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  • Why The USAF Is In Trouble
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 11:45 AM on Aug 08, 2011

    Upcoming cuts to Pentagon budgets represent a serious threat to future equipment programs, everyone agrees. However, what many people don't see -- or more likely prefer to ignore, if they're preparing to fight for their share from a suddenly barren table -- is that it's worse than earlier downturns, in two respects.

    First, when the last big cutbacks, the post-Cold War "peace dividend", took effect, most US forces were well equipped with new equipment. The reverse is true in most places today.

    Second, the Pentagon, industry, lobbyists and friendly politicians are going to have to come to grips with an unpleasant truth:  the White House and Congress are largely not to blame, aside from a failure to provide oversight and leadership. Procurement spending was abundant in the past decade. In all too many cases, it just has not delivered capability to the front lines.

    Take the USAF's fighter force as an example. USAF vice chief of staff, Gen. Philip Breedlove, echoed the familiarly downbeat theme in his Air-Sea Battle brief last month. "We are out of money, so we have to think," Breedlove commented wryly.

    The reason that budget cut proposals are causing so much alarm is rooted in the history of the last two decades. "The last fiscal drawdown came when we had already recapitalized the Air Force," Breedlove said. "This one is coming when we already have the oldest-ever force."

    Let's look at the history that Breedlove is talking about. There were two mitigating factors when the "peace dividend" cuts started.

    Not only was the USAF combat force young -- with ample F-15E and late-model F-16 forces and 100 new B-1s -- but force drawdowns retired the oldest systems first and further reduced average age. Second, a lot of R&D was funded in the 1990s (including F-22 and the first stages of JSF) on the grounds that production would restart after 2000. Both the Navy and the USAF had similar combat aircraft plans, with one fighter in full-scale development in the 1990s, to be followed by JSF.

    But while the Navy's Super Hornet has gone reasonably well, both the USAF's programs have failed to deliver what they promised on time. The JSF's struggles are well documented - less so, the delays in adding capability to the F-22. See the following slide, from a Lockheed Martin presentation in late 2004 (click on image to see clear version):

    blog post photo

    It's busy, but here are the basics - had all gone to plan, the USAF would be taking delivery today of F-22s with air-to-ground radar modes ready to go and full Small Diameter Bomb capability, plus the ability to use Link 16 to communicate with all other assets on the battlefield. The next step -- to be delivered in 2014 -- would be the Block 40 Global Strike Enhanced variant, with two-way satcoms and wide-aspect radar coverage, including side arrays.

    These plans have been downscaled and delayed.  Air-to-ground radar and SDB may be operational next year -- depending on how the record-duration grounding affects testing -- but anything like what the 2004 plans called Block 40 is well beyond 2016, and satcoms and side arrays are little more than a dream. 

    Neither is lack of money the problem. Post-IOC research and development and post-production procurement for the F-22, has averaged $800 million per year, through FY2012. It is set to increase to $1 billion a year in the next four years, according to budget documents.

    And then there is the JSF. Try a thought experiment. What would the picture be like if the F-35 had performed to schedule and cost?

    blog post photo
    2002 JSF schedule

    Today, the Air Force would be declaring IOC with a combat-capable Block 2, capable of interdiction, "enhanced air-to-air" (Block 1 was to introduce AMRAAM), close air support and destruction of enemy air defenses.

    Block 3 operational test and evaluation would be under way, to be completed in 2012. More than 180 F-35As would have been ordered for the Air Force and more than 90 of those would have been delivered. The next contract would be the first multiyear deal.

    Those F-35s would already be replacing older aircraft, so the Air Force would not be looking at expensive service-life extension programs and upgrades.

    Also, had the F-35 program stayed within its cost bounds, the F-22 would not have been cut to a silver-bullet force and would still be in production. And with fighter recap in hand, the Air Force would be in better shape to start building a new bomber -- a task that was, in 2006, considered do-able by 2018 if the money was available.

    The so-called "fifth-generation" fighters have certainly revolutionized US airpower, if not quite in the way anyone had in mind.

    Tags: ar99, usaf, defense cuts, tacair

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