Now that the US is disengaging from Afghanistan, the Air Force is not resetting but immediately reorienting to new requirements for engagement, presence, and deployments in other theaters. With new budget cuts looming, there is a legitimate concern that defense leaders need to take care not to create a "hollow force." In the 1970s and early 80s, the Air Force had many units that looked great on paper but in reality were woefully unprepared to actually perform their missions.
"I can’t do all of that," said Air Combat Command chief Gen. G. Michael Hostage III in a November speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Air Force, Hostage said, has already made significant reductions in personnel and force structure, leaving flying hours and readiness as the only pot left to pull money from. As the ACC boss, he fights "every which way we can to avoid hollowing the force" as the nation attempts to balance its books.
The situation and its implications for the future of USAF are of deep concern to the new Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III. Speaking at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference in September, Welsh voiced his worry that, without adequate support from Congress, USAF may not be able meet expectations in carrying out its existing and anticipated missions across all domains and scenarios.
"I’m concerned about readiness," Welsh said, noting that just a few weeks into his new job, the Air Staff was trying to determine the right level of readiness funding as it built the next program objective memorandum for the service’s desired future budgets.
"We have to pay attention to it," Welsh asserted, explaining that cutting flying hours and slashing support and training to pay for other accounts can only reduce budgets a limited amount. He also warned that the Air Force may not be "where we think we are" as far as being prepared to conduct its full range of missions.
The Air Force has become a master of the missions required in Iraq and Afghanistan, and combat experience is practically at an all-time high. The focus on this mission set, however—heavy in lift, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and close air support—has allowed other skills to atrophy. Training for missions such as counterair, electronic warfare, and combat search and rescue against a first-rate adversary, among other tasks, has not been where the leadership would like it to be.
The new defense strategy—along with pressing modernization requirements and fiscal uncertainty—presents a unique stress test for USAF’s core functions. Defense leaders readily admit a dependence on air and space operations. If USAF’s force structure shrinks, however, and those forces are less trained, maintained, and prepared, the ability to project power—and the threat of the use of that power on potential adversaries—changes.
Timing, according to Air Staff officials working the problem, is critical to everything the Air Force does and the foundation for the concept of gaining and maintaining air dominance—the key to a wide range of contingencies and operations plans.
"Whenever you talk about readiness, the first question you have to ask is ‘readiness for what?’ " said Col. James MacFarlane, director of operations integration and readiness on the Air Staff.
Air superiority, he said in an interview, requires a lot of forces and must be achieved quickly—a fundamental difference between the force generation models used by land and naval forces.
"I can’t afford to have a bunch of people behind me who aren’t ready because they’re months away," he said. "We can’t afford to get ready to get ready."
The Air Force’s success in supporting counterterror and counterinsurgency operations over the past decade has set up some faulty assumptions, according to Air Staff officers. They’re concerned by ideas circulating in private think tanks that presume USAF is now so combat-seasoned it can afford to relax on readiness and use the savings to pay other bills, for modernization, for example.
However, the combat experience has been built in missions not matching the environment the new national strategy forecasts. USAF swiftly achieved air superiority because Iraq and Afghanistan did not field capable air forces or effective air defenses. The next time the nation has to fight, these sort of benign operating conditions cannot be assumed.
The idea that USAF can live off its combat experience for a while is "a rational statement if all you are going to do" are operations such as Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, MacFarlane said. But the Air Force needs to be able to conduct "a range of military options," as dictated by the new strategy. It’s "laid out pretty clearly," he said.
Are You Ready?
President Obama’s defense strategic guidance, released in January 2012, laid the foundation for a great deal of the analysis leading to USAF’s initial Fiscal 2013 budget proposals, MacFarlane said. The Air Force, and DOD, decided to begin recalibrating capabilities and make "selective additional investments" in a few mission areas, according to service guidance released in February 2012.
As a result of demands set forth in this strategy, the Air Force has attempted to further refine its aggregate "readiness" measurements across a wide swath of career fields, mission sets, and capabilities. MacFarlane explained the process as breaking down some 2,500 reporting units across the force into "understandable chunks" in a readiness reporting system. These include air superiority, global precision attack, global reach, and other areas. Congress, OSD, and senior leaders receive a quarterly report on the status of readiness in these areas. The information, most of it classified, is used to set priorities on what is and is not important, from a readiness standpoint.
This analysis, though, just begins the process. DOD’s combatant commanders hold great sway in the requirements process, and have significant influence.
"So from a planning perspective," he said, "you have to account for that. We fight, and [we have to] deny, and there is the potential it could be in two different [areas of responsibility]."
This tension illustrates why the new strategy mandates strategic decisions in a number of areas with great consequence to the services—especially the Air Force.
The guidance changed the calculus of war planners in the Pentagon. The previous model demanded that US forces be capable of defeating two adversaries near simultaneously; the new model calls for a decisive win in one conflict while denying the enemy his objectives in a second—a shift from "defeat-defeat" to "defeat-deny."
The Air Force’s budget guidance from February 2012 spells this out explicitly: "Even when US forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of—or imposing unacceptable costs on—an opportunistic aggressor in a second region."
Translating that guidance to a funding plan is the challenge.
The Defense Department is "moving away from OCO," paying for war-related expenses using overseas contingency operations accounts, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said in September. The services are to fold overseas operations spending into their baseline budgets, with no extra appropriations from Congress.
While the Army and Marine Corps aim for a "full reset" of replacing and modernizing with their baseline budgets, the Air Force doesn’t expect any "stand-down time" to reset the force, MacFarlane said; combatant commanders will instantly put a demand on any assets freed up from US Central Command.
"How are we going to continue to pay for these rotations, if not out of an increase in baseline?" MacFarlane asked. "How does that sit with Congress?" So far, reconciling these factors has proved difficult.
Senior DOD leadership has hammered on the point repeatedly since the passage of the Budget Control Act.
"Sequestration would risk hollowing out our force and reducing its military options available to the nation," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee in June, appealing for passage of the Fiscal 2013 defense bill.
"We would go from being unquestionably powerful everywhere to being less [visible] globally and presenting less of an overmatch to our adversaries," Dempsey continued, saying this would translate into a "different deterrent calculus" for potential adversaries.
During his confirmation hearing in the Senate last July, Welsh made no secret of how he felt about the tradeoff between readiness, force structure, and resources, especially if a budget sequester cut hundreds of billions more from DOD accounts.
Just performing due diligence of operational activity in the field "would be affected instantly by sequestration," Welsh said, particularly from the perspective of training and readiness. "Our ability to provide ready, deployable units [would be] affected."
An 80 Percent Solution
In short, barring an increase in resources (which few in Congress or DOD anticipate), the variables for the Air Force to work with to keep operations going in a post-sequestration scenario would have to be readiness and modernization—a proposition Welsh called "horrible trade space to be operating [in]."
The Air Force is attempting to find savings in a number of ways—such as leveraging deployments as training events—as there is no sign the deployment demand will let up once assets are freed from CENTCOM.
MacFarlane pointed to the continuous bomber presence rotation on Guam, a US Pacific Command tasking, as an opportunity where USAF planners can improve efficiency and save money. The heavy bombers not only fulfill a forward presence function, but collaborate with the Navy and other allies during their Pacific interludes.
"They are doing exercises, [they are doing] partnership capacity," MacFarlane said. "As we move forward, we need to look closely at [arrangements like this]. ... We need to anticipate needs, but we still need readiness. We need to see where we can take care of both."
Aligning more cost-effective solutions for COCOMs is another approach. Ground-based control and reporting centers (CRCs), for example, might substitute for an E-3 Sentry and its associated support and logistical tail in a deployment if the AWACS’ special capabilities are not specifically required.
"That’s an 80 percent solution to some COCOMs," MacFarlane said. But it is being considered.
Component commands have also tightened up to save readiness dollars. For instance, at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, the 372nd Training Squadron’s five retired F-15A Eagles are used as training aids to teach maintenance students who normally work on F-15E Strike Eagles of the 366th Fighter Wing. The arrangement allows full mission capable jets to stay on the flight line, available for tasking. According to 372nd TRS maintainers, the initiative gives back roughly 2,000 valuable flying hours to the wing’s operations group in a given year. Hostage visited the base in October and got a briefing on the program, as part of his effort to focus on commandwide readiness.
While flying hours are a big part of readiness, they can only be drawn down so far without hurting readiness, Welsh said. Tradeoffs are not always simple.
"Taking flying hours and augmenting training with simulator time is great if you fund the simulator," he said at last September’s AFA conference. "If you don’t, you’re kidding yourself."
Welsh also expressed skepticism that the Air Force is really as ready as it considers itself to be and has asked for readiness reports from all the major commands.
Air Force leaders have sounded a steady drumbeat for readiness over the years, and modernization can be viewed as an element of future readiness. In April 2011, then-Air Force Materiel Command boss Gen. Donald J. Hoffman warned that DOD faced a severe test to maintain fiscal health.
"We’re on an unsustainable path," Hoffman said at an acquisition conference in Dayton, Ohio. Modernization—in the form of the service’s acquisition efforts—can affect long-term strategic outcomes if not handled properly. "If significant efficiencies aren’t identified and wholly committed to, resources for modernization, readiness, and facilities will not be available," he cautioned.
One of the biggest challenges in the Air Force’s ability to properly fund its accounts is the cost of overhead. Congress has consistently balked at letting USAF—and the other services—manage its budget by cutting unneeded bases. After the dust settled from the 2005 round of the base realignment and closure process, the Air Force found itself with a bill to realign its forces, without the benefit of being allowed to close any major bases.
The Cost of Dominance
The unstinting parochial opposition from Congress has placed the Air Force and other services in an untenable position, Air Staff officials and staff officers said. The Air Force now has too much infrastructure and not enough force structure to justify it. Absent more BRAC rounds, USAF will have to spend precious funds on unneeded bases rather than on readiness and modernization, then-Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz told Senators last March.
With basing off the table—and readiness and personnel held at minimal levels—modernization is under threat. The investment required for modernization far outstrips whatever savings accrue from retiring older aircraft. One USAF estimate pegged the procurement of a new squadron of F-35s at around $3.5 billion, while chopping one active duty F-16 squadron (with 21 aircraft) from the force structure saves USAF in the neighborhood of only $90 million a year.
A one percent reduction of funding for facilities sustainment, restoration, and modernization costs comes to some $24 million per year, while a similar reduction to baseline funding for weapon system sustainment accounts would net about $100 million per year. Four of the 10 largest investment programs in USAF’s near term are space related efforts—launch vehicles, the GPS constellation, the Advanced EHF Satellite System, and the Space Based Infrared System—that accounted for nearly $5 billion of investment money in Fiscal 2012.
Many factors determining the force’s state of readiness have been on a "steady downward trend" that can be traced back as far as the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, said MacFarlane. The Air Force maintained steady operations in and around the Persian Gulf region for years after the conflict, until Iraqi Freedom began.
"I’m not saying operations tempo is the whole problem, but that is an element of it," MacFarlane said.
The Air Force’s size and composition have changed significantly since the early 1990s, and along the way account funding has been horse-traded around. However, requirements and operations tempo have a tendency to wreak havoc with assumptions and plans; as senior USAF leaders often say, "The enemy gets a vote."
A large force structure, for most military planners, affords a certain degree of flexibility in responding to contingencies, MacFarlane noted. The Air Force, and DOD writ large, has made a strategic choice to shrink that force structure to keep what remains more agile, prepared, and ready for conflict.
Due to USAF’s core mission needs, speed, lethality, and reach are vital to a credible force—making a higher state of readiness vital to the conversation now taking place among the services and DOD leadership.
"It’s true ... that force structure better have a higher state of readiness," MacFarlane said. "But it’s also expensive." There are no easy answers, and for an airman, a careful path must be charted to the future.
"I don’t want to fight a fair fight. I want to dominate. But how do I do that cost effectively?" MacFarlane asked rhetorically. The answer is to set priorities and make trade-offs. Managing those puts and takes is the subject of discussion with OSD, Congress, and others.
Little of this is a surprise, MacFarlane noted. The Air Force and the nation "have made choices over the last 10, 20 years on our force structure. These are choices and there are ramifications to those."
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