by DAVID AXE
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stood at the podium before a hostile crowd. It was September 16, 2009, at a hotel in southern Maryland. Gates was preparing to deliver the capstone speech of the annual Air Force Association Convention. The AFA, an air-power lobbying group and publisher, had long opposed Gates’ decisions regarding U.S. military aviation.
AFA protested when Gates curtailed production of the $150-million-a-copy F-22 fighter at 187 copies. “Not the best possible return on a development investment of $32 billion spanning 20 years,” AFA lamented. The association was also skeptical of Gates’ emphasis on unmanned aircraft and inexpensive “light” combat planes over traditional “heavy” Air Force systems, and his suspension of the Next Generation Bomber meant to succeed the B-2 stealth bomber.
The lobbying group was appalled when Gates proposed to retire early around 230 F-15, F-16 and A-10 fighters — 15 percent of the fighter fleet — that Gates said were too old, too expensive to maintain and surplus to U.S. needs.
The association supported some generals’ pleas for a $20 billion boost to the Air Force’s annual budget, to begin solving the air service’s equipment problems. But Gates declined to get behind the cash request.
AFA’s opposition to Gates’ ideas reflected the sentiments of thousands of current and former Air Force officers, as the secretary fought to reform the air service to better fight current wars — and to save it from impending material meltdown as existing aircraft age and the cost of new planes goes up and up.
Gates knew he faced a tough crowd. But he did not waver from his reformist message. He repeated his desire for a smaller heavy fighter fleet, more surveillance planes, new light fighters, more drones and better processes for producing affordable aircraft in adequate numbers. This mix of capabilities would “protect America against an array of lethal and complex threats,” Gates said.
“To overcome these challenges will call on all of the elements that make up America’s defense establishment – military and civilian, Congress, industry, retired flag officers, veterans’ groups and military service organizations – to step up and be part of the solution,” Gates added. “To be willing to stretch their comfort zones and re-think long-standing assumptions for the wider and greater purpose of doing what is necessary to protect our country. I believe this is happening in the United States Air Force.”
Gates was right. A strong core of reform-minded young officers is working hard to build the future Air Force, by challenging old assumptions. Dan Ward, a 36-year-old major working in the Air Force’s acquisitions establishment, is representative of the reformers. The same day as Gates’ AFA speech, I met Ward at a coffee shop in Rosslyn, an office district in northern Virginia.
Noting rising costs, shrinking budgets and an aging fleet, Ward said the Air Force was in big trouble. But the consequences Ward envisioned were not those the AFA feared. The lobbying group fears America losing its ability to win air battles with Russian and Chinese fighters. Ward, by contrast, is worried the Air Force is ignoring pressing needs for aircraft for small wars, counter-insurgencies and so-called “asymmetric” warfare. “We don’t have the right systems,” he said over his coffee.
But more money isn’t going to fix that, Ward insisted. “More money is our problem,” he declared. “We’re over-funded.” The Air Force Ward described is one that suffers such deep cultural weaknesses that extra money would only sustain failing institutions and prolong the service’s suffering. What the Air Force needs, he said, is less money, because that would force officials to think creatively and fund only programs that deliver what’s needed, in time.
Fundamentally, the Air Force’s problems reflect a “failure of imagination,” Ward said.
The way Ward described it, the Air Force’s current model for buying technology is to pour billions of dollars into “exquisite” development programs that stretch over decades. That leads to “requirements creep” as managers try to keep up with a changing world. The requirements creeps pile on the technical challenges and increase cost, which forces budgeters to stretch out the programs to make them affordable on a year-to-year basis. The result is weapons systems that arrive late and over-budget, and are obsolete when they debut, because the world security situation has left them far behind.
The F-22 is just one example. Development started in 1981, when the plane was conceived as the ultimate counter-measure to vast fleets of Soviet fighters. The Air Force wanted 750 of them. By the time the F-22 entered service in 2005 — a decade later than originally planned — there was no Soviet air threat, and the Pentagon could only afford to buy 187.
Ward has a prescription for building a better, cheaper Air Force, faster. It boils down to constraints. All programs should be “fast, inexpensive, simple and tiny,” he said. Budgets, schedules and initial quantities should be deliberately limited, so as to deliver a given capability in years for millions of dollars, instead of decades for billions.
Pointing to aircraft like the F-16, the Predator drone and the World War II P-51, all of which were developed quickly and cheaply, Ward insisted that his so-called “FIST” approach isn’t really new. It just requires today’s Air Force establishment to stop believing in the “inevitability of overruns and delays.”
“We can do better, faster, cheaper,” Ward said.
There are signs the reformers are winning. In just the last year, the Air Force — with Gates’ strong support, and despite some internal resistance — has launched three new programs, meant to deliver small numbers of cheap but effective aircraft, quickly. These new light fighters, small airlifters and off-the-shelf surveillance planes are “FISTy,” Ward said — and a harbinger of the Air Force Gates is fighting to create.
(Photo: Hawker Beechcraft)