The United States Air Force can drop a bomb, unload a cargo, or win a fight anywhere across the globe. It’s the most powerful air arm in the world. It employs the most advanced technology employed by any of the world’s fighting forces.
America’s airmen and women are proving themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan every day. They’re also training to wield formidable capabilities in a modern “peer” war against another nation state.
For all its unquestioned competence, the Air Force often seems unable to define its culture. Today, more than ever, the Air Force seems, in the view of many inside and outside the service, to be experiencing an identity crisis. A military service branch that ought to be built around bombers, fighters, airlifters, tankers, and helicopters is “making do” with the oldest fleet in its history, where the average age of an aircraft is 23.7 years.
New aircraft programs are making progress but confronting challenges. The biggest programs, the KC-X air refueling tanker and the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), are both several years away from putting rubber on the ramp. KC-X will provide 179 tankers to replace aging aerial gas stations that were designed when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. JSF will replace most manned combat aircraft now in inventory. Both programs must overcome technical and fiscal challenges – to say nothing of the pitfalls of Washington politics – if the Air Force is to remain contemporary and competitive.
The Air Force’s personnel strength declined in fiscal year 2010 to 331,700 – its lowest level since becoming an independent service branch in 1947. When Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz introduced the new Air Force motto in October 2010, some airmen thought “Aim High … Fly-Fight-Win” sounded less than wholly inspiring. When Schwartz spoke of becoming “an integral part of the joint fight,” some wondered if he was pleading for a role in the battle space rather than seeking to define the battle. An Air Force that is accustomed to being dominant in U.S. military affairs is now spending much of its time claiming a place as a team player. The extent to which the Air Force has relinquished its dominance can be measured in four words Schwartz utters repeatedly: “We’re not lone rangers.”
No one doubts that U.S. airmen and women are good. “The truth of the matter is that the folks who are out there are hustling,” Schwartz said in an interview with the Air Force’s own news service. “They’re working hard, they have a sense of mission, and they have a sense of purpose. And so it’s our job, as senior leaders, to make sure the mission and their sense of purpose is properly directed and that we take care of and cultivate their spirit. We intend to do that.”
Less clear is whether the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Schwartz, and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley are building an Air Force that will be the right size and shape for the near- and far-term future.
Five years ago, Air Force officials announced plans to acquire a new long-range bomber by 2018. Gates subsequently halted development of a new bomber, but relented in January 2011 when he announced that a next-generation bomber would proceed in fiscal year 2012. The announcement, part of a larger reshuffling of defense priorities, did not reveal how much funding the administration will seek or when it expects, now, for the new bomber to become operational.
Although upgrade programs and technology improvements have enhanced their capabilities – especially for precision night bombing in a counterinsurgency environment – the Air Force still relies on a fleet of bombers that is its smallest since before Pearl Harbor. It has just 160 aircraft, including 65 B-1B Lancers, 19 B-2 Spirits, and 76 B-52 Stratofortresses.
The Air Force has long pondered a family of systems, including a manned bomber, to carry out what it prefers to call the “long range strike” mission. In November 2010 – two months before Gates gave the go-ahead on the bomber – then-Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the Air Force’s operations, plans, and requirements chief, told reporters that there is “no timeframe yet” for submitting a proposal for a bomber replacement to Gates.
Breedlove, who subsequently became Air Force vice chief of staff and pinned on a fourth star, said airmen will work to breathe new life into existing bombers to keep them effective until the next long-range strike platform and its support systems can be made ready. “We are right now working out what we need to do to our existing fleet,” said Breedlove. “We are continuing to update the B-1B, B-52 even, and the B-2 to be able to have the capability we need far enough to the right [the future], so we can then bring on the family of systems.”
Breedlove was not able to say when or how the Air Force would provide further upgrades to the current bomber fleet. He acknowledged that the effectiveness of the older bombers will “diminish over time” against increasingly sophisticated and capable threats. “There is a time out there where, if we do nothing, we have no capability,” Breedlove acknowledged. But he insisted that the Air Force is “not standing still” and will keep the B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s operationally effective until a new family of long-range strike options, including a new bomber, becomes available.
Although it has no new bomber on the table, the Air Force has launched a preliminary study into a sixth-generation fighter, the next-generation tactical aircraft (Next-Gen TacAir), which will have “enhanced capabilities in areas such as reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, situational awareness, human-system integration, and weapons effects,” according to a posting in Time magazine’s Swampland blog in November 2010.
The Next-Gen TacAir platform will be expected to operate “in the anti-access/area-denial environment that will exist in the 2030-2050 timeframe.” Observers in Washington aren’t sure what “human system integration” means – in the Clint Eastwood movie Firefox (1982), a new fighter responds to its pilot’s thoughts. Nor is it clear whether the offensive capabilities of this new system are meant to be part of a promised family of systems that will take up the slack left by the absence of a bomber program. With the 112th Congress riding into Washington in January 2011 on a promise to cut government spending and with the F-35 facing controversy, it is unclear whether today’s budget climate can support something as ambitious as Next-Gen TacAir.
The F-35 promises to combine multi-role combat effectiveness with low-observable, or stealth, technology. An Air Force press release says the F-35 will use an advanced and powerful sensor package to locate, target, and destroy adversaries before it can be detected. The Air Force clings to its planned buy of 1,763 airframes and expects its version of the JSF, the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) version, to eventually replace nearly all tactical warplanes in inventory. No other country is known to be anywhere near fielding a fighter as advanced as the F-35A, but the plane’s high-tech features come at a price. In November 2010, the JSF program underwent its third restructuring in two years. The first two low rate initial production F-35As had been slated to reach the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force, Fla., by year’s end. Under the restructuring, the first two planes will not leave the factory until April 2011 and then will go not to Eglin but to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to be flown by test pilots. Like the other service branches committed to the JSF, the Air Force has been forced to push back its target date for initial operating capability (IOC). The blue-suit brass now say IOC may not be possible until 2016.
The only other world-class, fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, is nearing the end of its production run at 187 airframes. Many see the F-22 as a “silver bullet” – operating in small numbers in and around high-value targets, but not numerous enough to be employed on any large scale in a major conflict.
To make way for the F-22, F-35, and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) like the MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, the Air Force during FY 2010 completed its Combat Air Forces Restructure Plan, known in shorthand as “CAS Redux,” in which 252 legacy fighters went to the boneyard. Withdrawn from service were 112 F-15C/D Eagles, 134 F-16C/D Fighting Falcons, and six A-10 Thunderbolt IIs.
The service will still operate a powerful fighter armada of about 300 F-15s, 950 F-16s, and 350 A-10s serving in active duty, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard squadrons. Several programs are under way to provide avionics and system upgrades to the legacy fighter fleet. Although delays in the JSF program won’t result in the purchase of any “new build” legacy fighters, the Air Force launched a new study to see which of its newer F-16s will receive additional upgrades that include structural refurbishments, avionics updates, sensor upgrades, or all three.
In July 2010, the Air Force announced its largest shift of aircraft in decades. The changes affect 650 aircraft and 12,000 personnel. The moves will deliver economies by consolidating aircraft fleets. Because the gain or loss of an aircraft unit can have a huge impact on the economy, observers in Washington interpreted the change in terms of winners and losers.
By that measure, the biggest loser was Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., which had been reveling in its new status as host to an F-22 wing. The Pentagon spent $40 million for new infrastructure and facilities at Holloman to accommodate the Raptor. The last two wing commanders at Holloman were F-22 pilots.
One of Holloman’s F-22 squadrons is being deactivated, the other transferred to Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. The change concentrates F-22 operations at four bases – Elmendorf in Alaska, Langley in Virginia, Nellis in Nevada, and Tyndall in Florida – plus a single squadron in Hawaii. The change will enable most Raptor squadrons to have 21 primary aircraft authorized instead of 18. Holloman will get two squadrons of F-16 Fighting Falcons to complement its Predator and Reaper RPA units.
Col. David A. “Kooler” Krumm, wing commander at Holloman, called the change a “win.” But pilots, maintainers, and their families who’d expected to pull three-year duty tours on the F-22 in the New Mexico high desert will now be reassigned.
Holloman, Tucson Air National Guard Station in Arizona, and Boise Air National Guard Station in Idaho lost out in their bids to become formal training units (FTUs) for the F-35. Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho; Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.; McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C.; and Jacksonville Air National Guard Station, Fla., were all rejected as potential F-35 operational locations.
Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., was announced as the best choice to become the F-35 FTU. Operational F-35s will go to Burlington Air National Guard Station, Vt., and Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The changes are to begin in 2013.
The selection of Burlington was the latest example of what the Pentagon calls “the Total Force,” a term that reflects integration of Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, and active-duty operations. “We are truly a Total Force and rely upon our Guard and Reserve partners to be an integral part of our operations,” said Donley shortly before the announcement.
Unchanged is the role of Eglin Air Force Base as the initial joint training base for F-35 pilots and maintainers.
The Air Force’s largest transports are the rival C-5 Galaxy and the C-17 Globemaster III. The Air Force is grappling with the future of its oldest C-5A models, which have poor reliability but can accommodate outsized cargoes and offer greater range than the C-17.
Told to absorb 43 more C-17s than it requested – ending production at 223 airframes for U.S. use, including one already lost in a crash – the Air Force is requiring two C-5A units to convert to the C-17. The 445th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, began converting from 10 C-5As to eight C-17s on Oct. 1, 2010. The other unit that will surrender C-5As has not been announced. No airmen in the C-5 community are eager to give up the aircraft troops call “Fred,” a loving acronym for “fantastic, ridiculous economic disaster” often expressed using a different f-word.
Under its current mandate, the Air Force plans by summer 2016 to have an 89-plane fleet consisting of 37 C-5As and 52 C-5Ms. This will evolve over several years from the current inventory of 111 C-5s, consisting of 59 C-5As, 46 C-5Bs, two C-5Cs, and four C-5M “modernized” versions, including three pre-production C-5Ms. Service leaders are tapping the 22 “worst case” C-5As – those with the most flying hours or with obvious fatigue issues – to be relegated to the boneyard. To achieve the lower total of C-5As, the Air Force will have to force one more wing to convert to C-17s and must make a selection among three choices – the 105th Airlift Wing, New York Air National Guard (ANG) at Stewart Field; the 164th Airlift Wing, Tennessee ANG at Memphis; and the 167th Airlift Wing, West Virginia ANG at Martinsburg.
Stewart operates 13 C-5As and recently borrowed the first production C-5M Super Galaxy to upgrade the flight deck of the aircraft as a template for the entire Galaxy fleet.
That first production C-5M made its maiden flight at Marietta, Ga., Sept. 19, was delivered directly to Stewart on Sept. 30, and rolled out in refurbished mode at Stewart on Nov. 5. It joins the three pre-production C-5Ms at the 436th Airlift Wing, Dover Air Force Base, Del.
In the tactical airlift world, a program to standardize cockpits in first-generation C-130 Hercules transports is behind schedule and over budget; Gates would like to proceed with this program while Air Force leaders would like to find an alternative.
The second-generation C-130J Super Hercules is now the accepted standard, having overcome early cost and systems integration issues. The smaller C-27J Spartan Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) came on duty with the 179th Airlift Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, in September 2010 and is slated for a near-term deployment for Afghanistan. Several programs are under way for improved special operations versions of the C-130J. Plans for an AC-27A Spartan JCA gunship have been shelved.
A new term entered Air Force jargon during 2010 when the Air Force decided that remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) is the proper name for what were formerly called unmanned aerial vehicles – and still universally called drones. The MQ-1B Predator, RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-9 Reaper, and other RPA perform an increasingly important role. Combat air patrols in Afghanistan tripled during 2010. The Air Force reported progress in redefining the duties of RPA pilots and sensor operators. Still, some airmen perceive an inequity between manned aircraft pilots and drone pilots, while others see unfairness in the treatment of the drone pilot vis-à-vis the drone sensor operator. Pilots of unmanned systems receive incentive pay while sensor operators do not. Many of the operators feel that their contribution does not receive enough recognition.
The B-2 and B-52 force, together with the Air Force’s 450 LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), now belong to Global Strike Command, headquartered at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
No longer in the market for a new combat rescue helicopter, the Air Force is close to finalizing a sole-source deal to buy up to 93 UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S. Army, according to defense industry sources. The arrangement takes advantage of a law written in 1932 that permits one service branch to purchase equipment from another without competitive bidding. The Air Force is also receiving a handful of “new build” UH-60Ms. The helicopters will replace some of the service’s 101 HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters and may eventually fulfill the needs of the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform program, replacing UH-1N Twin Huey rotorcraft. UH-1Ns are used for VIP transport, emergency evacuation of government officials in the Washington area, and for support of the nation’s ICBM silos in the American heartland.
This article first appeared in The Year in Defense, 2010 Review, Winter 2011 Edition.