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U.S. Air Force Year in Review

A Changing Force

The United States Air Force is changing.

While airmen perform superbly in Iraq and Afghanistan and in air sovereignty operations defending U.S. skies, the Air Force is making dramatic shifts in people, platforms, and especially its deep-rooted culture. The changes bring an end to decades of celebration of the macho fighter-pilot image, dominance by fighter pilots, and of top billing for fighter aircraft each time an annual budget request is carved out.

Another factor in ongoing change: No defense secretary in recent history has made so many decisions that affect the future of air power, or maintained such watchful scrutiny of the Air Force, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Where previous Pentagon chiefs were reluctant to micro-manage, Gates has influenced just about every major decision in today’s changing Air Force.

The Air Force numbers some 330,000 uniformed members, about the size of the nation’s air arm on Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. With a single exception for nuclear-capable systems, there have been few structural changes recently, but the cultural change is enormous.

Having devoted years of Washington in-fighting seeking a larger number of F-22 Raptor superfighters than the 187 that now will be built, the Air Force is shifting its focus. Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, the first air boss in decades not to have flown fighters, is an airlift, transportation, and special-operations expert. At Air Combat Command, the final bastion of fighter ascendancy, the new commander is Gen. William M. Fraser III, a bomber pilot. Many of the Air Force’s transport and logistics problems are in the hands of Maj. Gen. Susan Y. Desjardins, a tanker pilot.

With the fighter no longer supreme, the Air Force will have only one type in production as early as 2013, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). By that time, the 187th F-22 Raptor will have been delivered. Much will be at stake in the colossal F-35 program, which has run up against technical delays and cost increases. But Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Schwartz said the F-35 is just one priority on a long list. The detail-oriented Gates is focused on the kinds of wars Americans are fighting today, and Donley and Schwartz are applying exactly that kind of focus. “We have an ‘all in’ ethos and we are making a contribution to today’s joint fight,” said Schwartz in a statement.

Bomber Prospects

The bomber, which dominated the Air Force during the decades before the fighter did, has now declined as a priority and must take its rightful place on a long list of needs and wants. The B-1B Lancer, which is assigned only a conventional bombing role, is proving invaluable as a precision strike weapon in Afghanistan, but is expensive to operate, plagued by age-related reliability issues. The B-2 and B-52 Stratofortress, which will be transferred to the new Global Strike Command in mid-2010, handle both conventional and nuclear bombing duties but are also showing their age: Even the glitzy, high-tech, stealth B-2 relies on computer technology that is contemporary to the IBM 206 – timely in the 1980s but ancient today.

Gates insisted that no funding for a Next Generation Bomber (NGB) be included in the fiscal year 2010 budget, but has since agreed that work should proceed on a new bomber in 2011. Schwartz said that the Air Force now has a more complete idea of its bomber needs, has been able to better articulate them to Gates and his staff, and will almost certainly have a request for NGB developmental funding in the fiscal year 2011 budget request. Rumors of a “black” program for a new bomber that include a flying prototype appear to have little credibility. Meanwhile, the nation relies heavily on a fleet of bombers that is the smallest since before Pearl Harbor (161 aircraft, including 66 B-1Bs, 19 B-2s, and 76 B-52s).

Fighters and bombers no longer reign supreme on Air Force shopping lists because, at Gates’ urging, the service is focused on counterinsurgency and especially on Afghanistan. The emphasis on today’s fight means that smaller platforms are receiving funding, priority, development, and press ink. The larger, costlier aircraft and missiles that may be needed in a future “peer” war between nation-states have been shoved into the background to await their turn for money, upgrades, and attention.

At the forefront of today’s Air Force are the modest platforms: MQ-1B Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, RQ-170 – all unmanned aerial systems (UAS), still commonly called drones; the Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) aircraft; MC-12W Project Liberty intelligence collector; and the C-27J Spartan, formerly but more familiarly known as the Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA).

Waiting in the wings – pun intended – are the bigger or costlier vehicles like NGB, the KC-X air refueling tanker, the C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter, and even a new “Air Force One” (possibly) for the president. With NGB slated for revival in FY 2011, the other biggies will be topics for debate within the Air Force when the priorities of leaders and the vagaries of industry and the Pentagon permit.

In FY 2010, for the first time, the Air Force will train more UAS pilots than manned-aircraft pilots. It will also train more sensor operators, the enlisted members who serve as the second person on a UAS crew. A drone crew typically sits side-by-side in a “box” similar in appearance to a flight deck, often thousands of miles from the aircraft being controlled.

Drone Crew Issues

The service is seeking to make drone duty more rewarding, but faces an almost irreconcilable dilemma: Pilots want to fly. Sitting in a “box” does not constitute flying. Until recently, a career pilot could expect duty with the Predator, RQ-4 Global Hawk, or Reaper, but would have the comfort of knowing that a return to the cockpit, and a career of actual flying, awaited. Now, the Air Force is telling officers to make a career out of piloting drones.

Just as some airmen perceive an inequity between manned aircraft pilots and drone pilots, many 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.

While the drones best known to the public are those launching missile attacks in al Qaeda territory in Pakistan – they belong to the Central Intelligence Agency and are not part of the Air Force’s story – the ones that wear Air Force markings are achieving plenty. “We have made a paradigm shift in the way we conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance,” Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force’s top intelligence officer, told The Year in Defense. “A major part of that is the emphasis we’ve placed on unmanned aerial systems.”

“It is safe to say most pilots will always miss getting back in the air,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Turner, head of Predator and Reaper training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in an Air Force news release. “But we see where the Air Force is going. We understand we are adding to the mission in a crucial way.”

The MC-12W Project Liberty intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) aircraft is a Beech 350ER King Air with a crew of four (two pilots, a sensor operator, and a signals intelligence specialist) equipped with signals intelligence sensors, video downlink equipment, AN/AAR-47 and AN/ALE-47 self-protection systems, “Blue Force” tracker, and an on-board FMV (full-motion video) storage unit. In short, it is an ordinary-looking small aircraft with extraordinary ISR technological grasp.

Project Liberty began with an April 18, 2008, order by Gates to improve ISR in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first of 37 MC-12W aircraft entered service just 12 months later and flew its first combat support sortie in Iraq on June 10, 2009. The MC-12W began operations in Afghanistan Dec. 27, 2009. Lt. Col. Douglas Lee, commander of the Afghanistan-based unit, said the Project Liberty aircraft “will help protect Afghans, provide security, and protect coalition lives.”

The Air Force will eventually use seven MC-12Ws for stateside training, about a dozen in Iraq, and about 18 in Afghanistan.

In addressing its strategic airlift needs, the Air Force is challenged by the ongoing debate as to whether to acquire more C-17 Globemaster IIIs or to modernize all of its C-5 Galaxy transports. The service took delivery of its 190th C-17 last year and is currently slated to receive 223, including 10 that Congress added to the $636.3 billion FY 2010 defense appropriations bill. Those C-17s are aircraft that weren’t requested and that Gates said weren’t wanted. The service has 111 C-5s of all models, but only 49 of the C-5B version, which is about 15 years newer than the breakdown-prone C-5A.

C-17 Versus C-5

Even though C-17s now roll out of the Long Beach, Calif., factory with added, “extra range” tanks located near the wing structure at the upper fuselage, a C-17 offers about 40 percent less range than a C-5 and cannot carry some cargoes that fit into the latter aircraft. On the other hand, the C-17 is a mature system with good reliability, while the geriatric C-5 sometimes has “mission capable rates” lower than 50 percent – meaning that any scheduled mission has only a 50-50 chance of launching as planned.

In 2008, as an economy move, the USAF scrapped plans to re-engine C-5As. Now, although both A and B models will receive an Avionics Modernization Program (AMP), only C-5B models will replace aging 41,000-pound thrust General Electric TF39-GE-1C turbofans with new, 67,000-pound thrust General Electric CF6-80C2 engines. Modernized C-5Bs – just three delivered so far, with just one in service – are given the designation C-5M Super Galaxy.

Though no announcement has been made, the New York Air National Guard’s 105th Airlift Wing at Stewart Field, N.Y., is expected to transfer from C-5A to C-17. This will increase pressure on Air Force leaders to take the unwanted step of permanently retiring some, if not all, C-5As.

Because small platforms are more emblematic of today’s Air Force, the familiar C-130 Hercules tactical airlifter – an invaluable tool for hauling supplies far above roadways littered with improvised explosive devices – is receiving a great deal of attention.

Schwartz wants to kill the behind-schedule, over-budget C-130 Avionics Modernization Program (AMP) and replace it with a less expensive update.

Speaking to reporters about the C-130 AMP, Schwartz said in September 2009: “The bottom line is, we couldn’t afford it.”

It was a surprise when Boeing won the AMP contract in June 2001, defeating the builder of the C-130, Lockheed Martin. Boeing made the maiden flight of the first C-130H AMP developmental aircraft at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, on Sept. 19, 2006. With two test beds flying, the company began low-rate initial production (LRIP) in 2009 and delivered its first C-130H AMP avionics simulator to Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., the Air Force’s Hercules training base, on Sept. 18 of that year.

Intended as a retrofit for 221 C-130H aircraft in inventory, which now have as many as half a dozen different cockpit configurations – confounding training, pilot skills, and logistics – the C-130 AMP has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. A 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the cost of the program increased $700 million while slashing the number of aircraft serviced by the program roughly in half. This doubled the cost per aircraft, the GAO said.

Schwartz wants a modest upgrade that will make aging C-130Hs eligible to fly on international air routes. However, in a statement in early 2010, Gates indicated that the C-130 AMP program might be retained in its current form.

The Air Force has taken over sole responsibility for the smaller, twin-engine, Italian-designed Alenia C-27J Spartan tactical airlifter, until recently called the Joint Cargo Aircraft. Air Mobility Command is developing a plan on how best to conduct the intra-theater airlift/direct support mission for which supporters said the C-27J is needed. Critics wonder whether the Air Force needs a new aircraft to haul cargoes over what it calls “the last tactical mile” to the warfighter: They argue that existing C-130s can perform all C-27J duties. They also noted that the C-27J will go directly to the Air National Guard, which enjoys tremendous clout on Capitol Hill and, under Gates’ current plan, would lose a significant part of its fighter forces. Without C-27J, they said, some established Guard bases around the country would be left with no mission at all. Although enthusiasm for the C-27J is high in some quarters, Gates truncated the planned “buy” from 78 aircraft to 38 and planemaker Alenia’s plans to build a new aircraft assembly plant in Jacksonville, Fla., are on hold.

Drones, Project Liberty, C-17s, C-5s, and the C-27J are useful in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – so, too, are a variety of combat aircraft, ranging from the B-1B to the F-15E Strike Eagle, now upgraded with Sniper and Litening targeting pods to deliver new families of precision ordnance – but for the defense of U.S. soil, the principal tool is the fighter aircraft.

Air Sovereignty

For almost a decade, fighters have been flying combat air patrols and standing air sovereignty alert as part of the Pentagon’s role in Homeland Defense (not to be confused with Homeland Security, which is a civilian function). These F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons are at 18 locations, 16 operated by the Air National Guard and two by the Air Force Reserve. Their pilots confront a stark reality: They may be called upon to shoot down a hijacked airliner – killing innocents in order to save a larger number of innocent lives on the ground.

Gates wants to retire many of the fighters and not replace them. In the FY 2010 defense appropriations bill, Congress prohibited this planned retirement of 248 F-15s and F-16s pending an April 1 report by a federally funded research and development center. It remains unclear, however, whether the aging of the fighter fleet, and the retirements that may yet take place, will mean a significant cut in the air sovereignty mission.

Lt. Gen. Harry M. “Bud” Wyatt III, the top U.S. Air Guardsman, said he is “agnostic” about which kinds of fighters are deployed but “has a serious need” to retain fighters in their current numbers. With all F-22s already assigned and F-35 production fully booked, some observers believe the Air Force should re-institute production of updated versions of the earlier-generation F-15 or F-16 for air sovereignty. Another option would be to develop an Air Force version of the Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet, which seems suited for air sovereignty.

The FY 2010 appropriations law also halted a planned shutdown of F-15C/D training at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and prevented consolidation of this function to the Oregon Air National Guard’s Kingsley Field.

The main organizational change in the Air Force in recent times, however (after a long-standing plan to create a new Cyber Command failed to materialize), was the stand-up of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) under Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 7, 2009.

The command was created to correct problems in the Air Force’s handling of nuclear materials. In what a spokesman called a “serious error,” six AGM-129 cruise missiles with W80-1 nuclear warheads were mistakenly loaded aboard a B-52 and flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale back in 2007. The B-52 crew didn’t know the 21-foot, 3,709-pound missiles were bristling with real thermonuclear warheads, which should have been disarmed before the missiles’ planned ferry flight into retirement.

Klotz will become responsible for all nuclear-capable USAF intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and bombers. “This new command reflects the Air Force’s firm and unshakeable conviction that strategic nuclear deterrence and global strike operations are a special trust and responsibility,” said Klotz, a respected missileer.

But skeptics wonder whether Klotz has the rank, the support, or the staff to compete with other major commands – “majcoms,” in jargon – that are headed by four-star generals.

Nuclear Systems

The ICBM mission transferred to AFGSC on Dec. 1, 2009, adding 8,000 airmen and 450 LGM-30G Minuteman III missiles to Klotz’s portfolio. The nuclear-capable bomber mission, meaning all of the USAF’s 56 B-52s and 19 B-2 Spirits, was scheduled to transfer to AFGSC on Feb. 1, 2010, bringing 12,000 more airmen and three bomb wings under Klotz’s command. The B-1B Lancer, which lacks a nuclear mission but is performing brilliantly in Afghanistan, will become the only U.S. bomber not under Klotz. Except for the U.S. Navy’s “boomers,” or strategic submarines, AFGSC will be responsible for all of the United States’ 9,938 nuclear warheads, now being reduced to 5,470 by 2012.

Other significant organizational changes are unlikely. Schwartz has emphasized that the Air Force of 2010 is “back to basics” and that his primary focus is on functioning as part of the nation’s joint combat team. With changes in emphasis and culture, with new aircraft and new ideas, the Air Force seems likely to achieve exactly that.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-142">
    jason c spears

    usaf fighter-gap real. needs a serious upgrade! lacking modren fighter planes or quik fix by upgrading f-15 f-16 w/ hi-thrust engines & v3* radar/sensor pac, some say f-35 will fill the gap? i don’t think it will take the place of the f-22 or a f16 w/ same radar/sensor. and also why not sell the f-22 to canada & Australia this would build interest,lower production costs, and build capital to re-up for the next f-22 ? 50-75 more f-22 and upgrade f-15-16-18 could cure the gap just thinking out loud

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-admin odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-350">

    Sec. Gate is stupid for discontinuing the F-22 raptor, it is already in production it is the best fighter in the world today, there must be wrong with something the head of gates and obama

    it should continue the F-22 production, especially the block 35 with 3.3 software version with the right number of 870 units what gates know about fighter plane, he been in combat and got shot up