April 1, 2008  

Pumping up the numbers

It was after the phone call from their boss, the secretary of defense, that the two most senior leaders of the Air Force clarified their service’s position.

“The Air Force wholeheartedly supports the president’s budget request for the F-22 program,” Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley said in a statement.

The 2009 defense budget, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent to Congress on Feb. 4, would buy no more than 183 of the stealthy fighters. But the budget contains no money to begin shutting down the F-22 production line, leaving the plane’s fate up in the air.

What Wynne and Moseley really want was made clear days earlier in a $18.7 billion list of “unfunded requirements” they sent to members of Congress at about the same time Gates was submitting his budget.

The unfunded list includes $1.1 billion for four additional F-22s in 2009 and advanced procurement funding for 24 F-22s after that — “building toward a required force of 381,” the list explains.

Also on the unfunded list: 15 more C-17 cargo planes costing $3.9 billion; five more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for $761 million; five more Global Hawk unmanned spy planes at $616 million; eight more C-130J cargo planes worth $576 million; and on and on, from Predator UAVs to handguns to dorm furnishings.

The Air Force’s unfunded list is four times the size of the Navy’s $4.6 billion list. The Army says it has $3.9 billion in unfunded needs and the Marine Corps lists $1.3 billion.

Senators, too, called for more spending on warplanes, Navy ships, missile defense and the National Guard. Lawmakers are loath to appear to be weak on defense in an election year that will give prominent play to the war in Iraq. “Congress is out of control on this,” said Gordon Adams, director of defense budgeting at the White House Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton. Eleven years of rising defense budgets made even bigger by seven years of huge war funding supplementals have killed any ability the services had to set budget priorities, he said.

“They want everything,” said Steven Kosiak, director of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

And the service that wants the most is the Air Force.

Moseley has been saying for about a year that the Air Force will need $20 billion more a year for the foreseeable future to buy all that it wants: fighters; refueling tankers; a new bomber; large, medium and small transport planes; search-and-rescue helicopters and more. And with defense budgets rising annually since 1999, with two wars underway and an obliging Congress — whether led by Republicans or Democrats — the Air Force has had little reason to think that getting an extra $20 billion a year is impossible.

All they have to do is push hard enough. So the push is on.

In February, Moseley released a “chief of staff’s white paper.” The Air Force today struggles “with the oldest inventory in history, battered by 17 years of continuous combat,” Moseley said. The service’s “ability to fulfill its missions is already being tested.” Air Combat Command chief Gen. John Corley also revealed in February that a Combat Air Force Strategic Master Plan to create a roadmap for the command was being drafted and would be released in three to six months. “I no longer want to play the whack-a-mole game. If we don’t get into some coherent, integrated, synchronized plan, then we won’t serve our nation the way we should,” Corley said at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. Corley spoke of an Air Force whose air dominance was now being challenged. “Our F-15s and F-16s are overmatched by China and Russia and this poses a significant risk to our air dominance and to our nation’s safety,” Corley said. He spoke of the need for a hybrid solution that would include ramping up production of the F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but insisted neither could be done at the expense of the other. “It’s my belief that you need to have both of those aircraft in sufficient capacity and I am not about cannibalizing either program or cannibalizing the bomber program. I think you need all of these,” he said.

Moseley similarly warned of “rising peer competitors with voracious appetites for resources and influence.” The U.S., he said, faces “predatory and unpredictable regional actors” and will be confronted by “ascendant powers, flush with new wealth and hungry for resources and status.” He warned of “far-reaching, long-term implications of looming threats.”


Moseley didn’t identify these rising foes in his white paper, but he named China as a threat to U.S. satellites. He warned of “generation four-plus fighter aircraft that challenge America’s existing fourth-generation inventory,” which was widely interpreted as a reference to China.

“America’s Air Force will succeed in the 21st century only by developing and resourcing a strategy that closes the gap between ends and means,” Moseley said. “The window of opportunity is shutting fast. Time is not on our side.”

In 2007, the Air Force hired Rand Corp. to produce a study on evolving Chinese “anti-access strategy.” Rand reported that Chinese writings emphasize “gaining mastery by striking first, possibly through surprise attack or pre-emption.” The report, titled “Entering the Dragon’s Lair: Chinese Anti-access Strategies and Their Implications for the United States,” says Chinese strategists “believe that attacks against information systems can delay the deployment of U.S. military forces by disrupting communications,” and that blockades and attacks on supply depots, air bases and ports could prevent or disrupt the flow of U.S. personnel and supplies.

In reality, though, “there has been nothing resembling a near-peer power since the end of the Cold War,” said P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force officer and former special assistant for national security affairs to President Clinton. What the Air Force is doing is “constructing a notional near-peer competitor to justify a variety of [weapon] systems that are currently on the books or in development,” he said.

But how credible are invented peers? When it comes to China — not very, said Henry Rosemont Jr., a visiting scholar at Brown University.

“China is not a military threat to the United States,” Rosemont wrote in February in Foreign Policy in Focus. “The numbers simply don’t add up.”

China acknowledges spending about $35 billion a year on its military — about 7 percent of U.S. defense spending. Some defense experts believe Chinese military spending may actually be double that amount — still only 15 percent of U.S. spending, Rosemont said. Chinese troop strength has decreased by almost half since 1990 and the Chinese air force is “no match in quality for the United States either defensively or offensively. Many of China’s aircraft models are over 40 years old.”

“The Chinese have much better grounds for fearing the United States than the other way around,” Rosemont said. Unlike the U.S., which has more than a quarter million troops stationed overseas, “the entire Chinese Army and Air Force are based within its own borders and shooting at no one,” he said.

The Air Force’s hard-sell tactics have raised some hackles in the Pentagon. In mid-February, Gates rebuked Air Force Gen. Bruce Carlson for saying publicly that the Air Force is “committed to fund 380” F-22s even though the Bush administration plans call for buying 183. Earlier in February, Gates reminded the Senate Armed Services Committee, “The reality is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater.”

But Gates has been unwilling to pull the plug on the F-22. Instead of shutting down the production line, he said he plans to include funding for four more planes in the 2009 war funding bill.

The Air Force “hasn’t had to make tough choices,” Kosiak. “This administration hasn’t made tough choices either.”

“This is the challenge for the next administration. It has to turn to the Pentagon and say, ‘no,’” Crowley said.

“It’s not that we shouldn’t be spending money on national security, but we’re investing in the wrong tools. Terrorism is the threat. Diplomacy and homeland security are better tools than strategic systems,” he said.

“We have military spending rising exponentially while we confront no other superpower,” Crowley said. “This is insane.”