Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Smaller and Weaker

DoD's new austerity campaign doesn't bode well for Air Force modernization efforts. Retired Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, the service's former intelligence chief, says planned budget cuts leaves the Air Force facing three unpalatable choices:

“Without adequate funding, we are destined to go down one of three paths: We get smaller, we get weaker, or we get smaller and weaker,” said the former Air Force intelligence chief.

The Air Force is operating a geriatric force, Deptula said, with bombers and tankers more than 50 years old, and fighters and helicopters more than 30.

The average age of a U.S. airliner, normally subjected to far fewer stresses, is 10 years, he said, adding that an F-15C Eagle fighter he flew in 1979 was flown by his son in 2008. The Air Force buys about 118 aircraft per year, which works out to replacing the fleet every 48 years.

Deptula made his comments in an interview with Air Force Times. His remarks came less than a month after the USAF's Vice Chief of Staff, General Philip Breedlove, warned Congress that projected budget reductions will diminish the service's capabilities.

Analysts have offered several suggestions for saving defense dollars, ranging from redefining the Air Force mission, to merging the acquisition departments of the various services.

Retired General Howie Chandler, a former Vice Chief of Staff, believes the Air Force should close more bases. "We've got too much infrastructure across the force," he told the Times. But he also noted that Congress is reluctant to shutter military facilities and retire aircraft based in their districts.

Ultimately, most experts agree that the Air Force will have to choose among its various aircraft. Buying more F-35s, for example, could mean a reduction in unmanned systems. Mark Gunzinger, a former B-52 pilot who is now a policy analyst in Washington, D.C., says the service needs to divest itself of UAVs that can't operate in high-threat areas and focus on stealthier systems.

Unfortunately, all of the proposed "fixes" have problems of their own. Merging the acquisition functions of the armed services would produce genuine savings, but it would trigger the biggest budgetary food fight in U.S. history, as the various branches--and their supporters--battle over scarce budget dollars for pet programs.

The proposed UAV divestiture would be equally difficult. Since the other services have made only token investments in the ISR support element for drone operations, the Air Force would be compelled to surrender thousands of intel billets (and support architecture) to the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. There is no indication the service is prepared to do that. There's also the issue of funding new UAV systems against more pressing needs, such as a new bomber.

And, without real leadership on the issue, future reductions are likely to be made piecemeal, as they were during the "procurement holiday" of the 1990s. Air Force vets of that era remember the sudden announcement that the service would eliminate 10,000 airmen billets, to provide more money for the F-22 program. Expect similar juggling acts in the years ahead, and longer service careers for aging platforms like the F-15 and F-16.

From our perspective, the idea of closing more bases makes sense, but there's an even larger pot of money that deserves scrutiny as well. We refer to the $200 billion that DoD spends annually on "services." That category includes everything from the "rent-a-cops" that augment base security forces, to firms that run dining halls at overseas locations, and even specialized intel analysis performed by defense contractors.

There is a potential for enormous savings in this area. The armed services made a big jump into outsourcing about 15 years ago, with the promise of better services, at lower prices. But the savings have often been illusory; the private security officer who checked your ID at the gate is certainly competent (most are retired military), but they're at least twice as expensive as a new airmen fresh out of the security forces academy at Lackland. The same holds true for civilian mechanics who perform aircraft maintenance at pilot training bases.

And don't forget the biggest out-sourcing boondoggle of them all: TriCare. One reason DoD spends upwards of $60 billion a year on health care and pension benefits is that we made a conscious decision to send dependents, retirees and some active-duty members to civilian doctors, with a corresponding increase in costs.

So far, no one appears willing to touch the services portion of the Pentagon budget--and for lots of reasons. First, the contracting firms hire battalions of lobbyists and make donations to the politicians who approve their contracts. The same companies also hire lots of former military members and DoD civilians, so there's a certain reluctance among the brass (and their SES counterparts) to undercut a potential employer. The contractors are also pay lots of money in state and local taxes, so politicians at that level are anxious to see the firms hold onto their government jobs.

But the hour of reckoning may be at hand. While the Pentagon is planning on at least $400 billion in defense cuts, the real total may be closer to $1 trillion--or even higher. That sort of budgetary environment will force major reductions across the board, even in the "services" arena.

Unfortunately, that "slash-and-burn" mentality usually generates bad decisions. Before he retired in June, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that virtually all the "fat" had been trimmed from the Pentagon budget. Future cuts will come from bone and muscle, which translates into diminished capabilities.

What does that mean for the Air Force? Something along the lines of Dave Deptula's prediction: a force that is smaller, weaker, or smaller and weaker, relying heavily on "legacy" aircraft that should have been retired years ago, and with little money for new platforms.

1 comment:

TOF said...

I am at the age where some of my grandchildren could be flying the KC-135, which I starte flying in 1961.