The Air Force is in good shape. Its leaders are convinced that it is more capable—better manned, trained, and equipped—than at any time in its history, bar none.
They are not complacent, however. On the contrary, they are deeply concerned that the Air Force is in immediate danger of losing its hard-won momentum and of backsliding into the troubles of its not-so-distant past.
At the beginning of this decade, the Air Force was ailing. Its bombers and ICBMs were outdated, too many of its fighters were holdovers or hangar queens, its airlifter and tanker fleets were woefully short of capacity and versatility, its training suffered from severe constraints on flying time, and it had to struggle to recruit and retain good people.
The Air Force has come a long way toward complete recovery on all those counts and more in the years since then. This was made possible by ample funding in national defense budgets.
The funding was not the whole story, however. Just as important was the methodical way in which the Air Force went about putting it to use.
It did so by establishing priorities, by defining and delineating the issues that it needed to resolve in order to meet those priorities, and by allocating its money in support of its resulting game plan.
Now this system, which worked well when there was enough money to go around, could come unstuck.
Air Force funding, as part of the beleaguered defense budget, is faltering. At the same time, Air Force priorities and issues are becoming more complex, more numerous, and—in the name of a well-rounded warfighting force made up of a host of indispensable elements and capable of addressing any threat, almost anywhere, to US national security—increasingly inseparable, one from the others.
Given all this, the Air Force can be expected to have rougher going in coping with all its issues and, thus, in promulgating and protecting all its priorities.
The stakes are high, maybe life-or-death. Unless the Air Force succeeds, it will have a hard time in just staying even with its gains of recent years and may well have to relinquish all too many of them.
This could be disastrous, for even as USAF has grown stronger, its task has become tougher. Its missions are more numerous and more exacting. The threats that it faces are more manifold and more menacing.
Meeting its priorities is a tall order for USAF, even with bountiful funding.
Five Top Priorities
The priorities fall into five main categories—modernizing strategic offensive and defensive forces, improving the readiness and sustainability of general-purpose forces, increasing airlift capability, modernizing and expanding tactical forces, and assuring access to space (see box, p. 49).
These enfold a multitude of programs, all of which pivot on a host of issues that USAF is currently addressing.
The issues themselves are grouped under the three broad headings of national security, resources and their management, and forces and capabilities.
The national security issues cover what the Air Force believes it needs to do "to preserve the peace, freedom, and territorial integrity of the nation and to safeguard the fundamental values of our democratic system."
They also cover the threats by potential adversaries, most notably the Soviet Union.
Resources issues have mainly to do with USAF's people and with managing acquisition programs, improving the reliability and maintainability of systems, and building and maintaining bases.
Forces-and-capabilities issues range the widest. They embrace strategic forces, theater forces, projection of forces (including those now earmarked for low-intensity conflicts and for special operations), and space.
Space cuts across nearly all categories of Air Force issues and priorities. The reason is that today's satellites of highly varied purpose are increasingly expensive force multipliers. Thus, they are pertinent to how USAF manages its resources and its forces, and they must be defended against possible attack.
In this connection, word has circulated outside the Air Force that USAF is ready to give up on its antisatellite program involving ASAT missiles launched from F-15 fighters.
In its presentation of priorities and issues, the Air Force indicates no such thing. It highlights, under space defense systems, its need for the ASAT weapons, for renewed permission to test them to their utmost, and for the public to understand that the Soviets have such weapons of their own and can readily deploy them.
People—The Essential Element
In the Air Force's schematic, people issues pervade all others even more extensively than do space issues. USAF regards its people as the foundation of its warfighting capability. It underlines its need for high-quality people to make its high-tech weapons work and describes them as "essential to all Air Force mission areas."
Pilot retention is a premier concern in this regard. There are many others as well, dealing with such topics as military pay comparability, the role of women in the military, medical and dental care, the tax-exempt status of military allowances, reimbursement for permanent changes of station, civilian-employment and civilian-compensation management, military retirement, the reenlistment bonus program, and, at the root of it all, "manpower and the federal budget dilemma."
Outside and inside the Air Force, there are skeptics who claim that USAF gives only lip service to its people issues. When push comes to shove in the looming battles over the defense budget, the Air Force will be more willing to take hits on its people programs than on its hardware programs, such critics contend.
They also claim that, no matter what the Air Force says, some of its hardware programs are obviously more precious to it than others.
This is arguable, but the Air Force, for the record, concedes nothing. Its leaders insist that its accent on people as its main concern, as the foundation on which all its priorities stand, can indeed be taken at face value.
They also claim that it is impossible for them to designate one hardware program—for example, the Peacekeeper ICBM—as an untouchable, while specifying another one—for example, the C-17 airlifter—as something less.
Their reason for grouping priority programs as equals, they say, is that each must be viewed as inextricably linked with all others—something like molecules in a chain—in accordance with USAF's main goal of "balanced forces and capabilities that deter aggression across the spectrum of conflict."
For example, Peacekeeper's purpose in the first instance is to deter war and, in the second instance, to prevent a conventional war from escalating into a nuclear war. If conventional war breaks out in Europe, however, the C-17's ability to bring reinforcements from Stateside and to land them close to the front or to move them around from battle area to battle area would be vital to NATO's warfighting prowess.
The C-17 would also be a prime means of transporting US troops and gear into arenas of low-intensity conflict. It may even serve someday, provided it goes into production, as a handy aircraft for special operations forces to have around.
The whole thing goes together. USAF's need to be capable of deterring or waging nuclear war, high-intensity conventional war, and low-intensity conflicts and to perform special operations make Peacekeeper and the C-17 equal partners among priorities, at least in theory.
USAF does make a distinction, however, between strategic modernization and its other three top priorities, including the improvement of airlift.
Strategic modernization, which embraces command control communications and intelligence (CI), the B-lB bomber, the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB), Peacekeeper, the Small ICBM (SICBM, or Midgetman), cruise missiles, the Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM II), and strategic defense, is acknowledged by the Air Force to be first among equals.
The Air Force has its heart in this ranking. It notes, however, that strategic modernization was originally ranked foremost among national defense priorities by President Reagan, who later gave it additional leverage by infusing it with his SDI program.
Quite aside from USAF's legitimate purpose in presenting all its priorities as peers, there is an obvious tactical reason for its so doing.
If the Air Force concedes that some of its priorities and the programs organic to them are less important than others, it would thereby strengthen the hands of defense budget-cutters in going after those lesser programs, which would resemble crippled aircraft falling out of formation and becoming easy prey.
Shoring Up the Fighter Forces
High among USAF's premier goals are building up fighter forces and producing for them the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) system.
USAF has an immutable requirement for a beyond-visual-range, autonomously radar-guided, air-to-air missile that will enable its fighters to engage multiple targets while simultaneously dashing out of harm's way.
In terms of keeping it alive and well, the AMRAAM program is a prime Air Force issue. Were it to fail for lack of congressional support, however, the requirement would remain. Given the threat, the Air Force would still need, as a high programmatic priority, a missile with the very same, or even better, characteristics.
The same goes for the LANTIRN program in connection with USAF's overarching requirement for a high-priority system that will make its fighters capable of attacking ground targets at night and under the weather.
The Air Force puts a premium on modernizing and expanding its theater forces. There are many good reasons for this, a prime one being the Soviet Union's average production rate of 1,000 new fighters each year since 1980 and its latter-day progression to fighters that come perilously close to matching USAF's best.
USAF's theater forces are a composite of many capabilities: fighters and reconnaissance aircraft, electronic combat forces, special operations forces, intertheater and intratheater airlift, specialized command and control aircraft, and even strategic bombers operating in the conventional-combat mode.
Essential to all of these are adequate amounts of increasingly capable munitions.
Withal, fighters are still the key to the capability of theater forces. Adhering to its Tactical Fighter Road-map, the Air Force is fervently promoting a procurement strategy that would enable it to attain growth from the current force of approximately thirty-seven combat-coded tactical fighter wings to a force of forty such wings by 1991.
This means that the Air Force must procure 260 to 280 new fighters each year until then, meanwhile retiring older fighters at a pace and in proportions that would keep the average age of all fighters in the active force at approximately ten years.
Among new fighters, the F-15E dual-role fighter gets top billing, along with its need for LANTIRN to enable it to meet deep-interdiction requirements and to find and attack fixed and mobile targets at night and in adverse weather.
F-15E procurement is under way and is aimed at a total buy of 392 of the aircraft, with initial operational capability planned for 1989.
Yet another plum among USAF priorities is the Advanced Tactical Fighter, "an air-superiority fighter capable of performing operations in enemy airspace and of countering current and projected Soviet fighters.
As an example of how it has taken to integrating its aircraft priorities as well as the aircraft themselves, USAF groups its Joint Advanced Fighter Engine (JAFE) development program and its Critical Subsystems Development program, which includes avionics projects, in the ATF tent.
It also makes a point of Air Force! Navy cooperation in developing the ATF and the Navy's Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) so as to avoid duplication and capitalize on opportunities for commonality of technologies, components, and subsystems.
USAF emphasizes, however, that the ATF and the ATA must be viewed as fundamentally different aircraft, each capable of performing missions that are unique to each service.
Master Plan for Electronic Combat
USAF's ability to perform all tactical missions depends heavily these days on its proficiency at electronic combat (EC), which includes electronic warfare, C3 countermeasures, and suppression of enemy air defenses.
In this regard, the Air Force is putting the finishing touches on its EC Master Plan and Roadmap, which will give its EC planners the same sort of long-range guidance that the Tactical Fighter Roadmap gives its fighter-force planners.
Such long-range plans, including the Airlift Master Plan, for example, have come to serve as the basic instruments for USAF in laying out and linking up its priorities across the board.
The EC Master Plan and Road-map is an urgently needed document. Nearly all aspects of modern warfare involve electronics. The interdependence among electronic systems is growing and will continue to grow as weapon systems—the ATF, for example—are more thoroughly integrated and automated.
This is why USAF also regards its Integrated Electronic Warfare System (INEWS), now being developed for the ATF, as a high-priority program.
USAF's technological advantage in electronic combat has been slipping. The Soviets have been coming on with a rush in their development and deployment of sophisticated electronic systems. Of special concern to USAF is the progress that the Soviets have made in their integrated air-defense system.
If the Soviets ever gain supremacy in electronic combat, USAF will be in deep tactical trouble, the aerodynamic attributes and other characteristics of its fighters notwithstanding.
In the context of helping those fighters, USAF also sets great store by its programs for tactical reconnaissance and engagement and for tactical C3I.
The Joint Surveillance Target and Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) is a big one here. It is an Air Force/Army program to field a common airborne radar system for spotting and tracking enemy rear-echelon ground forces and for directing air-launched and ground-launched weapons against them.
The Air Force and the Army agreed that Joint STARS should be mounted aboard a C-18 aircraft. There is pressure in some circles to give the C-18 a slip and go beyond it in developing a follow-on aircraft for Joint STARS, meanwhile delaying its deployment.
This is a major issue for USAF, which is fighting for deployment of Joint STARS on C-18s as quickly as possible. It is convinced that delaying the program until a follow-on aircraft is developed would jeopardize its capability to perform an extremely urgent and immediate war‑time mission. In this, it has the Army and the Office of the Secretary of Defense squarely on its side.
Ensuring a Complementary Mix
As important as Joint STARS clearly is, the Air Force believes that it needs a complementary mix of tactical reconnaissance systems. One sensor, platform, or method of employment, such as standoff, orbital, or penetrating, cannot fulfill all tac recon requirements.
Consequently, USAF is also pushing hard in behalf of its Tactical Air Reconnaissance System (TARS), composed of an electro-optical sensor suite for RF-4C aircraft and a reconnaissance pod for another fighter yet to be designated. The program also calls for ground stations with worldwide capability for receiving, processing, and exploiting the reconnaissance data.
TARS is scheduled to go into full-scale development next year. It is seen as one element of the proposed Advanced Tactical Air Reconnaissance System (ATARS) now being devised.
The other element of ATARS involves a touchy subject—Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs). Called the Unmanned Air Reconnaissance System (UARS), that element would involve RPVs collecting data under conditions that are not conducive to the survival or the cost-effectiveness of manned aircraft.
USAF has been accused of ignoring the potential of RPVs in its alleged preoccupation with manned platforms. It claims, however, that it is indeed interested in using RPVs on a number of missions, including reconnaissance.
USAF's consideration of the UARS program among its major issues tends to give credence to its claim. Its role in that program is to design its TARS sensors and associated equipment to be compatible with the RPVs that the Navy, USAF's partner in the UARS program, alone will develop and build, beginning later this year.
Among many other theater-warfare issues, the need for chemical-warfare retaliatory capability to deter a Soviet chemical attack ranks high with USAF. So do the needs to sustain the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) deployment in Europe and to fend off any further congressionally imposed lowering of the ceiling on US troop strength there.
Air-to-surface weapons get big play among Air Force theater-warfare priorities.
For use in Europe, USAF needs standoff weapons, direct-attack weapons, and weapons capable of multiple kills per pass to attack the airfields, armor, and air defense systems that are the keys to the potency of Warsaw Pact forces.
For the Pacific, the needs are different—improved, nonnuclear bombs and missiles capable of destroying the large numbers of hardened targets in that theater.
Overall, USAF's goal is the deployment of adequate quantities and varieties of air-to-ground weapons to meet all mission demands, from the toughest to the slightest, in all theaters.
When it comes to the capabilities of the total force, there are no issues and no priorities more important to the Air Force than those in the strategic arena.
Congressional limitations on Peacekeeper missile deployment—down to fifty missiles from the 100 that USAF and the Administration had planned—and uncertainties surrounding the SICBM program imply an erosion of USAF's land-based missile leg of the US strategic triad.
Consequently, the Air Force comes down hard with its long standing argument that unless that land-based leg is kept alive and kicking through modernization via Peacekeeper and SICBM, US strategic forces—reduced to a dyad of missile-launching submarines and bombers with and without cruise missiles—will not be up to their missions of deterrence and, if necessary, of retaliation.
USAF makes the case, moreover, that the Soviets, in steadily deploying successive generations of land-based ICBMs, clearly show that they think the same way as USAF.
The Air Force also notes that the powerful, ten-warhead Peacekeeper and the presumably mobile, single-warhead SICBM would serve as instruments in behalf of arms control as evidence of US strategic power and national resolve that would influence Moscow to make a deal.
Issues surrounding the Peacekeeper and SICBM programs have to do with the numbers of both in the offing, their capability and survivability, and, in the case of SICBM, its weight limit, which USAF believes should be 37,000 pounds instead of the congressionally mandated 33,000 pounds.
The bottom line for USAF where both are concerned is this: "We will continue to seek greater deterrence stability through deployment of Peacekeeper, development of the Small ICBM, and vigorous pursuit of mutually verifiable arms-reduction agreements."
The Air Force appears to address its two-bomber program less defensively than it does its ICBM programs.
Both the B-lB and the ATB are major parts of its top-priority strategic modernization program, and both are coming along just fine. Under cost and on schedule, the B-lB is entering the inventory. The ATB seems solidly on track in the latter stages of its development, heading for first delivery in the early 1990s.
Year by year, USAF seems increasingly willing to express confidence that the ATB will indeed live up to its promise as a penetrator of Soviet defenses well into the next century.
By the same token, USAF reemphasizes ever more firmly that it has no plans whatever to expand its B-lB buy beyond the 100 originally scheduled aircraft.
Bombers are making quite a comeback from the time, not all that long ago, when they were being dismissed by some defense planners as out of style in the age of unmanned strategic weapons.
As USAF notes: "Because of the increased Soviet emphasis on mobile ICBM delivery systems and command centers, the manned bomber's real-time potential for locating and destroying relocatable systems is vital to the maintenance of a viable triad."
As always, moreover, the Air Force makes a big point of the bomber's ability to carry a large number and variety of weapons, to attack widely separated targets, and to change course to alternate targets or to come back home, unlike ICBMs, if war does not materialize as threatened.
The Air Force is not overlooking the B-52, either. Among its major programs are those to enhance the B-52's potential for meeting projected worldwide threats by employing standoff weapons against targets on land or at sea.
"Once again," says USAF, "the B-52's inherent characteristics of rapid response, long range, and extended loiter time, coupled with other unique mission capabilities, make it an ideal platform to support maritime operations."
In the strategic arena, the Air Force makes it clear that its need for air defense interceptor aircraft of modern vintage is now an urgent one, given Soviet advances in long-range, bomber-carried cruise missiles. Hand in hand with this requirement is the need to improve USAF's atmospheric threat-warning systems.
To meet this need, USAF has embarked on its Air Defense Initiative (ADI) program, which it sees as complementary to the Strategic Defense Initiative program for defense against ballistic missiles.
Ensuring Adequate C3I
Without adequate strategic C3I, the entire strategic deterrence force would mean little or nothing. The credibility of that force, the Air Force notes, depends on systems that provide positive control and communications for the effective employment of the triad.
"In the past," says USAF, "we have not modernized our C3 systems fast enough to counter the threat. The President's Strategic Modernization Program, however, makes upgrading C3 systems one of our highest priorities."
Here again, some critics charge that the Air Force puts more rhetoric than resources into modernizing strategic C3. They warn that this alleged tendency will show up even more starkly, and be even more dangerous, in the coming defense budget crunch.
The Air Force insists that it does not and will not slight strategic C3 and that its accusers ignore its need to keep strategic C3 funding in balance with funding for other strategic elements.
Increased Emphasis on Special Operations Forces
As part of its force-projection priorities, "Special Operations Forces are receiving increased emphasis," the Air Force says, adding:
"Our programs to purchase more MC-130H Combat Talon us and AC-130 gunships, along with the conversion of additional CH/ HH-53s to Pave Low III (MH-53) configuration, are giant steps toward the Air Force goal to provide effective airlift and selective firepower support for Army Special Forces, Army Rangers, and Naval Special Warfare Units."
USAF regards the fixed-wing, tilt-rotor CV-22A aircraft as its chief long-range contribution to improving the effectiveness of the SOF, one that "will greatly enhance and expand Air Force SOF ability to respond to a crisis."
The SOFs are regarded as important for engaging in Low-Intensity Conflict (LIC). This does not mean, however, that special operations and low-intensity conflicts are synonymous. As USAF notes, LIC can involve forces much different from SOF and may even exclude SOF.
USAF defines Low-Intensity Conflict as "generally confined to a geographic area and. . . often characterized by constraints on weaponry and tactics."
The growing importance that the Air Force and the Army give to their capabilities for waging such combat is exemplified by their recent establishment of a joint center at Langley AFB, Va., for upgrading such capabilities.
That center merits much attention in USAF's depiction of its major issues, as do a number of other interservice programs that illustrate the increasing accent on jointness in the US military operations.
Undergirding all USAF issues and priorities are those having to do with Air Force resources and their management and with the reliability and maintainability of systems.
Nowadays, USAF gives its R&M
priorities, programs, and issues at least their fair share of attention. As the cornerstone of its R&M 2000 Action Plan, it is demanding—no ifs, ands, or buts—improved R&M for its weapons in the field, in development, and on the drawing boards. Its contractors are rewarded if they heed this and are penalized if they do not.
R&M initiatives, now the ultimate responsibility of the Air Force Special Assistant for R&M at the Pentagon, "are taking hold," the Air Force declares.
They had better continue to do so. The readiness and sustainability of Air Force systems depend on it, and so does USAF's future ability to keep its costs in bounds as its main means of managing its tightening budgets.
Well-run acquisition programs are also crucial to USAF's good management of resources. So it is no surprise that USAF continues to accentuate its acquisition strategies.
There is a bit of constructive irony in this. As USAF notes, public awareness of shortcomings in the acquisition system was heightened while defense spending was on the rise. The reforms that USAF instituted to correct such shortcomings will serve it well in their contribution to more efficient management, especially if defense spending, as expected, goes into decline.
Noting that "our acquisition process is pressed by heavy demands," the Air Force nevertheless claims "significant progress with management reforms instituted since 1981."
"The professionalism of the acquisition management community is an issue of major importance to the Air Force, to Congress, and to the American public," the Air Force declares.
As part of the Defense Acquisition Improvement Program, USAF has instituted improvements to control costs, improve R&M, and enhance competition at the prime-contract and subcontract levels.
The payoffs from such endeavors may well spell the difference as the Air Force, in the years immediately ahead, battles to keep its priorities straight and to implement them coherently with programs caught in severe budgetary binds.
• Modernizing strategic forces.
• Improving readiness and sustainability.
• Increasing airlift capabilities.
• Modernizing and expanding tactical forces.
• Assuring access to space.
In these categories, the programs considered to be the most vital to improving USAF's combat capability are:
PeacekeeperSICBMAdvanced Technology BomberB-lBC3Advanced basing technologies
Readiness and Sustainability
SparesTrainingFlying hoursExercisesQuantities of munitions
C-17Special Operations Forces
F-15EAMIRAAMLANTIRNModern munitionsAdvanced Tactical FighterC3IElectronic warfare systems
Manned/unmanned launchersRedundant capabilityNational Aerospace Plane
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news about the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag