This Pentagon Needs Watching

This Thursday, March 11, Congress will hold two separate hearings at the Armed Services Committees of the House and Senate. In the morning, the Senate committee will hear the Pentagon’s Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Ashton Carter, and another Pentagon official talk about the hugely problematic F-35 “Joint Strike Fighter.” In the afternoon, Carter and other top officials will testify to the House committee on how they are managing he Pentagon’s thoroughly broken weapons acquisition system. If these hearings go anything like they usually do, the committees will hear stale bathwater from Under Secretary Carter at both hearings. Everything, he will say, is under control; he’s fixing a few minor problems on the F-35 and he is the cutting edge of reform of the Pentagon’s weapons buying system.

What rubbish this will be. There are fundamental and widespread problems in the design and acquisition of the F-35 that remain unaddressed by Carter’s sloppily applied band-aids, and the Pentagon’s acquisition system continues to hurtle down the road of ruin at ever increasing cost. Both of these problems are only a part of the malaise in our decaying armed forces – a deterioration that is especially pronounced in our combat air forces.

Rarely does a government department write its own swan song as clearly, and without apology, as Carter and the Pentagon do today with respect to the Air Force and the air components of the Navy and Marine Corps. It is all made obvious in an obscure and mostly ignored document that accompanied the new defense budget in early February and that was almost certainly approved with verve by Under Secretary Carter. I refer to the “Aircraft Investment Plan, Fiscal Years (FY) 2011-2040.

This plan envisions the next thirty years for the Air Force and the aircraft for the Navy and Marine Corps. It is the road map to the future for the military arm that has most dazzled Americans since the unconditional victory its advocates assert it won in World War II. From the new high tech drones they see finding and destroying the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s leadership to the wonder-weapon airplanes imagined to keep all future powers like China and Russia forever cowed because they can never catch up, the aviation plan lays out the future of what many Americas ardently believe is our premier arm of military power. The cutting edge of how we should, nay will, do things in the future.

It is not a road map to a more glorious future; instead, it charts the rot that people like Under Secretary Carter plan to impose on our military forces. Contrary to what politically driven dilatants might allege against the Obama administration, the plan is not to ruin our aviation forces with less money, but with more. Contrary to what the weapons dilatants might fear, it does not oppose “high tech” (rather complexity) in our air power, but advocates some of the most complex, costly, and stupid weapons ideas since the Imperial Japanese Navy’s super-battleships of World War II, long ago sent to the bottom of the Pacific.

Without even the cognition to note it, the aviation plan starts out with the smallest and oldest Air Force and naval aviation inventory we have had since the end of World War II. The cause is not a lack of money, which today is higher in inflation adjusted dollars for the Pentagon than at any point since 1946. Nor are the Air Force or the Navy and Marine Corps being starved within the larger budget; their current spending is significantly above what they averaged all through the Cold War when their aircraft inventories were far larger.

Rather than a total combined fighter and attack aircraft inventory of over 8,000 aircraft in the 1950s and ’60s, today we have just 3,264. The new DOD vision is to shrink the force even more; down to 2,929 in 2020 – a 10 percent reduction. While the inventory goes down, the budget goes up: the combined Air Force/Navy tactical (combat) aviation budget would grow from about $12 billion today to roughly $17 billion in 2020.

Shrinking is also the recommended plan for other whole categories of aircraft. From today to 2015 the combined inventory of support intelligence and command and control aircraft will go down to 527 from the current 580, but the budget to buy them goes up from approximately $5 billion to about $8 billion. The inventories of cargo aircraft and air-refueling tanker aircraft will stay roughly constant, while spending for them out to 2020 goes up, sharply in the case of tanker aircraft. The same is true of long range bomber aircraft.

While the plan skates over the issue of inventory age without a single mention, it is obvious that problem will worsen as well. Remarkable are the numbers of aircraft that the new plan retains out to the year 2040. The “legacy” fighters (the F-15s, F-16’s, F-18s, and A-10s that were originally designed in late 1960’s) will be hanging around until 2040. In other categories, the plan mumbles vaguely about “modernization” but nowhere do we see funded in the plan actual replacements for already antiquated manned command and control, surveillance, and intelligence aircraft, and some cargo and tanker aircraft.

We get this shrinking and aging aviation force for a 32 percent increase in money: the plan would up the $22 billion we spend in 2011 to $29 billion in 2020.

It does, however, get worse. Notable about all of the above is that it all assumes flawless implementation. Not a penny of cost growth beyond that reluctantly, but unavoidably, conceded today is accommodated. The plan proudly proclaims that it envisions the new – higher – cost estimates for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but in fact it does not. Under Secretary Carter has just finished truncating the cost growth and schedule delays that a courageous, internal Joint Estimating Team (JET) predicted last fall for the F-35. Many more billions for that program alone (resulting in reductions of the planned buy) are virtually guaranteed. Moreover, last year the GAO found $295 billion in cost growth throughout DOD acquisition since 2001. To expect that the next ten years in aviation acquisition will not see at least as high a rate of cost growth as the last ten years is to live in a fool’s paradise.

The advocates of phony reform in Congress and the Pentagon would rush to point out how the new acquisition reform act, enacted last year, will do away with most, no all, of that. However, a quick tour through the gigantic loopholes of the act – already exploited by Carter to avert the cost growth and schedule delays found by the JET for the F-35 – informs any but the most clueless that the cost the Air Force and Navy predict today to shrink and age their own air forces is woefully understated.

This aviation plan will also likely start off a new round of bureaucratic infighting between the Air Force and Navy. The plan effects a Navy scheme against the Air Force: with just 30 percent of aviation forces, the Navy ends up with 50 percent of the procurement funding and actually gets more in the early – more likely to occur – part of the plan. We have not heard the last of this; budget-share is the most prized jewel in the Pentagon’s bureaucratic rivalries. The Air Force and its leadership surely intend for this Navy raid on their family jewels to not stand.

The one category in all of this mess to see real increases in numbers is for pilotless drones, or as the authors of the plan like to call them “Unmanned Multirole, Surveillance and Strike Aircraft.” These will grow from 72 vehicles today to 476, a more than 600 percent increase. The money will grow (commensurately, they optimistically predict) from just over $1 billion today to almost $7 billion in 2020 – just under a 700 percent increase.

Even more remarkable than the assumption that future drones will be built without the geometric increase in cost we have witnessed in manned aircraft is the bureaucratic warfare yet to be fought out over drones. All the planned spending increase will be in the Navy budget; Air Force drone spending would actually decline. In reality, the total spending will be far, far higher, and the Air Force will never permit itself to fall so far behind.

Literally beyond belief is the schedule and performance that technology-fantasists in the Navy think they will get for their money. No sprightly, little model airplane, the envisioned X-47B now in development is a 15 ton, 62 foot wingspan, tail-less, and ultra-stealthy (of course) replacement for manned aircraft on the Navy’s carriers. Rushing to catch up with and surpass the Air Force, the Navy envisions testing this beast on a carrier in just two years and deploying it in five. No mere vehicle for cameras, radars, and infrared gizmos to go out and search, the X-47B will not just pretend to find all the targets on a theoretically fogless battlefield but attack them as well with two tons of guided bombs.

Notice how well we are doing just that with first generation Air Force and CIA drones (using very much the same sensor technologies the X-47B will have) in Afghanistan, Yemen and especially Pakistan today. Attempting to decapitate al Qaeda and the Taliban, Predator and Reaper drones have been more successful at killing civilians (and at least one US citizen, the CIA boasts), infuriating the previously uncommitted population in favor of our enemies, and deluding Americans to think we can conduct remote control-warfare on other peoples’ homeland with nothing but their obeisance as a consequence. The renewed attacks against America from al Qaeda and its growing, not exactly decapitated, infrastructure would tell us otherwise.

Secretary Gates’ and Under Secretary Carter’s aviation plan is a prescription for a foolish, unaffordable vision that embraces bureaucratic conflict and real decay in our military forces. Listen closely on Thursday as Carter testifies to Congress. Will he address any of these issues – the decay in our aviation forces and the plan to make it all worse – in either the specific F-35 forum at the Senate Armed Services Committee, or the more general acquisition reform forum in the afternoon at the House Armed Services Committee? If Carter initiates a discussion about any of this, you’ll be able to knock me over with a feather. If any of his questioners bring any of it up, I will also be astonished: at both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, they rarely, if ever, probe into the darker recesses of our fundamental defense problems.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and the editor of a new anthology: ‘America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress’.



Winslow T. Wheeler worked for 31 years on Capitol Hill for both Republican and Democratic Senators and for the Government Accountability Office on national security and program evaluation issues. When he left Capitol Hill he worked at the Center for Defense Information and the Project On Government Oversight for thirteen years altogether.