Tuesday, October 18, 2005
The Air Force's 'More With Less' Strategy Is Crippling America's Future Ability to Maintain Air Superiority
In the 17 October 2005 edition of Defense News, Vago Muradian and Gopal Ratnam wrote an article about the inevitable future cuts to the U.S. Armed Forces. These cuts are being forecasted by many analysts due to the apparent signals on budget tightening being sent down from the White House. The question is what can the U.S. Air Force afford to cut?
The article references an October 5th ‘Red Team’ overhead review of current and future requirements and how to shape our armed forces to meet those requirements while simultaneously cutting the DoD ‘fat.’ Here is what the team recommended:
*Cut tactical air forces by 30 percent.
*Cancel the Navy’s DDX future destroyer.
*Delay the Army’s Future Combat Systems.
*Develop conventional theater ballistic missiles to rapidly strike “high-value targets.”
*Build faster sealift ships and nuclear submarines.
*Develop a new long-range bomber.
Five out of the six recommendations are spot-on. The only item on this list that needs to be seriously questioned is the recommendation to cut tactical air forces (TACAIR) by 30%.
From a budgetary standpoint the notion of cutting TACAIR makes perfect sense. Decades ago the United States Air Force chose to drastically cut the number of aircraft it had in favor of developing fewer yet more technologically advanced weapons systems. In other words, the Pentagon wanted to gain more capability with less aircraft. The B-2, F-22, and the up-and-coming F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are results of this strategy. After spending hundreds of billions of dollars on these systems, the Air Force’s concept of ‘more with less’ has come to fruition, but the strategy that was originally intended to defeat the former Soviet Union has in fact crippled the service.
The United States Air Force has rapidly become a Lamborghini on a mountain trail. It without question has fastest and most powerful toys for the open road, but our competition, or future enemies, turned off that road long ago. In other words, while the Air Force has transformed into the best ‘more with less’ air power in the world, its current and future enemies are developing a ‘more with more’ strategy to balance out our technological superiority.
China is currently providing a great example of the ‘more with more’ strategy. According to the 2004 Annual Report On The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, the United States has determined that China, “continues its force-wide modernization program to improve overall combat capabilities in the next decade.”
Beijing continues to:
A) acquire advanced aircraft and weapons
B) upgrade its air-to-air capabilities
C) increase the quality and quantity of pilot training
Jane’s Defence Weekly has a more in-depth assessment of the various Chinese Air Force’s modernization programs, which is ominous for the USAF and it’s strategy of cutting the number of aircraft in its inventory.
From Jane’s 13 June 2005 Sentinel Security Assessment, China and Northeast Asia,
“Largely due to the import and co-production of large numbers of Russian Sukhoi fighters and their associated modern weapons, the PLAAF (Air Force) is contributing to Taiwanese military official estimates that there will be a "crossover" in the Taiwan Strait military balance after 2005. During the second half of this decade the PLAAF will also pose a greater challenge to Asian-based US air forces and to those of China's neighbors.”
Jane’s assessment of China’s ‘strength through numbers’ strategy compared to the current USAF transformation clearly illustrates the basic failure of the ‘more with less’ strategy.
The current numbers of military aircraft are provided below, but at face value they are misleading. The numbers provided include test aircraft and inoperable/depot birds which are not combat capable. From experience, it’s not a stretch to claim that at any given period at least 15 to 20% of U.S. military aircraft are undergoing some type of depot work or are down for maintenance issues. Also, the numbers don’t reflect geographic accessibility. Any possible combat scenario between China and the U.S. would take place near China, whereas the U.S. Air Forces listed below are spread throughout the world. Only a small number of USAF assets are located near China. Also, naval assets are not included, but the ability for naval air assets to be present is not always guaranteed, and would frankly be the first targets of opportunity if China ever became the aggressor.
Last but not least, the numbers do not reflect future planned reductions or allocations of aircraft. For example, the United States Air Forces will be phasing out the older F-15s as new F-22s roll off the assembly line, but for every F-22 built the USAF will retire 2 or 3 F-15s. The same goes for the upcoming F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will be replacing the aging, yet combat proven, F-16.
Number crunch: (Jane’s World Air Forces 2005)
Total Number of U.S. Multi-role Fighters: 1584
Total Number of U.S. Air-Superiority Fighters: 538
Total Number of U.S. Fighter-Bomber/Attack: 408
Total Number of U.S. Bombers: 176
Total Number of Chinese Multi-role Fighters: 1132
Total Number of Chinese Interceptors: 279
Total Number of Chinese Bomber/Attack: 300
Total Number of Chinese Bombers: 120
China has taken well over a decade to ramp up its fighter development and manufacturing capabilities. In the FY04 report to Congress, the Pentagon projected that over the next 10 years China’s Air Force will increase significantly in numbers and capability. If you compare it to the U.S. Air Force’s current strategy of replacing large quantities of combat aircraft with fewer numbers of highly advanced fighters and bombers, it’s difficult to tell which Air Force would prevail in a combat situation. Technologically the USAF will have the Chinese beat hands down, but numerically the U.S. will be significantly outnumbered. Even if the advanced technology and superior pilot training gives the United States a 5 to 1 kill ratio against China in a future combat situation, the larger number of Chinese aircraft will reduce the significance of such a one-sided ratio.
It is impossible to dismiss the importance of having a large number of inexpensively built but effective aircraft, yet the United States Air Force has determined that significant quantity is inferior to quality. The strategy does have merit based on history, but never has a nation purposely minimized the size of its armed forces to counter growing threats and emerging enemies. Underdogs have never chosen to become the underdog.
The strategy also has merit on the budgetary front. The recommendations in the October 2005 ‘Red Team’ report to cut the Air Forces by 30% is based on the fact that by reducing the number of older aircraft while introducing fewer yet newer systems, money is saved and there is no ‘apparent’ loss to the capabilities of the Air Force. It’s the epitome of the ‘more with less’ strategy.
It’s my opinion that ‘more with less’ is both wrong and dangerous. The USAF can purchase nearly six new Block 60 F-16s for the cost of just one new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The Block 60 is has every advancement the F-35 will have except for stealth capability, but the lack of stealth can be overcome through other means in major air combat scenarios. In reality, having stealth capability limits the amount of weaponry and fuel the F-35 can carry into combat. In the end, if six Block 60 F-16s were pitted against one F-35 it is apparent who the winner, or winners, would be. That F-35 would put up a good fight, but would ultimately lose.
The Air Force should still continue to develop and purchase the F-35, but only to replace the F-117 which is a Model T compared to today’s battlefield requirements. The F-35 will be a great fighter, but only in limited numbers. If the U.S. could saturate the battlefield with new F-16s for multi-role missions while taking out anti-air assets using stealth aircraft, the battle is won.
We will never require parity in numbers with China or other military forces, but we will at least need to narrow the gap with more inexpensive and combat proven multi-role fighters such as the Block 60 F-16s. In the coming decade the ‘more with less’ strategy will do just the opposite of this, placing us well behind our adversaries.
Wake-up calls are rarely ever gentle nudges. September 11th was certainly the wake-up call the United States needed to start fighting a war terrorist organizations had declared on us long ago. What sort of wake-up call will it take to make the Pentagon wake up and understand that it is rapidly falling behind the curve in terms of air power projection and deterrence capability? At some point the vastly expensive and time-consuming technologies we’re developing for the next generation of fighters and bombers will become irrelevant if we are faced with overwhelming superiority in numbers. The Air Force will inevitably be forced to find a balance between high-technology and high numbers of aircraft. One would assume that finding this balance now would be much better than finding it in the middle of a massive air war with another country.
posted by El Capitan at 12:36 PM