Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Slow Death Of American Air Power

Saw this piece on the Lexington Institute site. It's by Loren B. Thompson, one of the institute's most prolific researchers. This is an excerpt from a "popular" piece written in January this year along with a presentation, and tells us a thing or two about why considering American planes could be folly, and why it would be a big bonus for the IAF if the LCA was operational soon:

After 20 years of neglect, the Air Force's fleet of combat aircraft is older than the Navy's fleet of warships.

During his four-year stint as defense secretary, Dick Cheney killed the service's cold-war fighter programs, terminated the next-generation B-2 bomber at a mere 20 planes, slashed the future C-17 cargo plane program, and decimated every other facet of U.S. air power. Clinton's defense secretaries added back some planes that Cheney had cut, but delayed and decreased the next-generation F-22 fighter that was the centerpiece of plans for future air dominance.

Then Donald Rumsfeld launched the entire department on a leap-ahead trajectory to military transformation that ignored air power for another six years.

The end result is that the Air Force now flies 45-year-old aerial refueling tankers using a plane retired by commercial airlines a quarter-century ago; its F-22 fighter program has been cut 75% even though the aging fighters it would replace are so old they operate under flight restriction; its production lines for C-130 and C-17 transport planes are scheduled for closure despite lack of adequate airlift; and the service has canceled its planned family of aircraft for replacing cold-war radar and reconnaissance planes.

The only bright spot on the horizon is the tri-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but Navy efforts to slash funding for JSF suggest the Air Force can't even count on that program coming to fruition.

Air Force pilots have a favorite story they tell that captures the meltdown of American air power over the past 20 years. Brigadier General David Deptula [incidentally this was the officer who was in Kalaikunda during Cope India 2005 with the USAF team] was flying his F-15 over northern Iraq in 1999 when cockpit gauges went haywire and the fuel reading plummeted to zero. It turned out insulation on the plane's wiring had rotted away with age, shorting out the electrical system. The punch-line of the story was that Gen. Deptula was flying the same F-15 he had flown 20 years earlier as a young captain. But most of the people who tell the story don't know it has a new punch-line: Gen. Deptula's son, a first lieutenant, is now flying the same plane in the Pacific -- nearly 30 years after it was built.

Back in 1999, when President Bush made that campaign speech about skipping a generation of military technology, he titled his remarks, "A Period of Consequences." Well, after 20 years of neglect by both political parties, a period of consequences has arrived for American air power.

The Air Force that prevented any American soldier from being killed by enemy aircraft for half a century may not be up to the task in the years ahead due to lack of adequate investment.
Other countries have begun to field tactical aircraft that match the performance of our existing fighters, and they are deploying sophisticated surface-to-air missiles that few non-stealthy aircraft can escape.

We got an indication of what lay ahead in 1999 when Serbia -- a country that spends less on defense in a year than NATO spends in a day -- managed to shoot down a first-generation stealth fighter and drive European fighters from its air space. NATO commanders were so concerned about Serbian air defenses that they flew B-2 bomber strikes all the way from the United States to avoid putting non-stealthy planes over the country.

We got another indication of what lay ahead in 2004, when pilots from the Indian Air Force repeatedly defeated American F-15s in joint exercises using a combination of new technology and new tactics. The Indians benefited from superior numbers in the exercises, but that's the sort of edge you would expect defenders to have in a real war -- we can't count on outnumbering enemy air forces in their own air space.

One other harbinger of things to come can be seen in the growing number of Air Force planes grounded or restricted due to age-related cracking, corrosion and parts obsolescence. As we speak, structural concerns have forced flight restrictions of one sort or another on all of the Air Force's F-15 fighters, all of its B-1 bombers, dozens of airlifters and dozens of tankers. These problems are likely to grow worse in future years, because a fleet built mainly in the Reagan era and earlier is beginning to wear out.

If we do not accelerate current plans to replace cold-war aircraft, we are risking a catastrophic loss of global air power in the near future. I estimated in my chapter that an increase in annual procurement outlays of $10 billion for the Air Force would be necessary to address the most critical problems, concentrated mainly in four areas:

-- First, continued production of the F-22 Raptor fighter at the rate of 20 planes per year through the next decade.
-- Second, continued production of the C-17 and C-130 transports to support ground forces through the next decade.
-- Third, expedited production of next-generation aerial-refueling tankers to replace Eisenhower-era airframes as soon as possible.
-- Fourth, expedited development of a new long-range bomber that can provide speed, persistence and survivability missing in the current force.

I should note in closing that my chapter also deals in some considerable detail with problems in the military space program, but there I think the real challenge has been mismanagement rather than money. When we get to the core of our global air power, the planes that support global knowledge and mobility and strike capability, the challenge is a simple lack of money. We either spend more, or in the very near future we lose our most important war-fighting advantage.


Abhiman said...

Mr. Aroor, the Tejas is progressing at a fast pace now with IoC expected next year. In contrast, as per news reports the selection and negotiations with the winner of the MRCA tender itself shall take 3-4 years after the RFPs are released.

In such circumstances, Tejas can be the MRCA of IAF, as significant time and efforts can be saved as compared to selecting a foreign MRCA.
Again, as stated by Admiral Prakash, risks of poor supply of critical spare-parts, unfair prices and "arm-twisting" by any foreign country can be avoided when an indigenous system is used.

Only political will by the IAF and Ministry of Defence may be needed, to select Tejas as MRCA.

Thank you.

anon29 said...

To understand the standard of Defence reporting in this country, just look at the reaction to the LCA LSP-1 flight last week..... just small snippets.

How about the fact that this is the first production LCA which WILL SERVE in the IAF. How about the fact that it went supersonic in the first flight itself? great achievements by any standard. And yet, the Def Media is silent.

Thats probably because they would have to eat their hats and toupee's if

Have they realized that it will take at least 3 yrs to choose a winner AFTER the RFP is sent, and another couple to negotiate the suite on the winning aircraft. And if the IAF wants customization, another 2 yrs at least. After that, it will take min 2 yrs for the first aircraft to come to India.

Which means that we'll see the first MRCA only in 2014-2015 at the earliest?? What about the delay there???

And coming to the Delays in the LCA, which they so gleefully pin on DRDO, (only the german word Schadenfreude can describe this leering glee on their part).

Have they noted the 2 year delay in IAF framing the ASR?? Or the 3 years without funds from 1990 to 1993?? and what about the sanctions?? What about IAF asking for a redesign of the wings because they messed up on their ASR?? If these hadn't happened, the LCA would have surely flown by 1995-96, and would have been inducted by now.

Even now, as the LCA is flying ahead, and problems of the are just a speck on the ground, the media seems to be stuck in the dark ages. So when IOC will be achieved by mid next year, the Media will still be talking about how the LCA is still in development 24 years after the project was mooted, forgetting the fact that core development on LCA was completed in 2004, and only side work on the Kaveri is going on.

Anonymous said...

Nothing less than 18 months before the final deal is inked after issue of RFP......anyway Shiv where do you get such good pictures from for your blog....they are so beautiful just like you

Abhiman said...

anon29, I completely agree with your views. The facts about the years of delays due US sanctions and IAF's "tantrums" as rightly elaborated by you, are unfortunately largely ignored not only by a convenient media, but also the CAG and Parliamentary Committees, which regularly issue "reports" and "studies" blaming ADA for LCA's delay and asking ADA to "speed-up the LCA".