It’s been a long 2015, and no group is feeling it more than the U.S. Air Force, especially Air Force leadership who took quite a beating this year from a variety of sources. But, as one first shirt used to say all the time: “The good news is they can improve.”
Resolution 1: Stop pushing away your loved ones
In 2013, the Air Force started drastically reducing its numbers. Today, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James says the USAF is the smallest its ever been. This is a tough thing to hear considering the number of Air Force general officers, including Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III, who believe the Air Force is becoming too small to succeed. He’s not wrong. The Air Force is undermanned in many critical fields and faces an estimated $10 billion budget shortfall. But they still had enough money to make really awesome commercials like this one:
The Air Force is already working to counter that problem. The $122 billion USAF leadership requested for 2016 included slots for 4,000 new airmen. But the Air Force is threatening to cut aircraft programs to make the budget work. The service even proposed cutting 14 F-35s, which — to anyone following the F-35 controversy —is almost unbelievable.
Resolution 2: Live within your means
There’s no doubt, when you read about everything the F-35 is supposed to be capable of when it’s fully operational, the idea of having one watching your back is very reassuring. The problem is the F-35 keeps coming up with new problems. When they fix the randomly igniting engine, they find out the helmet is too big for the cockpit. The plane is supposed to be able to take out intercepting aircraft without even being in visual range and provide air superiority for the whole battle space, but it can’t do that with a weapons system that won’t fire or bombs that won’t fit. Will the F-35 even be operational when we need it?
Maybe. But if it’s too expensive to fly now and we still need a fleet of new fighters, why not go with the tried and true airframes which made the U.S. Air Force the most formidable in the world? Someone in the Air Force had this very same idea. Since the Air Force will likely be unable to afford F-35s at the rate the leadership wants, they are considering supplementing their fleets by purchasing and upgrading F-15, F-16, and maybe F-18 fighters.
Resolution 3: Stop procrastinating
Those planes aren’t getting any younger. The Air Force decided it needs to upgrade critical programs like the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). It also needs to replace aging airframes with new ones to meet ongoing operational needs, as is the case with KC-46 tanker. Then Air Force leadership decided to mess around with its fighter programs first. When it came time to develop the Long Range Strike-Bomber, the Air Force jumped at that first. Now the backlog is so great it seems overwhelming. What have we been doing this whole time?
Well, no more. The Air Force decided to do all these things at once, as well as develop new unmanned vehicles, a new combat rescue helicopter, a replacement for Air Force One, and a new trainer aircraft. Of course simultaneously developing and updating nine aircraft programs presents significant challenges in terms of budget. But the Air Force is getting creative with its procurement solutions, like siphoning money from the Navy.
Resolution 4: Make amends with your siblings
The Budget Control Act of 2011 cut $487 billion from defense spending through 2021. It also led the way to sequestration, which implemented another slashing of defense money, this time $495 million. That’s almost $1 trillion. That means there’s a lot of competition for what’s left. After reading about the Air Force’s nine airframe initiatives, you might be surprised to know they also feel the need to upgrade or replace land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
At the same time, the Navy needs to replace its Ohio-class boomer fleet (aka ballistic missile submarines). They argue their submarine fleets are as important to the “nuclear triad” as anything the Air Force maintains. The trouble is, all three parts of the triad are way too expensive. When the Air Force awarded Northrop-Grumman the contract to develop the Long Range Strike-Bomber, it also started a full court press to get Congress to create a special fund to develop the LRS-B, which is how the Navy wanted to pay for the Ohio-class submarine upgrades. The interservice funding rivalry could touch off another “Revolt of the Admirals.” Congress can pay for both, but that solution would require a sacrificial lamb from the Air Force.
Resolution 5: Don’t fix what’s not broken
In the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress ordered the Air Force to produce a reliable, independent study on how they will replace the A-10’s CAS mission while providing the necessary funds to keep the Warthog flying.
And then, Congress provided those funds. They allocated enough money to keep the A-10s in the air until the the Air Force completes the independent study. If they have the funds, they have a mission, and they have reliable aircraft to fulfill the mission, the Air Force should probably just leave well enough alone.