Making the best of a bad situation

These are hard times for all of the military services.  Watching their current weapon systems age out, but spending ever-increasing wads of money supporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and seeing their recapitalisation funds for tomorrow’s 20- or 30-year weapon systems swirl the drain.

In desperation, USAF is taking a calculated risk by mortgaging today’s combat capability in order to try and speed along tomorrow’s replacement:

Fighter Moves: President Obama has apparently signed off on Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recommendation to end the F-22 program at 187 aircraft. Air Force budget chief Maj. Gen. Larry Spencer told reporters at a Pentagon briefing Thursday that the service can “take advantage of this window” during which USAF expects to have air dominance. It can save some money by foregoing any more F-22s and retiring 250 F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s, which he said will come mostly from the active duty fleet, but some from the Guard and Reserve as well. The specifics are being worked out, budget officials said. To keep the Air Force from losing too much capability, the remaining fighter force will get about $1 billion worth of radar and software upgrades; there’ll be an uptick in the number of air-to-air munitions purchased; and the F-35 program will be “accelerated.” However, that’s the F-35 overall—the Air Force-specific 2010 purchase will actually decline from 13 aircraft to 10. The overall idea in combat aircraft is to “rebalance” the Air Force “towards procurement of proven and multi-role platforms,” the service said. The budget contains $64 million for F-22 shutdown costs, but that won’t be the whole bill.

— John Tirpak, “Daily Report“,
Air Force magazine, May 8th, 2009.

Not exactly “taking advantage”, more like “coasting”.  And hoping no one else picks a fight.  Still, when the options are coast or starve, coasting starts to look pretty good.

RELATED:  Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt, director of the Air National Guard, lets slip a staggering fact that will no doubt go right over the heads of his audience, not to mention his civilian bosses at the Pentagon.

Our primary concern is that 80-percent of the F-16s, the backbone of our Air Sovereignty Alert Force, will begin reaching the end of their service life in eight years. We need solutions for what we in the Air National Guard refer to as the “mid-term gap,” and for long-term recapitalization. Neither of these can be sacrificed. If we sacrifice the mid-term, we risk uncovering a critical line of defense. If we sacrifice the long-term or fifth generation, we risk what can best be referred to as our children and grandchildren’s critical edge. Everything has to be on the table. This infrastructure of equipment is not just fighters; it includes tankers, air traffic control, command and control, security, and communications—the entire system supporting and protecting our nation’s last line of defense.

— Lt. General Harry Wyatt, statement before the House Armed Services Committee (Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces).  First Session, 111th Congress, May 5th, 2009.

I hate to break it to you, General, but in eight years, the F-35 will not be arriving in large enough numbers for the regular force, let alone the Air Guard.  Your Secretary of Defense made the decision to cap peak production of Air Force F-35s at 80 per year, instead of the 110 originally programmed. Over a five-year budget cycle, that means you end up with many fewer F-35s than you thought you were getting.

But of course no adversary would ever dream of taking advantage of this capabilities gap.

How long does it take to replace 1,763 F-16s and A-10s at a rate of 80 per year?  22 years.  So right around the time the last F-35 rolls off the line, the first one will be getting ready to retire.  More importantly, lots of poor airmen will have to keep flying their 80s-vintage F-16s and A-10s against modern adversaries well into the 2030s.

Put another way, imagine flying a P-51 Mustang (no radar, no countermeasures, no air-to-air missiles, just six Browning .50in machineguns) against an Su-30M2 (thrust vectoring, satnav, radar/IR countermeasures, a mix of six medium-or short-range AAMs, and one 30mm gun).  That wouldn’t be a very long fight, even if you upgraded the hell out of the P-51’s avionics and maybe strapped a couple short range IR-guided AAMs on the wingtips.  The inherent limitations of the airframe and the powerplant would be its doom.  And if it had to fly and fight against not only airborne adversaries but a modern integrated air defense system… well, forget it.

If our southern neighbours continue down this road, it seems all but inevitable that American primacy in force of arms will be challenged in the next 30 years.  They are doing everything they can to encourage it.

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