Star crossed

Posted by lex, on February 15, 2008

By all accounts, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been a breath of fresh air at the Pentagon, especially considering the veil trail of bureaucratic tears left by his predecessor. Compared to Donald Rumsfeld, Gates has proven much more likely to listen to the advice of the service chiefs, and the new Secretary projects an aura of earnest, professional competence. He’s apparently an easy man to work for.

Which doesn’t make him a pushover, however. When problems with standards of care at the Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center pointed to leadership failure, he swiftly tubed then Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey. And when the four star commander of the Air Force Material Command recently told industry reporters that the USAF would buy twice as many F-22 Raptors as were in the President’s Budget, the Secretary reacted quickly:

One senior defense official called the remarks by Gen. Bruce Carlson, who heads the Air Force command responsible for testing and developing new weapons, “borderline insubordination,” because they contradicted a decision by the president.

In its 2009 budget submitted to Congress earlier this month, the White House approved multiyear plans to buy 183 of the stealthy new fighters at an estimated $140 million apiece. Many Air Force officials, however, continue to insist they need 381 of the F-22s to deter global threats.

The rebuke by Gates on Thursday, in a telephone call to Carlson’s superior, reflects a deepening debate within the Defense Department over the direction of the military in the post-Iraq era. In particular, the clash over the F-22 — the Air Force’s premier fighter plane — has become a microcosm of the argument over what kind of wars the United States is likely to encounter in the future.

The general – whose command is much more concerned with future acquisition against future threats than current combat operations – is probably very right on his operational analysis. Quantity has a quality all its own in combat, even for world-beaters like the F-22. Two dozen of the fighters will be dedicated to pilot training and therefore probably never leave the US. That leaves about six heavy squadrons worth of airframes, only half of which could be deployed on any kind of sustained rotational basis. It’s difficult to imagine putting all of our advanced fighter eggs in one theater basket even if there is a sudden crisis in the geopol – the USAF intends to be a world-wide presence.

From a cost-as-an-independent-variable perspective, unit costs at acquisition are higher much higher with a smaller production run, since research and development costs – always the pig in the snake of program dollars – are amortized over fewer airframes. Production costs increase because the “learning curve” has less iterations over which to gain manufacturing efficiencies. Smaller production runs also affect lifecycle cost of ownership since usage rates and fatigue life are spread over fewer aircraft. “Red stripes” or groundings, affect greater proportions of smaller production pools, hurting readiness rates even as they increase usage rates for non-grounded aircraft. And production lines – the cheapest way to buy spare parts – are more swiftly shut down on limited runs, leaving the service to buy one-off spares from hideously expensive mom and pop-style operations.

So there are many operational reasons to want 380 or so Raptors vice the 183 in the budget. There is, however, one overriding strategic reason not to do so: Dad said no. There’s a reason why the Constitution enshrines civilian control of the military, and UCMJ statutes against insubordination don’t run out of force when you pin on your fourth star, as Douglas MacArthur discovered in his time.

But the USAF plays the government game as well or better than any of the services, with the possible exception of the Marine Corps, God bless their leathery hearts. And General Carlson – who is coming up on 37 years of service – didn’t manage to pin on his fourth star by navigating through the Pentagon’s bureaucratic minefields by feeling around with his bare feet. The General has tacitly placed his stars on the table, and made a political statement for consumption by the next administration. Whether that was a courageous and principled move or a costly and foolhardy one is something we will soon see, I suspect.

All eyes are on the land forces, as soldiers and Marines continue to gut it out in Afghanistan and Iraq, burning up material that will have to be replaced. Meanwhile, the USAF and USN continue to quietly provide elevated levels of combat support, all the while watching the usage rates increase on aging ships and airplanes. These usage rates lead to higher operations and greatly higher than projected maintenance costs which in turn negatively impact procurement of newer, cheaper to operate replacements.

Vicious cycle.

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Filed under Carroll "Lex" LeFon

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