Skip to content

America Without an Air Force

April 28, 2009

airforceOne final time this week we return to the NY Times Oped by Marine Paul Kane which proposed scrapping the US Air Force, turning over its assets and mission to the Marines and the Navy. Whatever the merits of the proposal or lack of, a close look at Sec Gates 2010 defense budget reveals we may be seeing the demise of the separate air service anyway.  Loren Thompson’s breaks down the figures for us:

Gates wants to end production of the only long-range airlifter currently being built, the C-17, at 205 planes… Also, Gates is increasing the size of ground forces that would use airlifters by 92,000 personnel while expanding operations in Africa.  Nonetheless, he decided to terminate C-17 without completing a new mobility study.

This was our biggest disappointment in the new budget, as airlifters have been some of the hardest working weapons in the War on Terror. And not only do we need more, but I imagine our current very-overworked C-17 fleet needs replacing as well.

Gates proposes to end the F-22 fighter program at 187 planes while sticking with plans to buy 2,443 less pricey F-35 Joint Strike Fighters — about 1,800 of which would go to the Air Force.  But the two planes were designed to operate together with the F-22 providing air dominance and the F-35 focusing on ground attacks. 

Actually, we think the problems with the F-35 goes far beyond its usefulness as an air superiorly fighter. Ever increasing costs seem to be plaguing this so-called “less pricey” aircraft, and we see no need why this should change but likely increase. What we are getting is a fairly mediocre platform at a gold plated price, more than the well-proven 4.5 generation Super Hornet, and still useful legacy aircraft in production, which can carry the same weapons as the F-35. Add to this are the increasing capabilities of UAVs and we see no need for a mass production of $100 million “affordable” jet.

secretary Gates said on April 6 that “we will not pursue a development program for a follow-on Air Force bomber until we have a better understanding of the need, the requirement and the technology.”  Money set aside for a future bomber has been taken for other purposes, leaving the service with a decrepit fleet of 160 cold war bombers.  Only a handful of these planes — the stealthy B-2s — are likely to survive a prolonged encounter with modern air defenses.

bomber1It still amazes us that just as the manned bomber is finally living up to the expectations of the early airpower prophets, such as Douhet, Trenchard,and Mitchell, thanks to precision guided bombs, no one sees any use for them anymore. And in an age where bombing has proved more essential than the air superiority mission, the only new warplane purchased by the USAF in this decades has the F-22 Raptor. How typical is military logic!

Secretary Gates has stood by plans to develop a new tanker.  That’s good, because most of the planes in the aerial refueling fleet are approaching half a century of age.  But even on tankers, it isn’t so clear Gates knows what he’s doing.

poster_air_lrgAlas, no one in the procurement process, whether in Congress or the Pentagon knows either. Neither do we, but one thing we are sure of is the tankers’ essential role in American airpower, and the giant void that would exist in the USAF’s capabilities if all were scrapped. If so, then we can expect that Marines and Navy air might get what they want, consider they either have their own tankers, or forward deploy close enough to the warzone to lessen the requirement.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Distiller permalink
    April 30, 2009 1:06 am


    yes there are. Can even be found on the net. GWOT peak-load was just a click under 70 mtm/day (that’s Afghanistan plus Iraq), and those were smallish wars (shock and awe and Rumsfeld-ish lightness). Those studies actually want to modernize ALL available C-5, plus they count in the C-130 as inter-theatre capable, whereas I guess intra-theatre is more realistic (enough to do for them there).

    Of course the chokepoint will usually be ramp space in the target area and throughput obviously depends on a lot of factors. Let me just say that a C-5 has a few unique capabilities, and carries an astonishing percentage of overall tonnage in a campaign, but flexibility is not its strong side. Stalin was right, you know. In addition it is always questionable to use too low granularity of transport assets – think logistics as a failsafe (kind of) steady flow of IP packages.

    Forward basing of *material* is good within limits. It fits a very static view of warfare, though. Good for a contained Cold War scenario like Korea. Less well suited for a more flexible and mobile way of doing things. Would have to keep stuff in too many places, gets expensive, can be politically difficult, &c. And MPF I see as dangerous against everyone but the most basic of enemies, since the Navy doesn’t even have the odd Perry to escort them.

  2. B.Smitty permalink
    April 29, 2009 8:54 am


    It’s a good thing the services fight together. ;)


    Are there any formal studies indicating we need that many C-17s?

    All the studies I’ve seen point to a mix of forward basing and airlift as the best option.

    There are only so many airlifters that theater airfields (often with very limited MOG restrictions) can handle before becoming saturated.

  3. Distiller permalink
    April 29, 2009 2:22 am


    one stout theatre war is calculated to have a peak requirement of around 25 mtm/day, maybe a little more, as toys are getting heavier all the time. The U.S. wants to be able to do two theatre wars at the same time (of course discussable!).

    And the number is full of unknown unknown, since e.g. in Afghanistan they even have to fly in the water needed for man, beast and machines. And also in Afghanistan MPF didn’t really work, since the ports were hundreds of miles away, tasking the strategic airlift fleet with a lot of intra-theatre work. Peak strategic airlift mission count was around 500 in Afghanistan. And that for sure was NO stout theatre war, more like a colonial uprising. During the best times in Afghanistan the Air Force had around 110 C-17 plus 50 or so C-5 available = around 50 mtm/day (very fuzzy number), but basically already ALL the capacity available was used for just that one campaign.

    If they already used their full capacity for one minor war, how much is needed if going against Persia for example, or being forced to do something about Pakistan? Since then of course a couple of more C-17 became available, and maybe the C-5M programme will increase availability and such, but all the above tells me that the U.S. has not to much strategic airlift, but a shortfall of at least one third, but probably fifty percent. And: All in all it’s cheaper to airlift men and machines if needed than have them forward based in a foreign country, with multiple such “forward basing requirements” leads to serious duplication of equipment and increase of personnel numbers.

    If anything, the U.S. needs the equivalent of 300 C-17 and 50 C-5 strategic ro/ro airlifter, PLUS two wings of airliner derived pax/463L lifter (within limits that could be the secondary job of the KC-X).

  4. Heretic permalink
    April 29, 2009 1:16 am

    The EC-130 is not a “fast mover” by any stretch of the imagination. There’s also only a tiny handful of them in the inventory. The RC-135 is more of an ELINT platform than an offensive EW platform.

    And it may not be a USN-only mission, but after the retirement of the Sparkvarks (and to be fair, EA-6B), it’s certainly been something that the USAF has to go begging for in the form of F/A-18G … simply because there’s no USAF “pointy-nosed” equivalent.

    And although there were A-10G “Wartweasels” deployed in Desert Stomping Ground ’91 … that was never really seriously contemplated as a permanent, full time, dedicated EW platform.

  5. B.Smitty permalink
    April 28, 2009 9:14 pm

    EC-130 Compass Call? RC-135 Rivet Joint?

    Certainly EW is not a USN-only mission.

  6. Heretic permalink
    April 28, 2009 8:40 pm

    Oh … forgot one other role for a “fighter-sized” aircraft.

    Electronic Warfare

    In this case I’ll use the same defense for the oversight as the USAF does.

    “That’s the Navy’s job.”

  7. B.Smitty permalink
    April 28, 2009 7:24 pm

    Relevant operating costs are additional ones, or ones you could save by not operating the DDG. It may very well be that a destroyer which would be performing counter piracy might still be doing something else if there were sufficient OPVs to perform the role. In which case you aren’t saving anything. However, if you scaled back DDG deployments, you could reap some benefit. Of course a ship tied to a pier still has costs, as does its crew.

  8. April 28, 2009 6:21 pm

    The DDG has operating costs, but the relevant operating costs are only the ADDITIONAL ones. These ships cruise in distant places all the time anyway.
    The additional cost is close to zero.

    Airlines have different modes of operation, but that doesn’t change that it’s technically possible to fly aircraft much more – a valid reason to expect more activity before asking for more hardware.

  9. B.Smitty permalink
    April 28, 2009 6:06 pm

    Sven wrote, “The “small warship” /”frigate” thing is similar.
    Even those who complain about the inefficiency of using DDG/CG/LHA/CVN against primitive piracy are calling for a hardware solution – more OPV, real frigates/corvettes. They ignore entirely that not having to buy a new ship is vastly superior to buying small ships. The DDG/CG/LHA/CVN can do the job with a small addition to their operating costs.
    That’s inefficient if you look at the procurement costs (sunk costs, irrelevant for today), but much superior to corvette dreams if you accept that changing behaviour, the human element, is required – not new hardware.”

    This is only true if a) a DDG can really do the job, which given their (relatively) limited numbers and the vast expanses of ocean used by pirates is questionable, and b) if the operating costs of a group of DDGs performing anti-piracy over the “period of interest” (which is likely years) is less than the purchase and operating costs of an operationally equivalent group of OPVs amortized over the same period.

    Burkes cost on the order of $25 million a year to operate. A decent inshore patrol vessels can be had for $25 million.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 28, 2009 3:41 pm

    Since I TOTALLY disagree with the notion that small numbers of exquisite warships are an efficient way to run a Navy, perhaps if you are never going to war, then I wonder if you are wrong about the airlift situation, Sven. But I will think on this some more.

  11. NTV permalink
    April 28, 2009 3:25 pm


    Civilain airlines operate under different contraints than the military does. The spoke and hub system that airlines use cant be used by the AF, while the AF has semiregular flights, those flights can and do get changed by military necisity. If a passenger doesnt show up for a flight on Southwest, the plane doesnt wait for them because the schedule dictates taking off at a specific time. If a Stryker doesnt show up to get loaded, the C-17 doesnt take of to stay on schedule. The C-17 waits to carry the cargo out of military necisity. ALso, a fair amount of the scheduled mundane back and forth hauling is handled by comercial aircraft.
    While airlift cam be more efficent, the demands placed on military aircraft make comparison to civil airlines unrealistic.

  12. April 28, 2009 2:32 pm

    Supposedly, the USA is already at war, yet the airlift capacity runs at low activity.

    Now assume a *bigger* war that really stretches the airlift capacity – that would certainly involve an increase in flying hours per crew, reactivation of mothballed cargo aircraft and a mobilization of civilian air transport capacities, right?

    The Soviet Union broke its economy by being at war strength all the time.
    Now guess what the USA did and is doing.

    The Russians are laughing their asses off.

  13. Distiller permalink
    April 28, 2009 2:10 pm

    Airlift requirements are defined by a wartime tonnes/miles requirement. Of course they hang around in peace time with nothing to do. So does most of the rest of the forces in peace time (well, except those that try to “stay relevant”).

    Mothballing them would only be an option if you could coldstore the ground and flight crews as well.
    Maybe some day robots will replace the crews, then you can do that.
    Till then everybody has to stay current.

  14. west_rhino permalink
    April 28, 2009 12:54 pm

    Let me guess, scrap teh service that alwasy has a golf course on base to fund teh LCS and to offer up assets that mightn’t have an attitude about going after pirates… might work, though I have to ask if we’d not be better served by subordinating Air Force and Navy to the Army.

  15. April 28, 2009 12:09 pm

    Even a “surge” does not quadruple flying hours per crew.

    The U.S. “defense” budgets have been so lavish that asking for more resources has become a first choice and throwing resources as problems a custom.

    A politician would choose wisely if he created scarcities to force more efficiency into the force.
    The military airlift capability is a quite typical example.
    Airlift = important -> many ask for more, more and more.

    Instead, they should better speed up to adequate performance (or develop smarter concepts like a mixed military/civilian fleet).


    The “small warship” /”frigate” thing is similar.
    Even those who complain about the inefficiency of using DDG/CG/LHA/CVN against primitive piracy are calling for a hardware solution – more OPV, real frigates/corvettes. They ignore entirely that not having to buy a new ship is vastly superior to buying small ships. The DDG/CG/LHA/CVN can do the job with a small addition to their operating costs.
    That’s inefficient if you look at the procurement costs (sunk costs, irrelevant for today), but much superior to corvette dreams if you accept that changing behaviour, the human element, is required – not new hardware.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 28, 2009 11:58 am

    OK, I’m not saying you are wrong, but naturally the airlift wouldn’t be on constant demand, as an airliner is daily. But as your article mentioned, you have highs and lows according to the tempo of war. Perhaps during the Surge, and initially into Operation Iraq Freedom, the numbers of hours per day would increase.

  17. April 28, 2009 11:37 am

    I don’t have my original sources at hand, but look at this quick result of google:

    400-500 hrs/yr for a crew. That’s about 1.25 hrs/day.

    Now you can easily see how many crews/aircraft the USAF would need to match airline activity standards.
    USAF C-17 crews are guaranteed to fly much less than airline crews.

    This blog sometimes dissects the relative inactivity of military airlift (the Canadian one in particular):

  18. DesScorp permalink
    April 28, 2009 10:57 am

    I am on the Lightweight Fighter Mafia side, at least until the UAVs come into their own. Almost there.

    UAV’s will never completely replace manned aircraft in a peer threat environment. A China or a Russia will simply take out your UAV control system… via jamming, shooting down satellites, etc, and at that point you’d better have manned aircraft. We’re also much farther away on the Artificial Intelligence side of the UAV equation than some people think. We can’t even properly debug the software for a manned fighter… the F-22…. so there’s no way we’re anywhere close to a fully functioning, autonomous combat UAV that has to take over traditional human decision making in the cockpit. I”d argue that we need a revolution in software development methods.

  19. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 28, 2009 10:45 am

    We no longer have “choice” in aerial platforms, just like at sea with warship classes. We are stuck with the F-35 for decades, for good or ill. I read somewhere that between Gulf War 1 and Gulf War 2 we fielded 10 new UAV platforms, but only one new fighter, the Super Hornet, or 2 now with the Raptor. Thats it for 2 decades. Check out this article on the same subject:

    I am on the Lightweight Fighter Mafia side, at least until the UAVs come into their own. Almost there.

  20. Heretic permalink
    April 28, 2009 9:15 am

    B-3s (ie. NGB) for SEAD/DEAD roles and strike missions against fixed targets of high importance.
    A-10Cs (or follow on equivalent) for CAS and recon.

    The problem is that the F-35 is trying to do both of these jobs … plus air-to-air into the bargain, because fighter/bombers “can do everything” in the minds of the USAF. Compared to the A-10C, the F-35 is beyond gold plated for the CAS mission. Take away that role (CAS), and “all you’ve got left” for a single seat fighter/bomber is SEAD/DEAD (because the RFOA-10CG can do the air-to-ground stuff just fine, thank you very much) and air-to-air.

    With guided munitions, you’re “better off” with a flying wing stealth bomber up at 70,000 ft (where the horizon is dark, even in the daytime) handling SEAD/DEAD and which can loiter (if need be) waiting for targets of opportunity. And depending on the loadout/design of the bomber, and if you buy them in sufficient quantities, the dedicated bomber will actually cost LESS per bomb delivered (and tons of fuel used, maintenance hours, etc.) than the collection of fighter/bomber planes needed to carry the same amount of ordnance.

    That leaves the air-to-air fighter role, with a secondary interest in ground attack. At that point, you’re back to the Lightweight Fighter Mafia and a desire to field LOTS of cheap(er) planes so as to “blanket the skies” rather than hyper-expensive “silver bullets” that you can’t afford to lose any of.

    Mind you, this is a purely USAF analysis here. The story is different for the USN (where UCAS-N is the “bomber”) and the USMC (which really does need a V/STOL fixed wing plane).

  21. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 28, 2009 8:36 am

    I’d love to see your source for this Sven. If so, maybe the SecDef made the right call.

  22. April 28, 2009 7:58 am

    Sue the producer if any C-17 already needs replacement.

    The operational tempo of military airlift is a joke, a tiny fraction of the op tempo of civilian airliners.

    Many people write a lot about how more airlift is needed, and fail entirely to grasp that the available airlift is extremely lazy and inactive in comparison to civilian airlines.

    THE USAF certainly needs no more C-17, but it certainly should look at mothballing a few C-17 aircraft and bring the use of the others up to a reasonable speed.
    They will never learn to use airlift at a reasonable intensity unless the airframes become a scarce resource.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: