Tag: air force

Levee en Masse–but it’s only an operational concept!

Over at the National Interest T.X. Hamnes has a nice critique of AirSea Battle, seemingly the Pentagon’s reigning  strategy…sorry, operational concept…for dealing with a rising China and the problem of Anti-Access/Area Denial (for the official overview, see here).  I expect I’ll be writing a bit on ASB during my time at the Duck, so I won’t try to engage in every debate in the first post. For now I’ll limit myself to one question Hamnes raises: does it make any sense to talk about an operational concept as isolated from strategy?

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This vote really matters!

Today the Senate voted to cap the Air Force’s purchases of the F-22 at 187 planes by stripping the funding for further purchases of the plane from the Defense budget. This is a very significant vote for several reasons:

1. Its a big political win for the President. Obama threatened to veto a defense bill. That just Does Not Happen–no one vetoes money for DoD.

2. This is the first major cut to a major weapons system in recent memory. The military industrial complex is mighty powerful, and a vast range of interests lined up to defend the F-22, led by its manufacturer and the congressional delegations of many of the states where significant parts of the plane are made. Leading supporter of the F-22 in the Senate? Saxbe Chambliss, R-GA. The F-22 is assembled in Georgia. The final vote tally shows bi-partisan support for killing the plane. It also shows bi-partisan support for keeping the plane. This spending is all about pork, and little about ideology.

3. It is a major victory for the prospect of restoring some sanity to the defense budget. As Spencer Ackerman points out, lose here and Gates and Obama have no chance to reign in the defense budget. The win here brings the Defense budget back to reality (if only a little bit, but its a start). Gates powerfully made the point that DoD needs that money more urgently elsewhere. Lest we forget, there are still 2 wars going on, with troops who need stuff to fight those wars. The F-22 has yet to see any role in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

4. It offers some hope to procurement reform at DoD. Much of the modern military–both operationally and administratively–is organized around the purchase of major weapons systems. This works if you have a great weapons system, but is incredibly inefficient, wasteful, and leaves you with the Army you’ve got– pace Rumsfeld, not the one you wish you had. One of the reasons we don’t have the military we wish we had is all of the support, doctrinally, institutionally, culturally, and financially for these weapons systems. The fighter jocks of the Air Force really want the F-22. They have resisted UAVs like Predator and Reaper and ugly Close Air Support planes like the A-10. And yet, these have been among the most useful and most in demand throughout the wars we’re actually fighting. The F-22? Not so much.

5. Gates went to the mattress on this one, with the full support of the President, and he won. He’s going to be in a commanding position to institute further reforms at the Pentagon. Its rather ironic, don’t ya think, just a little ironic, I really do think, that Rumsfeld came in determined to reform the Pentagon, and, arguably, left much of it in worse shape than when he arrived while Gates, called in to clean up the mess, so to speak, and then retained by an administration of a different political party which ran in opposition to the war Gates, as SecDef, was overseeing, manages to gain the bureaucratic and political strength to make reforms where it matters. The money. All about the Benjamins, that.

So, yeah, a big deal today in the Senate.


Scribbles in My Notebook…

I have a mental queue of about 3 or 5 post that I’ve been meaning to get up in the past couple of days, but the demands of a new baby in the house are leaving me sleep deprived and somehow unable to find time to construct the posts I want to write (go figure…). So, in lieu of that, a couple of scribbles from my mental notebook that merit your attention and our discussion.

–SecDef Gates unveiled his defense budget. This could be one the most significant policy undertakings of the Obama administration and lead to some real, meaningful reforms with profound consequences on both domestic and international politics. This issue is being covered quite well elsewhere, so I will only give a couple of quick points that I hope you keep in mind.

Stop talking about this as budget cuts. Its not. It still represents an overall increase in US defense spending. Rather, its a reallocation of funds and priorities, away from some things and toward other things.

This shows how backasswards defense policy is. The vehicle for a major reorientation of defense policy is the budget. Not a policy document, not a strategic review, but procurement. Procurement and budgets drive defense policy more than ‘policy’ does, in that going to war with the military you have, not the one you want is the product of weapons requirements from 20 years ago. The F-22, the fighter jet at the center of all this, originated with a set of requirements in the late 1980’s during the cold war. Sure, they’ve updated and reaffirmed a new set of requirements to keep the plane alive. But, current AF strategy and policy discussions surrounding this plane are still captive to budget cycles from a decade ago.

I like the go-for-broke strategy that Gates is employing, as it makes it more likely, I think, to overcome Congressional opposition to any weapons system cuts. He’s shown with his comments that he’s ready to take on the defense spending as jobs argument head on.

Check out this story on how closely the US is studying Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah and how that discussion is serving as a proxy for the larger debate on the future shape of the US military.

–Obama was in Europe, had a major NATO summit, and called for nuclear disarmament. Foolish critics called him naive. Reagan also wanted disarmament, he offered to give up all our nuclear weapons if the Soviets would do the same. Obama’s going to try again to get the CTBT ratified. I think these are important steps. Proliferation is one of those global, multilateral problems that no one country can address alone. Reaching any nuclear deal ultimately runs into the fundamental bargain of the NPT that leaves some states nuclear and others not. That bargain requires the nuclear states to work towards disarmament. Obama’s call for nuclear arms reduction gives him major cred in seeking further arms control agreements with new and potential nuclear powers, as he can now claim with some credibility that he is interested in matching the disarmament that he is asking others to undertake.

–North Korea launched a missile / satellite that failed miserably, crashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The interesting question, I think, is how this impacts their credibility–they continually threaten war, testing, and proliferation, but then continually fail when they try to make good. And yet, within the DPRK, this is a reaffirmation of North Korean resistance and US surrender. To the rest of the world, well, I don’t think it helps North Korea make any friends.

Obama invoked the UNSC, which was nice, but (predictably?), no one could agree on anything. Russia and China were not happy with the test, but it seems there’s a difference between not liking the test and allowing the SC to sanction a state for violation of a resolution. We shall see how much more fun this makes Stephen Bosworth’s job.

–Pirates take a US cargo ship. Charli has that covered, but as I mentioned to a couple of students we’re working with on a Pirate project this summer, Now things might start to get interesting. Which is to say, we’ll see if the US changes its tune at all when US interests / persons / items are at risk.

–Opening day for baseball, lets go Cleveland!!!


Those were the days

Yesterday as I drove to work, two stories on NPR caught my attention with how completely out of touch the interviewees sounded about their particular fields. These are people who are highly trained, performing what used to be important–if not vital–services, and well rewarded professionally for their accomplishments. And yet, listening to them talk about the importance of preserving the culture, practices, and institutional arrangements that enabled their profession, their claims rang so hollow, so 20th century, that I was struck that they would even say such things on radio.

The culprits? Bankers and Fighter Pilots. The Bankers were all upset about the “strings attached” to the TARP bail-out money they had received. Of particular concern was the limits on executive pay, and how this was going to cause a talent drain in the financial sector. All I could think was how tone-deaf the bankers sounded–while some of these guys may have had talent, it was a talent for destruction, not necessarily talent that you want to keep around. And, have they tried looking for jobs lately? There are quite literally thousands of finance professionals out of work, ready to step in to the jobs these supposed talents are vacating.

The Fighter Pilots were not quite as egregious, but still sounded like relics of a day gone bye. Morning edition has a nice 2 part story (yesterday and today) about fighter pilots and the changing fighter pilot culture. I’m not quite going to give the full Farley here, but listening to these guys, who sound as if they stepped off the set of Top Gun and into the story, you wonder if they are living in a bygone era (yes, I know one is AF and the other USN, but half of the first NPR segment is all about Top Gun, check it out, they even have the great music).

So why is there such an emphasis on training fighter pilots?

“None of us, I think, can really say with certainty who it is that we may end up having to fight next or what their capabilities are or what weapons systems they’ll have,” [Lt. Col. Dan “Digger” Hawkins, the deputy commander at Red Flag] says. “And so that’s why we keep our skills honed with exercises like Red Flag — so that we can be ready to defend the country at a moment’s notice against whoever it is who may try to attack us.”

No one who is currently training at Red Flag has ever been in a dogfight, but the training they receive is what Hawkins calls “very realistic dogfights.”

“As far as actual live combat, I’ll believe that some of the last air-to-air kills that the U.S. Air Force had was in Bosnia back in the 1990s.”

That was before these students were even pilots.

It sounds like such a valiant culture, much like the Pony Express was a valiant way to deliver cross-country mail in its day. For the past SIX years, the US has been engaged in two wars, actual ongoing combat operations, in one case against a real enemy that had actually attacked the United States, and fighter pilots have had no place to operationalize all that wonderful training at Red Flag. Instead, they have been pushed aside by robots. These days, Drones are the US weapon of choice in fighting Al Qaeda:

Pentagon officials say the remotely piloted planes, which can beam back live video for up to 22 hours, have done more than any other weapons system to track down insurgents and save American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The planes have become one of the military’s favorite weapons despite many shortcomings resulting from the rush to get them into the field.

There is a near insatiable demand for more Predators and Reapers, but none of the “pilots” don’t want to actually fly them. Its just not the same–pulling 9Gs vs sitting in a small room playing video games–they say.

Bankers and Fighter Pilots. Heroes of the 80’s and 90’s. Sounding like relics of bygone era. It would be cute, if it wasn’t so darn expensive to maintain the institutions that facilitate their cultures.


Slow response for minuteman

Some days ago I mentioned the resurrection–in spirit if not in name–of the Strategic Air Command.

Robert Farley echoed the dominant explanation in the media: the Air Force has badly bungled its handling of the nuclear forces. This is all a bit ironic, as the “big scare” of this kind in the 1990s was the decrepit state of the Russian nuclear arsenal.

Now we learn that our guys took five days to respond to a bad-wiring indicator in a Minuteman III silo. When they arrived, they discovered evidence of a fire that, thankfully, didn’t make it into the launch tube itself–where it might have ignited the missle’s fuel.

According to Global Security Newswire:

fire at a U.S. nuclear missile facility went undetected for five days in May before repair crews discovered $1.03 million in damage, the Air Force announced yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 6, 2007).

Spokeswoman Maj. Laurie Arellano said the Air Force did not disclose the incident at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., until now because the investigation was only just completed. The fire joins a string of embarrassing nuclear management lapses for the Air Force, including last year’s accidental transfer of nuclear weapons (see GSN, Sept. 5, 2007), the mistaken shipment of nuclear warhead fuses to Taiwan in 2006 (see GSN, Sept. 26) and the roadside ditching of a Minuteman III missile being transferred to its silo (see GSN, Aug. 12).

These events led to wholesale restructuring of the Air Force’s nuclear management plans (see GSN, Oct. 27).

The May 23 incident was caused by a faulty battery charger that caught fire at Minuteman III silo facility 40 miles east of Cheyenne, Wyo., and 100 miles north of Denver, Colo. The fire did not enter the missile’s launch tube, Arellano said, and did not threaten to ignite the missile’s solid-rocket fuel. Following standard U.S. policy, she did not say if the missile was currently armed with any nuclear warheads.

Repair crews responded to a bad-wiring indicator five days later and found the fire evidence, determining that it had burned for one or two hours (Dan Elliott, Associated Press/Google News, Oct. 30).

Yesterday’s Air Force report indicated that some duct tape had been used in the silo, drawing criticism from one nuclear-weapon expert.

“The notion that you’re patching up your H-bombs with duct tape is not encouraging,” said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org. “You also have to wonder if you have this sloppy activity that is revealed by a fire happened, how much other sloppy activity has not been detected?” (Tom Roeder, Colorado Springs (Colo.) Gazette, Oct. 30).

Heh. Indeed.

But more a “heh” in the Munch sense.

Image source: Wikipedia


Bad Week for the USAF

Certainly not a winning week for the Air Force. Already reeling from the high-profile dismissal of both its uniformed and civilian leader, the USAF was slammed again in two major stories this week.

First, the GAO slammed the Air Force’s procurement procedures with a stinging rebuke of its decision to award its major tanker contract to the Northrup-Grumman. The USAF has been looking to upgrade its tanker fleet for years but the entire process has been clouded by scandal. There was the ill-fated sweetheart lease deal for Boeing. There was the criminal interference by senior Boeing leaders and a senior civilian AF official, where the official steered contracts to Boeing in return for a job after retiring from government (this led to actual jail time). Supposedly this competition for the tanker contract would move beyond the dysfunction, but alas, no. The Boeing team cried foul after it lost the contract, and as it turns out, the GAO found substantial problems with the process and recommended the Air Force scrap the existing contract and start all over again.

The Post quoted one analyst:

“We’ve not seen a document as scorching as this from an independent, nonpolitical agency,” he said. “They are essentially saying there is either incompetency in the Air Force or there was political interference that led them to bend over backwards to benefit one competitor because they feared the power of the purse strings. Either way, the Air Force procurement system has gone horribly, horribly wrong.”

Given that they were bending over backward to avoid the political interference given the outcome of the previous tanker debacle, I’d lean toward incompetency.

On top of that, we learn from the NYT that the Army, fed up with the Air Force, recently stood up its own air unit to provide UAV surveillance in Iraq.
Since the days of the Key West Agreement, the Army has only maintained rotary aircraft (helicopters) while the Air Force took care of all fix-winged air assets. This has led to years of inter-service tension, as the Army must depend on the Air Force for transport, close air support, and recon/surveillance. The Air Force has long focused on its strategic role (nukes), with an emphasis on fighters and bombers, leaving the help-the-Army portions of the service to play second fiddle.

This overall attitude certainly played a role in Gates decision to fire the top AF brass. Note the discrepancy in assessment of the USAF in today’s active combat zones:

Army and Marine Corps officers in Afghanistan have complained that Air Force pilots flying attack missions in support of ground operations do not come in as low as their Navy and Marine counterparts. Instances of civilian casualties from bombing and missile attacks have increased tensions among local populations, which have to be eased by ground commanders, adding to their burden of winning hearts and minds in the counterinsurgency efforts.

“We are supporting the Army as best we can,” Michael W. Wynne, the departing Air Force secretary, said Friday.

Its pretty clear that a large part of the defense establishment has concluded that “as best we can” is not good enough.


(Air) Forced Out

SecDef Gates fired both the military and civilian head of the Air Force yesterday. The official reason was the release of a report on the mis-handling of nuclear weapons, though Danger Room suggests that this was merely the culmination of a number of issues that left Gates rather upset with the Air Force. (blog link round up of additional good coverage: here, here, and here).

This is a rather big deal. As a number of observers have pointed out, this is the first time that both the military and civilian head of an armed service have been sacked at the same time. It sends a very strong signal to not just the USAF, but to the entire military–get with the program or get out. There are two ways to get people’s attention in the Pentagon: threaten their budget or threaten their careers. Military and civilian leaders are very protective of budgets, weapons systems, and programs. Military leaders are also very protective of their careers, paying careful attention to who gets promoted and what it takes to get promoted. The Bush Administration might have formally entered Lame Duck status once Barak Obama won the nomination and the General Election started in earnest, but Gates isn’t backing down one iota from his plan to bring the Pentagon in line (his line).

The Air Force has had a rough go of late. LGM’s Rob Farley has written extensively on the problem that is today’s USAF. Even Gates has been critical, telling the service’s top leaders to get more involved in fighting the wars of today and to stop pining for fancy planes to fight the wannabe-wars of tomorrow. The nation is at war, military budgets are at record highs, and they are often left standing on the side-lines. The F-22, their centerpiece system, has, to paraphrase the SecDef, next to no role in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The things that have the most value–planes like the A-10, missions like close air support, and innovations like UAV’s–are just the things that the Air Force, as an institution, likes least. Not to mention all the other recent scandals that have brought the service unwanted attention (and are amply mentioned in the coverage of the firings).

None of this is to say that the AF is irrelevant. Indeed, its a central factor in American global military hegemony, though the most important parts are perhaps the least sexy. Lots of countries have half-way decent fighter planes, but none have the global logistical lift, mid-air refueling, surveillance, and electronic communication capability that the USAF provides the US armed forces. Its an incredible thing, and yet, its not something that the Air Force itself celebrates. Strategic nuclear forces and fighter planes produce Air Force leaders and doctrines. Or at least they did–the head of TRANSCOM is rumored to be in the running to succeed the now former chief of staff. That would be a very powerful signal indeed.


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