How Can the USAF Afford to Re-Equip with the New Equipment it Will Decide it Needs?

Further to this post,

Equipping the USAF to fight both China and Russia

Steve Trimble of Aviation Week explores the way ahead (note the fighters for the NORAD mission, especially vs cruise missiles, including the new F-15EX):

Era Of Hard Decisions Begins As U.S. Defense Spending Stagnates

advanced battle management system
The initial focus of the Advanced Battle Management System provides an airborne communications bridge for the F-35 (left) and F-22 (right), but it eventually will expand to replace command suites on E-8C and E-3 fleets with automated systems. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Jeremy T. Lock

Managing a flat or slightly declining budget is easier when the topline is over $700 billion, but some programs feel the pinch more than others.

The U.S. Air Force’s requested $169 billion share of a proposed $705 billion defense budget for fiscal 2021 reflects the dilemma facing fiscal planners. Although continuing to insist the Air Force needs scores of additional combat squadrons, service officials are proposing to accelerate retirements of dozens of aircraft across fighter, mobility and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) fleets. The savings would be used to fund development of capabilities that mainly would be realized only after passing through several risk-prone years with an inconsistent military acquisition system.

Specifically, the Air Force proposes through fiscal 2025 early retirement of 44 A-10 attack aircraft, built by Fairchild Republic; 17 B-1 bombers, built by Rockwell; 24 Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Block 20 and 30 unmanned aircraft systems (UAS); 10 contractor-operated MQ-9 UAS, built by General Atomics; and 16 McDonnell Douglas KC-10 and 13 Boeing KC-135 refuelers.

Bucking a trend, the Air Force canceled the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) to focus on a more advanced boost-glide missile as interest grows in hypersonic air-breathing cruise missiles. The requested fleet reductions also follow the Air Force’s decisions during the last budget cycle to retire the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Stars in fiscal 2025 and remove funding for the final planned member in the Lockheed Martin Space-Based Infrared Satellite (SBIRS) constellation  in the fiscal 2019 budget.

“We had to make additional tough choices and major cuts in some areas in order to free up money to continue to invest in the high-end fight,” Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist said…

Although inconsistent with the Air Force’s message that it needs to grow to 486 combat squadrons to meet operational requirements, the proposed fleet reductions since last year have a consistent purpose. The overall defense budget has stagnated since peaking at $716 billion in fiscal 2019, falling to an enacted level of $704 billion this fiscal year and edging up to a proposed $705 billion for fiscal 2021. With no top-line growth, the Air Force is financing an ambitious modernization strategy by leveraging savings from early fleet retirements and terminating certain upgrades.

Our adversaries have designed their forces to exploit our vulnerabilities, and unless we evolve, they will someday face a force they have readily trained and equipped themselves to defeat [emphasis added, see post linked to at top of this one],” said Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, the Air Force’s budget director, speaking to reporters on Feb. 10. “We cannot allow that to happen.”

But the Air Force’s approach carries near-term risks. Fewer aircraft would be available now so more advanced capabilities can be developed for later. The Air Force applied a similar strategy when a budget-sequestration policy was imposed in fiscal 2012, leading to the retirements of hundreds of A-10s and Lockheed Martin F-16s with no immediate replacements.

“We are seeing the fleet literally fall off a cliff,” said a source familiar with the Air Force’s budget plans. “The replacements are not ramping up fast enough or soon enough.”..

“The combatant commanders are focused on the next year to two to three years, and the service chief is looking at 10 to 15 years,” said Gen. Charles Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces, describing the tension between officers in his position and the service chiefs in the Pentagon.

Although some capabilities are being subtracted, the Air Force’s budget request restores funding for some long-sought modernization programs.

A Next Generation Adaptive Engine (NGAP) program appears for the first time in the fiscal 2021 budget documents. As of last year’s budget cycle, the Air Force planned to wrap up by 2021 the Adaptive Engine Technology Demonstrator (AETD) program, which aims to demonstrate a 45,000-lb.-thrust turbofan with three-stream airflow technology for the Lockheed F-35. The lack of a funded transition path for adaptive engine technology prompted frustrated lawmakers to slash the AETD budget by $200 million and chastise the Air Force. With over $400 million committed through fiscal 2024, the NGAP program appears to fund development of a follow-on design, which perhaps could be tailored to a future twin-engine fighter.

Moreover, the Air Force last year reduced the five-year budget for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program by half, or $6.6 billion, nixing prospects to launch full-scale development of a replacement for the Lockheed Martin F-22 as early as fiscal 2023. But the fiscal 2021 budget offers a brighter outlook in the long-term for NGAD, with spending exceeding $2 billion annually for the first time, starting in fiscal 2025.

The F-16 fleet also is due for a major—and long-awaited—upgrade in the fiscal 2021 budget. The Air National Guard has upgraded 72 F-16s with Northrop Grumman APG-82 active electronically scanned array radars since fiscal 2017. The Air Force now plans to expand the upgrade to 330 more fighters, including upgraded mission computers and displays that were not available for the first 72 aircraft.

A subset of the F-16 fleet then will join the core of an advanced fleet of nonstealthy fighters, including the Boeing F-15EX, that will be tasked with defending air bases and the homeland from attack by combat aircraft and cruise missiles [emphasis added].

…the biggest new Air Force commitment is devoted to the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), with $3.26 billion requested over the next five years, including a $302 million down payment in fiscal 2021.

In the near-term, the goals of ABMS are modest. An initial “on-ramp” event staged in December allowed the F-35 and F-22 to exchange data through a ground-based communications gateway that reconciled the waveforms of incompatible low-probability-of-intercept data links used by both aircraft.

During the next two on-ramp events, the Air Force plans to install the communications gateway on the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie, a potential new airborne communications medium for the Air Force’s different stealth fighters. A similar role also would be demonstrated by the Boeing KC-46 tanker.

Ultimately, the Air Force wants to expand beyond gateways. Once the service can deploy a seamless and resilient airborne communications network, the ABMS program plans to introduce a cloud-like processing system, with applications that automatically perform the role played by airborne battle managers on the E-8C and Boeing E-3 fleets today.

Meanwhile our government is still slowly. slowly working to select a new fighter for the RCAF (no winner until 2022), has no formal project to replace its aging CC-150 Polaris tankers, and has not committed any funds needed for the massive modernization of NORAD’s North Warning System.

Oh well.

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

7 thoughts on “How Can the USAF Afford to Re-Equip with the New Equipment it Will Decide it Needs?”

  1. As for the cost of replacing the USAF’s F-22–note Apple analogy:

    ‘USAF Braces For NGAD Sticker Shock On Capitol Hill

    The U.S. Air Force’s acquisition chief said Feb. 18 that he expects a congressional backlash over how a recent revamp of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) procurement strategy could drive up the average procurement unit cost (APUC) of a sixth-generation fighter.

    But the Air Force remains committed to an acquisition strategy for an F-22 replacement that accepts higher upfront costs in order to save money during the sustainment phase of the program, said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force, speaking during an “Ask Me Anything” webinar for the service’s acquisition workforce. The Pentagon calculates APUC by dividing total procurement costs, including recurring and nonrecurring bills, by the number of units purchased.

    “I already see that being the big discussion with Congress. [They would ask:] ‘The APUC is WHAT?’ And we’re going to have to have a really good analysis to show that by operating this way the total cost of ownership is better,” Roper said.

    The Air Force initially planned to structure the NGAD program using a conventional procurement process, in which a contractor typically loses money during the design phase, breaks even at a program level during development and reaps profits over an exclusive, multidecade sustainment period.

    But Roper, who was appointed in 2017, said in early 2019 that the strategy had changed. The details of the highly secretive NGAD program are murky, but Roper has compared the new acquisition strategy to the business model for the Apple iPhone. Apple does not sustain the iPhone beyond a few years, so it makes profits by charging a premium on the design at the point of sale. Although the upfront cost is higher, Apple’s business model incentivizes an external community of software developers to create applications for the iPhone at little to no cost.

    Roper wants to apply a similar philosophy to the development of the next generation of combat aircraft. He wants traditional defense prime contractors to transition away from a sustainment model for profits and incentivize them to focus on design by offering them a premium.

    “The next generation air dominance [program] is thinking what’s the new business model that really reward the companies that use the [design] tools well, but not the sustainment, locked-in paradigm,” Roper said.

    Roper did not specify how much a sixth-generation fighter will cost to procure under the new acquisition approach. The Congressional Budget Office, which assumed a conventional acquisition process, estimated the average flyaway cost of a sixth-generation fighter in late 2018 to be about $300 million, based on a program of record for 414 penetrating counter-air aircraft.

    The Air Force’s new acquisition takes a different approach to quantities compared to the “program of record” format, such as the one used for the Lockheed Martin F-35. Roper said he expects production quantities to fall somewhere between numbers generally associated with one-off X-planes and F-35-like production.

    The new approach is currently applied to the NGAD program, but Roper said he intends to stay in his position as the approach becomes institutionalized in Air Force acquisition…’

    Mark Collins


  2. And what size USAF can be afforded?

    ‘The Air Force we can afford: The 386-squadron goal appears out of reach

    Time is running out for the Air Force’s ambitious proposal to grow to 386 operational squadrons by 2030.

    It may already be too late.

    For the second year in a row since “The Air Force We Need” proposal was unveiled in September 2018, the service’s proposed budget contained nothing to add squadrons, or even anything specific to lay the groundwork for the service’s stated desired for 24 percent growth in the size of the fleet.

    In the White House’s annual budget proposal for 2021, unveiled at the Pentagon on Feb. 10, the Department of the Air Force proposed a modest uptick for next year’s budget, a total increase of about $900 million more than its $168.1 billion total budget for this year. (The Department of the Air Force budget now includes both the Air Force budget as well as funding for the new Space Force.)

    In a Feb. 10 news conference at the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, the Air Force deputy assistant secretary for budget, insisted the plan was not dead.

    But the gravy train for increased military spending under the Trump administration — which has made support for the military and building operational readiness a key priority for the federal budget — may have already run its course. The 2021 budget proposal does not include the same kind of sharp increases in defense spending seen in the first several years of the Trump administration, in fact, the proposed top lines for the Army and Navy have declined from last year. In the Air Force, the proposed budget, while not as draconian as some had predicted, would still retire dozens of aircraft.

    If a Democrat unseats Trump in the fall — particularly if the candidate is a defense spending skeptic such as Sen. Bernie Sanders — it’s hard to see the next administration being inclined to spend vast amounts of money on more aircraft squadrons.

    If Trump is re-elected, a marked spending increase is still unlikely, given the country’s growing budget deficit. Even President Ronald Reagan, who oversaw a massive military build-up in the 1980s, began to cut procurement spending during the last two years of his administration to start balancing other accounts, said John Venable, a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation and former F-16 pilot. He sees the Trump administration’s latest budget proposal as starting to do the same.

    That means the dream of 386 squadrons is effectively dead, he said.

    “I think the Air Force has no intent, and no intention, on fulfilling their own planning requirements,” Venable said in a Feb. 14 interview. “The Air Force is now starting to walk away from that study, and I think that’s a strategic mistake.”

    The Air Force currently has about 312 operational squadrons…[lots more follows]’

    Mark Collins


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