Mind the Gap


Mind the Gap

Sep 22nd, 2010 12 min read

Senior Research Fellow

Mackenzie Eaglen specializes in defense strategy, military readiness and the defense budget.

Keeping the Joint Strike Fighter Program on track is essential to maintaining U.S. military primacy and preventing an aircraft inventory shortfall.

The epigram, "No good deed goes unpunished," rings true for today's military, particularly the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

Since World War II—in combat and during peacetime—American air power has been decisive. Not a single Soldier or Marine has been lost because of a threat from the air in more than 50 years. Meanwhile, the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps have guaranteed freedom on the high seas for the past half-century.

Maritime control, air dominance, and power projection are just some of our military's core capabilities. But these can wither rapidly without purposeful, sustained investment. Too often, American policymakers take our military primacy for granted. They should not.

In reality, the U.S. armed forces are living off the fruits of the Reagan defense build-up nearly 30 years ago. Today, most major platforms desperately need modernization or next-generation replacements—in many cases, on a one-for-one basis.

The situation compromises our near-term primacy and restricts the ability to meet future threats. Compounding the problem is a mistaken belief that the future will likely mirror the present and recent past. Yet today's challenges offer limited predictive value.

Unfortunately, following traditional linear projections could lead to a precipitous decline in American naval power. The United States must reverse this trend by modernizing major systems, particularly its naval and tactical fighter fleets.

Countries increasingly are looking to sea power to project power and secure their territorial and energy interests. Two years ago, Robert O. Work, then an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, observed that the "United States may be on the leading edge of a broader, longer-term global naval competition, with either China or Russia, or perhaps both." If Work's predictions prove true, the United States will face considerable air and naval disadvantages in coming years. It is impossible to prepare for every eventuality; however, this does not justify a complete absence of planning for probable challenges.

Smaller Fleet, Greater Risks

Today's Navy has fewer Sailors than at any period since 1941 and the smallest Fleet since 1916. Emerging naval powers such as China already are beginning to confront U.S. naval capabilities with indigenous industrial base workforces that can produce high-quality maritime assets in quantity. China is in the midst of a peacetime naval buildup unprecedented in modern history. That nation's procurement of antiship cruise missiles—both foreign and domestic—adds to the risks facing America's major surface combatants.

Russia's leaders, too, are intent on projecting power globally. They have a long way to go, but their national rearmament drive began with the deployment of a more capable navy and air force, including tactical fighter fleets. Today, Russia and China operate a combined 12 fighter and bomber production lines. U.S. capacity has shrunk to one active line manufacturing a fifth-generation fighter.

The future U.S. Navy needs to achieve and maintain access and control above, on, and below the seas. This is particularly true in the Pacific and Indian oceans, given China's development of enhanced strike platforms as part of its anti-access/battlespace-denial strategy. America's global influence would be sharply undercut by a U.S. Navy that could be hedged from key maritime theaters of operation or from vital shipping lanes in times of crisis. To preserve influence, we must maintain a viable force of aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, amphibious ships, attack submarines, and converted Trident submarines, with F-35s comprising the carrier strike force.

Aircraft carriers are the country's first visible line of defense in the world's oceans. The backbone of the carrier's air component is the fighter force, which fulfills the air-superiority mission and ultimately ensures the carrier's survival and continued operation in the face of enemy air threats. This in turn allows the carrier's strike aircraft to carry out interdiction and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions unimpeded.

Since the Cold War, the U.S. Navy has reduced both the number of aircraft carriers and the number and quality of its sea-based fighter force. In 1991, the Navy had 15 aircraft carriers and 377 F-14 Tomcats in 26 squadrons, including 68 F-14As, 21 F-14Ds, and 48 F-14As in the Navy Reserve. In 1999, the Navy had 12 carriers (10 operational) and 235 Tomcats, including 77 F-14Bs and 46 F-14Ds, and 14 F-14As in the Navy Reserve. Hence, in that period, the Navy's air-superiority fighter force was reduced nearly 40 percent, and the carrier force was effectively reduced by one-third. In 1990, the Navy had 566 ships. Twenty years later, the Navy consists of only 291 ships. While the U.S. military may fluctuate with time and evolving threats, further declining numbers will alter how missions are handled and what missions are pursued.

In 2006, the Navy retired its last operational F-14. Cost considerations weighed heavily in this decision. An hour of flight time in the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet costs half as much as an hour in the F-14. Yet in terms of speed, range, and air-to-air missile armament, the F-14 is superior to the F/A-18E/F. The Tomcat has a top speed of Mach 2.34 at altitude and a range of 3,200 kilometers compared with the Super Hornet's "more than" Mach 1.8 and range of about 2,944 kilometers. The F-14 was retired for financial purposes, not because the F/A-18 was superior.

"Fighter Gap": True or False?

Various defense experts have long asserted that the U.S. F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) would not face serious threats from foreign fifth-generation fighters for the next 20 years. Last September, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates repudiated the claim that there is a looming "fighter gap"—a deficit between the services' fighter aircraft inventories and their operational requirements. "The more compelling gap," he argued, "is the deep chasm between the air capabilities of the United States and those of other nations." In another speech at the Economic Club of Chicago, he argued that "China . . . is projected to have no fifth generation aircraft by 2020. And by 2025, the gap only widens. The U.S. will have approximately 1,700 of the most advanced fifth generation fighters versus a handful of comparable aircraft for the Chinese."

However, these claims of unchallenged U.S. control of the skies may now be in doubt.

On 9 April 2008, in his testimony before the Senate Armed Service's Subcommittee on AirLand, Rear Admiral Allen Myers projected a "most-optimistic" deficit of 125 strike fighters for the Department of the Navy, including 69 aircraft for the U.S. Navy and 56 for the Marine Corps. This shortfall, set to peak around 2017, was considered optimistic because it assumed that the service life of F/A-18 Hornets could be extended from 8,000 flight hours to 10,000. The original service life was 6,000 flight hours.

A 10 April 2009 Congressional Research Service report by the late Christopher Bolkom unveiled a potentially larger gap. It cited a Navy briefing to House Armed Services Committee staffers in which it projected that its strike-fighter shortfall could grow to 50 aircraft by Fiscal Year 2010 and 243 by 2018 (129 Navy and 114 Marine Corps fighters).

According to the report, in a move that emphasized lingering disagreement among the White House, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of the Navy, and Congress, a senior Pentagon planner reportedly claimed during a private 7 April 2009 briefing of lawmakers that the Pentagon's Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation concluded there was no Navy strike fighter shortfall. The data on available fighters did not change between April 2008 and April 2009, but the Pentagon altered its policy as if they had.

Thankfully, Congress isn't buying the latest DOD dismissal of shortfalls. During a Navy posture hearing last February, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) noted that the Navy could face a shortfall of "as many as 250 tactical fighters needed to outfit" ten aircraft carrier air wings and three Marine Corps air wings in the next five years. A deficit that substantial will severely limit the aircraft available to combatant commanders on short notice. The outcome can't help but inhibit mission capability and the ability to undertake global operations. Ignoring this issue will only exacerbate the problem.

The Necessary F-35

The JSF program is in a tenuous position. These fighters will be the mainstay of the entire U.S. tactical aircraft fleet in a decade. We are building no fifth-generation alternative should the F-35 go off course. Secretary Gates acknowledges the capabilities of the F-35 when it comes to electronic warfare and suppressing enemy air defenses, yet dismisses any fighter shortfall. However, if the support and production of the F-35 encounters future difficulties, a mismatch between fighter plans and procurement may occur sooner than predicted.

The Pentagon will procure 124 F/A-18E/F/G aircraft in FY 10 through 13. Vice Admiral David Architzel told the Senate AirLand Subcommittee in April 2010 that this is being done "with an absolute commitment to the continuing development and ramping-up procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter." Yet just one month earlier, the F-35's Initial Operating Capability (IOC) was extended 13 months past the original estimate—and no one can say with certainty that the Navy will procure F-35s even by the new, later IOC date. To stay on track and meet the adjusted timelines, the JSF program will require stable and appropriate funding through 2035.

Any program that rises to the top of the DOD's list in terms of size and priority immediately becomes the most closely scrutinized in Washington. Cost overruns—even those occasioned by changes that the Pentagon or Congress demand—become major headlines.

Delays, such as the recent push-back of the F-35 IOC date, often increase production costs, thereby forcing reductions in force size. Other fiscal considerations likely will squeeze procurement budgets in coming years, too. Odds are that America's fighter inventories will wind up significantly smaller than anticipated.

Keeping Up with the Russians—and China

That's a major concern, especially since Russian and Chinese fighter modernization efforts are proceeding well ahead of expectations. On 29 January 2010, Russia conducted the first test flight of its answer to the F-22: the T-50, a prototype of the PAK FA, the Advanced Front-Line Aviation Complex and Russia's fifth-generation fighter. With advanced stealth technology and state-of-the-art avionics, the fighter could, as Moscow has repeatedly proclaimed, seriously challenge U.S. air supremacy.

Russia has already demonstrated its willingness to sell to China hundreds of its best fighter aircraft; thus China could conceivably acquire the PAK FA, too. China is Russia's largest customer of Su-27/Su-30 Flanker fighters—including the more advanced versions, the Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2—with up to 626 sold or ordered as of 2009. The Su-27/Su-30 fighters are produced by Sukhoi Aviation Corporation, the same firm that is developing the PAK FA. By 2025, China could conceivably have as few as 70 and as many as 120 PAK FA fighters compared with the United States' 187 F-22As.

Our legacy fighter fleets have worn out faster than anticipated and are nearing the end of their service lives. This past March, Navy Times reported that Naval Air Systems Command was forced to ground 104 Navy and Marine F/A-18 Hornets. Inspectors discovered that the airframes were developing cracks much sooner than had been anticipated.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) acknowledged the fleet deterioration in his opening statement at February's posture hearing. He noted that "the Navy and Marine Corps continue to be challenged in maintenance and recapitalization." While Skelton was pleased to "see an increase in the Navy's request for operations and maintenance funds," this increase is inadequate to meet existing plans and fund programs.

Unfortunately, the Navy appears to lack the funding necessary to maintain and replace vital aircraft. The current and anticipated equipment cuts to next-generation systems will further reduce America's traditional edge in military technology. That does not necessarily mean the United States will be fighting a peer competitor in the future. But what Washington chooses to invest in or not will motivate others to build up where America is pulling back.

Preserving Forward Global Presence

Ultimately, severe modernization cuts could increase the likelihood that U.S. military capabilities will fall short of the nation's extensive security commitments. Current budget plans indicate the United States may relinquish its military superpower status—not to another nation per se, but by reverting to a position where it lacks the capacity to engage and maintain a forward global presence.

As the world's other militaries expand and modernize, the probability of miscalculation grows. Military weakness, real or perceived, encourages enemies to act. Global trade, which depends on the foundation of the U.S.-led security structure, could increasely be threatened. This delicate system could become more vulnerable to attempts to disrupt access to vital resources. Weakness could incite hostile powers to expand their influence in East Asia, Europe, or the Persian Gulf.

Congress must ensure that the United States maintains air superiority well into the 21st century. This means preserving both the technological and numeric advantages. Given the stress of combat operations, the current and planned numbers of fifth-generation fighters, and the scheduled phase-out of legacy fighters, Congress must carefully examine whether the planned Navy and Marine Corps inventories of new and modernized fighters will meet operational requirements.

Though often considered to be far in the future, a fighter shortfall is fast approaching. Congress needs to begin closing the gap in the pending defense bills. Taking unbudgeted costs into account, a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report assessing the long-term implications of the Pentagon's FY 10 budget projects serious shortfalls. CBO calculates that carrying out DOD plans for 2010 and beyond could require an annual base budget of $632 million (in 2010 dollars) through 2028—a figure 18 percent higher than current 2010 funding levels.

Meanwhile, during a congressional hearing to discuss the long-term sustainability of current defense plans, Congressional Research Service analyst Stephen Daggett estimated the Army's requirement gap to be between $30 billion and $40 billion. He has also testified that the Navy's shipbuilding plans and Air Force's aviation plans are similarly underfunded.

The persistent mismatch between defense plans and budgets translates into capability gaps. The immediate consequence is that many high-priority defense programs are being cut or cancelled because of artificial budget constraints, not because of changing military requirements. In February 2010, Representative Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) released the services' lists of unfunded priority programs. They amounted to $548 million for the Air Force, $359 million for the Army, $532 million for the Navy, and $351 million for the Marine Corps in FY 10. Before Secretary Gates began vetting the lists this year, the Navy's funding shortfalls for priority programs added up to more than $4.5 billion only one year ago. It is difficult to believe that modernization priorities simply disappeared. The long-term consequence is that the DOD is failing to build the capabilities long identified as necessary to defend America's interests.

Quantity Counts

The number of carriers matters: it cannot slip below ten. The carrier strike group remains the Navy's preeminent power-projection strike platform. Current shipbuilding plans call for 11 aircraft carriers, even though the Navy has received a waiver to reduce inventories temporarily to ten. Between 2019 and 2037, this number should increase to 12. Only this level will prove adequate to meet combatant-commander requirements and offer substantial surge capacity.

The procurement budget is coming under increasing inflationary pressure. Major platforms are becoming more expensive, primarily because they are becoming more technologically advanced. But other cost drivers include a shrinking workforce in the design, engineering, and manufacturing sectors and soaring prices for materials. In addition, per-unit overhead costs have increased as the total number of units produced has declined.

Quantity, whether of ships or tactical fighters, is important in controlling production costs. According to Dr. Eric Labs at the CBO, "the cost of building ships has been rising about 1.4 percent faster per year than the prices of final goods and services in the U.S. economy."

Generally, the services have responded to rapid cost increases by reducing procurement rates, thereby creating a vicious cycle. For example, during the 1980s, the Navy purchased more than 17 ships per year at an average cost of $1.2 billion (in 2009 dollars) per ship. By the 2000s, the average cost had increased to $2 billion per ship for roughly six ships per year.

Falling procurement has then fed back into a cycle of further cost growth as defense production has suffered from economies of scale. We cannot allow this well-worn cycle and predictable slow bleed of buy rates to afflict the JSF inventories.

While purchasing more advanced equipment can offset Pentagon decisions not to replace systems on a one-for-one basis, there are limits to this approach. At some point, sheer numbers outweigh the advantages of advanced capabilities, because each ship, plane, and vehicle can be in only one place at one time. If the United States intends to continue to meet its commitments around the world, increasing capability alone is not enough. It must be backed by a sufficient quantity of next-generation systems.

Finally, Congress should fund the development of a sixth-generation fighter. Sixth-generation technologies may include a flying wing with morphic wings that deflect and minimize its radar signature and a visual stealth structure that would use micro cameras to take on the appearance of the sky and the ground to make it invisible. It might also feature a laser weapon in place of a 20-mm or 25-mm cannon.

Military superiority cannot be taken for granted. Vigorous investment in modernizing the services' inventories and the purchase of significant numbers of next-generation platforms is required and overdue.

Ms. Eaglen is a research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Magazine