ARLINGTON: As if Syria and sequestration weren’t complicated enough on their own, the combat training cutbacks required by the sequester are cutting into the military’s readiness to intervene, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, told reporters this morning. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has expressed similar concerns about his service’s ability to act in Syria, and the Navy and Marine chiefs have raised readiness problems more generally. But policymakers’ profound aversion to sending US ground troops into a war-torn Islamic nation yet again means that by far the most likely form of intervention is airstrikes and a “no-fly” zone, where the heaviest burden would fall upon the Air Force.
“It depends on the risk you’re willing to accept,” Gen. Welsh told reporters this morning, in response to a question from the incomparable Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News. The Air Force has currently had to ground about 33 squadrons, Welsh had already told the audience at an Air Force Association breakfast, 12 of them “combat-coded” fighter and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) units. Another seven have been reduced to doing only basic “takeoff and landing” training, although Welsh was optimistic the funds freed up by sequestering federal workers would buy back their readiness – albeit not immediately.
“If we have aircraft that would be needed to conduct a no-fly zone, and they haven’t been flying, hopefully we would have time to get them up to speed before we use them,” Welsh told the clustering reporters. That’s not quick and it’s not cheap: It takes 150 percent more money to get a fully grounded squadron combat-ready again than it would to simply keep it trained up all along, Welsh said, and the process can take about six months. Even if there wasn’t time to train back up, however, he said, “if we were ordered to go do it, we’d go do it. And we would be accepting the risk of those people not being as current [on their training]. For me, that’s a risk we don’t want to be accepting.”
That’s especially true because Syria is a more dangerous anti-aircraft adversary than was Libya in 2011 or even Iraq during the no-fly zone era from 1991 to 2003. “We know the Syrians have more updated equipment than they had in Libya or Iraq. We also know they actually operate it,” Welsh said. “They turn it on, they use it, they train with it…. So our assumption is they’re better trained.”
Some experts, including Loren Thompson, a member of our Board of Contributors, have argued that taking apart Syria’s air-defense network would require a “5th generation” fighter – stealthy, speedy, and maneuverable – with the only such aircraft in service today being the Lockheed Martin F-22. The F-22’s outsize cost led then-Defense Sec. Bob Gates to cut off production at 187 aircraft (one of which has since crashed), a decision Gen. Welsh lamented today.
“When we truncate our F-22 buy, what we ended up with is a force that can’t provide air superiority on a grand scale” in multiple theaters of war at once, Welsh told the AFA breakfast audience. Since no one is considering reopening the F-2 production line, he said, “the F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter] is going to be part of the air superiority equation it was originally intended to be or not.”
“Out there where people fight and die for real, if a 4th generation aircraft meets a 5th generation aircraft, the 4th generation aircraft may be more [cost-] efficient; it’s also dead,” Welsh said. With the F-35 being the only other 5th-generation fighter set to enter service, “there is not another airplane that…will be able to help the F-22 do that air superiority mission.”
Sometimes it may be the F-22 helping out the F-22, however. In a scenario like Syria, where the task is to take out radars, command posts, and surface-to-air missile batteries on the ground, the F-35 might actually be the superior aircraft, since it carries more bombs than the more expensive F-22, which is optimized to fight other airplanes. In a war against an adversary with advanced fighters of their own, however, the Air Force has long argued it needs a dedicated dogfighter like the F-22. That’s particularly true in the Pacific, Welsh said, where there’s a “high-end.. well-trained, well-equipped threat.” (The general didn’t name names, but he’s talking about China with its Russian-built Sukhoi SU-30MKKs and, soon, SU-35s.)
The dirty little secret of the Pacific, however, is that it’s kind of big: The “tyranny of distance” tends to defeat short-ranged tactical fighters like the F-22 and F-35. The Navy can at least sail its carriers closer to the target, damning the anti-ship missiles and sailing full speed ahead, but Air Force planes depend on fixed runways, so to reach a target out of range they have to refuel in mid-air from tankers, which are large, lumbering targets a sophisticated enemy can keep well at bay. It’s no wonder, then, that the Air Force’s top three investment priorities, as Welsh reiterated today, are a new and improved tanker, the KC-46, to replace its fifties-vintage KC-135s and a new long-range strike bomber, as yet unnamed, to penetrate deep into hostile airspace where vulnerable tankers and short-ranged fighters cannot go.
“We have to keep pushing for that even if it means a smaller Air Force,” Welsh said of the service’s modernization agenda, the F-35 above all. (By contrast, at a recent panel of four thinktanks, three advocated major cuts to the F-35 to protect what they considered higher priorities from sequester). To buy each new, expensive aircraft, the Air Force is going to have to get rid of more than one old plane and the people who keep it flying. And instead of trimming a few of each type of aircraft across the board, it’s much more cost-effective to get rid of one type of aircraft altogether, because then you can get rid of its entire overhead structure of training, spare parts, and so on. “It’s cheaper to cut [entire] fleets than to cut a few from a fleet,” Welsh said.
Does that mean curtains for the A-10 ground attack plane, the Army’s favorite airplane and the Air Force’s least, asked Air Force magazine’s John Tirpak? Maybe, said Welsh, a former “Warthog” pilot himself. “I love the A-10, that was my first fighter, I love everything about the airplane,” he said. “But we’ve got to make some tough decisions here.”
“It’s a single-mission airplane, essentially,” Welsh said of the A-10. (Many other planes can drop bombs, among other missions, but only the A-10 is built around a massive 30 millimeter multi-barreled cannon to smash ground targets, at the price of dogfighting capability). “If we have multiple-mission airplanes that can do the mission – maybe not as well, but reasonably well – you would look at eliminating the single-mission platform.”
As unpopular as the A-10 is with many of Welsh’s fellow Air Force generals, however, that’s hardly the only cut they’re contemplating.
“We’re looking for every option for where you can cut money… every modernization/recapitalization program,” Welsh said. “We literally built a white board with magnetic strips on it for everything we spend money on.” The service is even conducting an “Air Force 2023” review to figure out what it will have to sacrifice if the Budget Control Act cuts continue for the currently statutory ten years.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s secretive “strategic choices management review” (SCMR) will be finished “over the next several weeks,” Welsh said, but that will hardly be the last word. “We can’t do anything without congressional authority,” Welsh said.
“Most of us inside the business right now are tired of talking about this,” Welsh said of the sequester. Let’s just get a budget deal already, he went on. Otherwise, he said, “if we don’t have one, we’ll roll into 2014 and we’ll play this song again.”