America's Air Power Strategy

Several major questions concerning the future of American air power may be answered on May 15th when the Clinton Administration submits the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) to Congress. This is the comprehensive follow-up study to the Bottom-Up Review, and it will hopefully provide a framework for strategy, force structure and resource allocation into the 21st Century. However, several prominent lawmakers are already warning that the QDR will only restate the status quo.

The Bottom-Up Review has framed the defense debate of the last four years. All through the Clinton Administration, there have been debates as to whether two major regional conflicts is the proper way of stating Pentagon needs. In addition, not everyone has agreed with the way resources have been allocated to meet those needs.

Today armed forces procurement spending is in real terms lower than it was before the Korean War. Congress has been told by the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the last three years that to ensure the readiness of tomorrow’s force, they will have to increase procurement spending by approximately 20,000 billion dollars annually. The Pentagon has a plan to do this, but their target will not be reached until the year 2001.

For the past few months, the familiar refrain heard from many Pentagon officials is that a particular air power issue will be addressed in the QDR. Yet much like the Bottom-Up Review, the context for the QDR is largely set. It assumes essentially fixed budgets and will, therefore, most likely end up presenting the services with the dilemma of choosing between further reductions in force structure and endstrength if they hope to free-up resources necessary to modernize. It is not a choice any service secretary or chief should have to make. Nor is it a choice that will be based on threat or mission-driven requirements. Nonetheless, many lawmakers suspect this choice is coming.

The QDR could well result in a force which will shrink further as our military leaders desperately try to end what CBO has termed the ‘procurement holiday.’ However, the deepest fear of many in the national security community is that any force structure reductions compelled by the QDR will not come close to funding the kind of programs needed to take even the smaller military of the mid-1990s into the 21st century with unquestioned technological superiority.

Once again, one of the most challenging aspect of the QDR remains the continued underfunding of Pentagon acquisition accounts. In the last two Congressional reports of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Shalikashvili stressed the need to raise procurement funding to a steady state of about $60 billion per year. This is still an operative goal although the QDR may adjust it to meet the dictates of a new or modified force structure.

The QDR is still weeks away, but already there are some major questions which have come to the minds of many. A very basic one is the fact that QDR now appears to be a defense rather a national strategy review. There cannot be a fundamental review of military strategy if it is not accompanied by a review of national strategy–how the President and the Congress see all the elements of U.S. power contributing to the achievement of national objectives.

With the drive for a balanced budget now a reality, Pentagon officials say they believe that the Pentagon will have to do everything within a fiscal ceiling of $250-260 billion per year in real terms. Yet the bills for modernization are scheduled to increase by $20 billion per annum.

Originally, the savings for this increase were to come from better acquisition management, annual savings from BRAC rounds, and other infrastructure/overhead savings. These now are acknowledged to fall short of the needed money. At this point we do not know the ultimate recommendations of the QDR regarding air power, but we do know the four programs which are being carefully reviewed.


A dilemma for any strategy review is the uncertain nature of the national security threat facing the United States and its allies. For example, none of the major threats America has faced in this century were foreseen even five years before they appeared. None of the smaller wars America has fought for the past 50 years were foreseen clearly even one year before. Certainly no one would have dreamed of suggesting in 1945 that five years later the U.S. would almost be driven off the Korean peninsula by a third or fourth rank military power.

The United States military is also coming home, because it appears that the day of the overseas base is rapidly coming to an end. In 1960, the United States had 90 major Air Force bases overseas. Today, the U.S. has 17 and decolonization is one reason. Newly emerging countries like the Philippines do not want the kind of foreign domination that comes with facilities like Clark Air Base and Subic Bay. The other reason has to do with domestic politics: With the Soviets gone, Americans do not want the huge expense of maintaining a far flung military establishment.

We also believe it is important to stress that the need for various types of airplanes — long-range bombers, fighters and transports — is interdependent. America’s fighting force will be far more expensive if we build the next generation of fighters, but ignore the need for new lift or bombers.

With Congress and the Administration making critical decisions, and with deficit reduction affecting every aspect of the defense budget, NSCF believes there is a clear need to emphasize the interdependent nature of air power modernization. Accordingly, the Air Power Strategy Program will include a complete review and analysis of both the positive and negative aspects of the next generation of key military aircraft. Among the major programs under review by the QDR are:

The B-2 “Stealth” Bomber

The Congress has already authorized initial long-lead funding to keep the B-2 Stealth Bomber program open beyond the 20 aircraft already authorized. However, the future of the B-2 may well be decided in the House of Representatives in early June. The QDR is not expected to recommend any additional stealth bombers. If it is ready in time, lawmakers will give special consideration to the Pentagon’s Deep Attack Weapons Mix Study. Only phase one of the study is nearing completion. The second part, which looks at the options for buying more B-2s, still needs considerable work.

The B-2 is already supported by most of Congress’ leading defense experts, and the key question involves the proper number of bombers. Most defense experts agree the B-2 is the greatest aeronautical leap forward in a generation, but a sentiment within the national security community is that the government did not buy enough bombers to make much of a difference. Several prominent strategists are recommending a force of at least 30 B-2 bombers, but the final number will be decided by the Congress.

The B-2 is the only heavy bomber production line still open, and NSCF believes that closing it makes sense only if the U.S. will never need to build another heavy bomber. This is because the B-2 industrial base represents a unique capability that would be very expensive and difficult to recreate. In fact, it is easy to imagine a scenario where the United States, when faced with another global threat, would spend $20 billion on another aircraft if the B-2 assembly line is shut down.

The importance of additional B-2s has already been emphasized by seven former defense secretaries. In a joint letter to Congress they said, “It is already apparent that the end of the Cold War was neither the end of history nor the end of danger. We hope it will also not be the end of the B-2.”

Many observers believe the stealth bomber’s capability to penetrate air defenses and threaten effective retaliation will provide a strong effective deterrent well into the 21st century. The B-2’s stealth technology and its ability to carry a large bombload definitely gives it important advantages over existing bombers. Its “stealthiness” gives it greater freedom of action at high altitudes and it has a range of approximately 6,000 nautical miles.

The B-2 uniquely combines the qualities of stealth that were so dramatically illustrated in Operation Desert Storm, with five times the range and ten times the payload of the F-117. It takes the advantages demonstrated by the F-117 and allows them to be utilized in a cost-effective manner that does not rely on forward basing, or an adversary that allows us months of preparation.

Once again, the B-2 has limped forward to a buy of 20 stealth bombers — the victim more of bad politics than any serious technical flaws. Yet it is truly a breakthrough airplane. Critics have dominated the debate by arguing that the U.S. no longer needs huge quantities of stealthy strategic aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

What they have ignored is that the U.S. still needs major conventional long-range bomber capability, and that the B-2 can provide this capability. Having already invested in B-2’s radical new technology, America’s return on investment has been dramatically limited by its reduced buy.

Retired Air Force General Jasper Welch has told lawmakers that the U.S. should buy enough B-2s to reach a total of 30. He has made a strong case that such capability is particularly important if America cannot get forces to a theater quickly or if we need to deter aggression.

The F-22 “Rapier” Advanced Tactical Fighter

The F-22 “Rapier” is the most advanced fighter plane in history. Unlike most “new” aircraft, such as the Navy’s F/A 18E/F, which reflects only incremental improvements over its predecessors, the F-22 offers a giant leap forward in radar invisibility, combat agility, and supersonic range.

Despite these advances, the F-22 suffered significant setbacks recently on Capitol Hill when an independent Pentagon team concluded that its cost estimate could increase by $16 billion. The per-plane flyaway cost is now estimated to be $78 million, while the Air Forces stated goal has been $70 million.

Historically, tactical aircraft program costs have increased about 36 percent between early development and full-rate production. Against this context, the F-22s projected increase falls below the norm. But in a world of balanced budgets, diminishing defense dollars and heated competition with other programs, that might not be good enough.

The F-22 is intended to replace the aging F-15 “Eagle” and would serve as the U.S. air-dominance fighter of the early 21st century. The Air Force hopes to purchase 442 of these planes and production is scheduled to continue through 2012. By the time the F-22 is fielded in 2004, the original F-15 fighters will be 32 years old.

The F-22 is unique because it has “first look/first kill” capacity in all environments. That is, it has the capacity to see, identify and shoot down an enemy plane before the opponent even detects the Rapier.

So far, critics of the F-22 have limited themselves to suggesting that the plane’s schedule be stretched out and the buy be reduced in size. Over time, critics can be counted on to see the program as too costly and not necessary in the strategic scheme. Many NSC lawmakers have told us that stealthier, faster, more reliable American fighters are needed to guarantee air superiority over the current generation — and that sufficient numbers will be necessary to provide true power projection capabilities and adequate back-up for any future combat scenario.

Joint Strike Fighter

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is being developed for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. It will come into operation around the year 2008 to replace such aircraft as the F-16, A-10, F/A-18C, AV-8B Harrier and the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier. The JSF is intended to provide high attack capability, maneuverability, survivability, and maintainability at an affordable cost. It will complement the Air Force’s F-22 and the Navy’s F/A-18E/F.

The Air Force plans to buy 2,000 of the JSF, making it the largest projected user of the plane. The Marines intend to employ 600 and the Navy about 300. The Royal Navy is looking to replace approximately 60 to 90 of its Sea Harriers with JSFs.

All models of the JSF look essentially alike with a similar shared common design. Each separate variant has unique features to suit it for its particular mission.

The Air Force variant is the most basic version. It is not required to have vertical takeoff and landing capacity nor does it have to have the special characteristics needed to deal with carrier operations. On the other hand, it will have to compete with the high standards set by the Air Force’s F-16 fighter.

The Marine variant is the only version that will have vertical takeoff and landing capacity in order to closely support ground combat operations. This will require a lighter aircraft with greater vertical lift than weight.

The JSF version for the U.S. Navy will have to deal with the special challenges posed by carrier takeoff and landing operations. As a result the internal structure of this model has been beefed-up to handle the stresses associated with catapult launches and arrested landings.

The Royal Navy variant of the JSF is somewhat heavier than the Sea Harrier, but provides extra thrust in compensation. The high degree of commonality among the service variants of the aircraft and across the total development and production program should be the key to its affordability. Once again, affordability will obviously be the driving prerequisite for procuring any new aircraft in an era of reduced budgets and disparate threats.

Cooperation allows the four services to share development costs, which in turn greatly reduces the cost when compared to four independent programs. Together the services hope to purchase about 3,000 units, so this highly common design will benefit from economies of scale. If the airplane follows the lead set by the F-16 in the international market, the total program quantity could ultimately be much higher.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet has already proven to be a significant success. The plane is on time, on budget and under weight. Because of this the Navy is expecting to save $3 billion over the initial purchase price for the first 400 aircraft — which was recently authorized by Defense Secretary Cohen. Compared to the Hornet C/D model, the new version has more capabilities in terms of reach and survivability, bomb load and growth prospects. The Navy plans to fly 1,000 F/A-18E/Fs through 2015.

Unlike the Air Force’s F-22, which has yet to be test-flown, the Super Hornet is flying already at the Navy’s Patuxent River, Maryland test facility. The multimission Super Hornet is 25 percent larger than its predecessor, the F/A-18C/D and can fly further and carry more weapons to and from the carrier.