How the Air Force Justifies The New Planes It Wants You to Buy

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How some in the Air Force view the F-16 / Wikimedia

Buying military gear is complicated, expensive and dangerous — it’s dangerous because every dollar you spend on an unneeded weapon means you’ve lost a dollar that could have been spent on a needed weapon.

That’s what makes Thursday’s report from the Government Accountability Office so interesting. While the government auditors won’t come right out and say it, they outline the roadmap driven by the Air Force to get to where it wants to go — all new airplanes, costing you $230 billion over the next four years.

To get there, they had to commit a fair amount of aerial sleight-of-hand, all with a single aimpoint: current aircraft, like the F-15 and F-16, are bad (although they remain the best in the world). New ones — so-called “5th generation,” including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — are good. The Air Force wants to require that every fighter it buys be able to perform every fighter mission the Air Force takes on, even if it’s just patrolling the skies looking for wayward Cessnas or hijacked airliners. And get this: in their calculation justifying their warplane-buying scheme, the Air Force left something out: the impact unmanned aircraft might have on their future buys of manned aircraft.

The following excerpts from the 13-page GAO report are signposts along the highway that gets the Air Force where it wants to go. Hang on, dear taxpayer. You’re just along for the ride:

— Despite this large [$230 billion] investment, the Air Force continues to project that its inventory of fighter and attack aircraft will drop below required levels and that those shortfalls will persist through at least 2030.

— In 2009, Congress directed the Air Force to provide three reports addressing the service’s fighter force structure plans in light of its projected fighter aircraft shortfall.

— …the conclusions reflected previously established service plans and strategic level guidance that was dated by the time the reports were issued.

— The reports presented limited new analyses and primarily summarized the Air Force’s long-standing plan to transition to an all-stealth 5th generation fighter force and the desire therefore to avoid large investments in legacy, non-stealth fighters that could divert funds from this plan.

— Air Force officials acknowledge that many things have changed since their analyses were completed, but note that they used the best data available to them at the time and, based on more recent analyses, they are confident that 5th generation aircraft will continue to be essential to the Air Force’s future success.

— For many years, defense threat assessments and capability analyses have led the Air Force to believe that 5th generation capabilities, including stealth characteristics, fused sensor data, and advanced radars, will be essential to counter the increasingly sophisticated air defense systems of potential future adversaries.

— The Air Force’s overarching force management approach requires that all of the aircraft in the service’s inventory, including Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve aircraft, be capable of integrating with each other. Air Force officials note that this force management concept does not support having “niche” legacy forces that are dedicated to specific missions that do not require stealth capability, such as homeland defense, and are incapable of participating in more difficult anti-access scenarios. Therefore, the Air Force believes that all future fighter and attack aircraft have to be capable of operating in both anti-access and uncontested airspace.

— The Air Force acknowledges that various alternatives, such as purchasing new upgraded legacy aircraft or modernizing existing aircraft, could mitigate some of the projected force structure shortfall.

— Officials noted that the Air Force views alternatives that would reduce JSF funding or quantities as unacceptable…

— …buying new upgraded legacy aircraft was determined to be undesirable because the Air Force believed that the upfront acquisition cost would negatively impact JSF procurement funding…

— The analyses supporting the Air Force’s conclusions…were conducted in 2007 and 2008 and thus reflected the assumptions and force planning construct in place at that time. That [now abandoned] construct largely focused on fighting and winning two nearly simultaneous major combat operations against adversaries possessing high-end, anti-access air defense capabilities.

— Air Force officials note that they intentionally excluded certain types of systems when they ran their computer models to formulate their 2010 budget. They emphasized that in some cases this had to be done because those systems had been identified as high-priority items, but they would not be recognized by the computer models as having adequate capabilities to address the high-end threat scenarios. Unmanned aircraft were among those systems.

— In the end, the Air Force reaffirmed its plans to acquire all 5th generation fighter aircraft.

— Air Force officials agree that much has changed since the reports were prepared but are confident that the changes will not obviate the need for 5th generation aircraft. In fact, they believe that 5th generation aircraft might actually be needed sooner than previously projected.