. To its credit, the USAF has been the most aggressive among the military departments in confronting the realities of the future funding environment, seeking to control its post-2019 “bow wave” and readiness challenges through clear prioritization. But this prioritization has clearly favored the air dominance capabilities that define the service’s image of the future force.
These three programs present significant challenges. The execution and affordability problems already demonstrated call into question the costs of the projects in development now. These cost problems have driven down investment in the other technologies and capability areas.
Over the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), these three programs comprise over a quarter of the USAF’s proposed investment budget (procurement and RDT&E). When considering just the spending available for major programs (MDAPs), these “big three” comprise over half of the service’s budget. The remaining half (about $16 billion per year) must accommodate every other major USAF development and procurement project, including space recapitalization efforts like GPS and MILSATCOM, upgrades of in-service platforms like the B-2 and the C-130 family of platforms, UAS like the Reaper and Global Hawk, and current- and next-generation munitions including the JDAM, small diameter bomb, and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, among others across the air, space, and nuclear domains.
Of course, the overall defense budget these programs are built into is also in jeopardy. The president’s FY2015 budget that produced the FYDP is $115 billion above the budget caps, with $36 billion of that additional funding attributed to the USAF (the most of any service). It also includes $34 billion in baked-in DoD-wide compensation reform savings that Congress is unlikely to approve, requiring savings to be found elsewhere. On top of these challenges within the existing programs, the USAF faces serious challenges in developing future capabilities, including dealing with the push for disaggregation of space systems in future programs, next-generation UAS technology, operating in contested environments (such as the Asia-Pacific or even in exercising NATO Article 5 commitments against an aggressive Russia), space, cyber and communications vulnerability and others.
Q3. Is the Air Force serious about the nuclear mission?
A3: In 2014 the Air Force was again rocked by evidence that its conduct of the nuclear mission has deteriorated. This time it was a cheating scandal by nuclear missileers at Malmstrom Air Force Base. Multiple investigations into the sharing of test questions and answers via text message led to nine field and company grade officers relieved of duty, and 34 junior officers reprimanded or court-martialed. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James found “systemic issues in our missile community.” The cheating scandal was in fact discovered during a separate investigation into use of illegal drugs in the Air Force, including within the missile wing.
The scandal was especially concerning because it followed mishaps late in the George W. Bush administration that led to the establishment of Air Force Global Strike Command, which was meant to restore the Air Force’s focus on the nuclear mission. In 2008, then-secretary of defense Robert Gates fired Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley after investigation into a 2007 incident in which a B-52H bomber unknowingly flew six W80-1 nuclear warheads over the continental United States from Minot AFB to Barksdale AFB without crew awareness or proper security measures. That incident was followed in 2008 by the disclosure of a 2006 incident in which an Air Force agency shipped intercontinental ballistic missile fuses to Taiwan.
Secretary James and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh have shown a decidedly different tone than their predecessors in tackling head-on the discipline issues at Malmstrom, with a strong public commitment to renewing focus on the nuclear mission within the Air Force. Secretary James has said that, “Nuclear is number one” and is working on plans to shift personnel and resources to the mission. On September 15, 2014 she also announced more than $500 million targeted for the nuclear mission over coming years, including infrastructure upgrades, incentive pay for officers, and scholarships for recruitment. Her continued leadership will be key to ensuring that priority does not slip in practice, and particularly in fierce and growing competition across the Air Force budget. The margin for error is zero, and any further missteps by the USAF in the nuclear mission would constitute a national-level crisis.
Q4. How can the Air Force continue to lead U.S. military innovation?
A4. The USAF has a rich tradition of being a leader on the technological edge. This leadership is increasingly being challenged. First, by the reduction of RDT&E spending within DoD and the USAF in particular. Second is the rise of China’s defense industry and the transition of defense-relevant knowledge to the global commercial sector.
The entire national security enterprise has seen a re-focusing on innovation over the last year, but the Air Force has largely been a spectator and not a leading center of that dialogue. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review used innovation as a thematic construct for how DoD will operate in a constrained budget environment. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Frank Kendall is rolling out a new edition of his acquisition initiative, Better Buying Power 3.0, centered around innovation, and new Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work is developing a new “technology offset strategy” that envisions a roadmap for maintaining asymmetric technological superiority.
In 2014, DoD applied the lowest percentage of its budget to investment since 1949 – 28 percent. Within that share, the USAF has seen a 22 percent drop in its research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) budget from its peak in 2010. The president’s budget envisions this climbing back up across the FYDP as the USAF begins to reclaim a higher percent of the total DoD RDT&E spending, which had eroded from a high of 47 percent in 1983 to just 30 percent in 2005. This will be important to monitor in upcoming budgets, as investment decisions, particularly in research are traded off under sequester caps. Overall investment budgets are planned to remain static over the next five years (in inflation-adjusted terms). But, just as the Army and Marine budget shares rose during the counterinsurgency operations over the last dozen years, a technology-centric strategy will have to better enable the USAF to meet its technology needs for both high end requirements and joint enablers. The lowest 11 years of budget share for the USAF all occurred since 2001, and will be important for the USAF to make the case for prioritizing some of the key technology investments that they must make. Under Secretary of Defense Kendall has decried the cuts that R&D has taken under the budget caps, noting that time is not something you can get back; it is opportunity foregone.
This is particularly of concern when looking at Chinese military modernization and uncertain future intentions in the Asia-Pacific region. Chinese defense spending has grown at nearly 10 percent per year for the last ten years, reaching somewhere between $120 billion and $145 billion in 2013. The combination of investment in domestic R&D, foreign purchases, tech transfer, reverse engineering, and cyber exfiltration of defense sensitive information from the United States, coupled with transformation of the indigenous defense industry starting in the early 2000s, has led to rapidly transforming Chinese military capabilities. This is particularly concerning for the USAF, as the Pentagon stated in its annual review of Chinese capability, “[t]he PLAAF [People’s Liberation Army Air Force] is pursuing modernization on a scale unprecedented in its history and is rapidly closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities including aircraft, command and control (C2), jammers, electronic warfare (EW), and data links.” In addition, China has two fifth-generation fighters in development expected to reach operational capability this decade.
Whether in space technology, materials, manufacturing, IT or any of myriad technology areas, the global commercial market also is increasingly the leading edge of technology development. Commercial purchase will be an increasingly important avenue to acquire defense-relevant technology. Therefore, for the USAF and the rest of DoD, leveraging the efficiency and technology innovation in the non-defense private sector will be critical for delivering urgent needs and cheaper solutions, as well as improving time-to-market of defense products and leveraging cutting edge technology for both products and process. Doing so will require a paradigm shift for DoD and the USAF and an aggressive acquisition reform agenda.
Sam Brannen is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ryan Crotty is a fellow and deputy director for defense budget analysis with the International Security Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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