Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral

It is fascinating to see how problems with our defense apparatus periodically surge into prominence.  Articles in the major media relate ominous quotes by a host of concerned experts.  Of course, no serious action results.  Soon the Washington and media elites slump back to indifference, until their self-interested torpor is roused by the next crisis.  The Army’s increasing difficulty attracting and retaining good people is one example of this (click here to see the story).

Perhaps the most important aspect of these various issues is that each has been known for many years, with little done to arrest the downward spiral.  This is a characteristic, almost a defining factor, of the many dysfunctions in our defense apparatus.  The OODA loop of the senior civilian and uniformed DoD leaders is broken.  Until this fundamental problem is fixed, solutions will remain difficult or impossible to implement — and the list of critical weaknesses will grow ever longer.

Now we may see another such recurring surge of media coverage, this time about the Air Force’s death spiral.  The cost of new aircraft increases faster than the aging of the current fleet.  Each generation of purchases buys fewer aircraft, which must last longer.  With each cycle we have fewer, older, more expensive to maintain craft.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might bring this cycle to a conclusion, as they rapidly burn through the service life of our air fleet – just as America enters a recession, perhaps a severe one.

The results are already bad, and will probably grow much more so.

Air Force suspends some F-15 operations“, Defense News (4 November 2007)

The Air Force suspended non-mission critical F-15 flight operations on November 3 following the crash of a Missouri Air National Guard F-15C aircraft November 2.

After Grounding, Official Questions F-15’s Future“, Defense News (9 January 2008)

As of Jan. 9, U.S. Air Force squadrons had a green light to resume flight operations of F-15 fighter jets. But only 259 of 441 A through D model Eagles were flyable.  The other 182 jets remained grounded after inspections turned up fuselage supports that are thinner than called for in specifications. Those supports are potentially weak links. Nine other planes were already grounded because of cracks in the supports.

During a Jan. 10 news conference, the head of Air Combat Command, Gen. John Corley, made no promises about if or when the grounded jets would be back in the air.  “I have a fleet that is 100 percent fatigued, and 40 percent of that has bad parts,” said Corley, an F-15 pilot. “The long-term future of the F-15 is in question.”

Decisions on the grounded planes will be made on a case-by-case basis, Corley said. … The Air Force also is checking some of its other fighters to determine if they have similar undetected problems.

Update:  “Catastrophic Failure“, Robert S. Dudney, Air Force Magazine (January 2008)

It was a chilling event.  The aged F-15C, flying a peacetime mission, broke up without warning, even though the aircraft had not been violently maneuvering.  The pilot was forced to eject at high speed.

These words do not refer to the recent F-15 crackup above Missouri (see “Washington Watch: The F-15 Incident,” p. 8). No, the mishap spoken of here occurred in 2002 over the Gulf of Mexico. The doomed F-15C was flying at 24,000 feet when part of its tail broke off. Maj. James A. Duricy punched out at 900 mph and was killed. Investigators said the tail had corroded over the years. The fighter had gotten old.

That, please note, was six years ago. The Nov. 2 mishap in Missouri might be sobering-USAF cited a “catastrophic structural failure” and grounded many F-15s-but it certainly was not new. USAF has been warning about aging aircraft for many years.

Evidently, the warnings haven’t registered. National leaders-be they in the White House, Defense Department, or Congress-have failed to address the issue in any truly definitive way. Indeed, Washington’s apathy toward USAF’s geriatric fleet comes close to outright negligence.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Background history, listed from oldest to newest 

For an excellent introduction to the Defense Death Spiral see  “Defense Death Spiral” by Franklin “Chuck” Spinney (8 November 2000).  After reading the introduction, click on “Table of Contents” for the first slide.

Do you believe he exaggerates?  Take a list at this list of studies and articles; this is by no means a complete list even for the past ten years — and this could be continued back much further in time.

Aging of U.S. Air Force Aircraft, National Materials Advisory Board of the National Academies (1997) —  as usual, one of their magisterial reports:  complete, through, and ignored.

Defense’s Death Spiral: The Increasing Irrelevance of More Spending“, John Hillen, Foreign Affairs (July/August 1999)

But the truth is that the groundwork for the military’s budget crisis was laid long in advance and was fully predictable. And the same system that gave us this defense “train wreck” will suck up and waste even more substantial increases in military spending for the foreseeable future unless Washington makes significant changes.

The Pentagon is locked in a budgetary death spiral simply because the way it thinks about the world has not caught up with the way it spends money.  The process is the problem.  The military programs, strategies, and weapon systems funded by the $270 billion annual defense budget match neither the administration’s national security strategy nor the Pentagon’s own blueprint for future military operations.

Testimony of Franklin C. Spinney (Staff Analyst, Department of Defense) before the Committee on Governmental Reform, US House of Representatives (4 June 2002)

The DoD’s financial management problems can be summed up quite succinctly: Both links are broken.  The historical books cannot pass the routine audits required by law and planning data systematically misrepresent the future consequences of current decisions.  The double breakdown in these information links makes it impossible for decision makers to assemble the information needed to synthesize a coherent defense plan that is both accountable to the American people and responsive to the changing threats, opportunities, and constraints of an uncertain world.

My aim today is twofold:  In Part I, I want establish a point of departure by describing the basic structure of the top-level financial management information system now used by the Pentagon’s senior leadership to shape the Department’s plans and control the evolution of our nation’s defense policies.  Then I will place the double breakdown in the context of this system, with emphasis on the breakdown in the link between the present and future.  In Part II, I want to submit for the record the broad outlines of a proposal for a program to produce the kind of information needed to resolve this crisis.

The Long-term implications of current defense plans“, Congressional Budget Office (January 2003) — (PDF) must-reading for anyone concerned about the future of the US military and America’s defense.  Our wars in the Middle East have accelerated the budgetary problems by forcing increasing expenditures for personnel and burning through the service life of our land and air vehicles.  Here is Chuck Spinney’s analysis of this important CBO report.

Chief rejects Air Force ‘death spiral’ talk“, (28 February 2005)

“Things are pretty much unfolding as I thought they would,” said Spinney, who made the cover of Time Magazine in 1983 for his projections showing the Reagan administration had vastly underestimated the costs of its defense buildup.”

Arms Fiascoes Lead to Alarm Inside Pentagon“, Tim Weiner, New York Times (8 June 2005)

Nine years ago, the Navy set out to build a new guided missile for its 21st-century ships.  Fiascoes followed.  In a test firing, the missile melted its on-board guidance system. “Incredibly,” an Army review said, “the Navy ruled the test a success.”  Recently, the Navy rewrote the contract and put out another one, with little to show for the money it already spent.  The bill has come to almost $400 million, five times the original budget.

Such stories may seem old hat. But after years of failing to control cost overruns, the most powerful officials at the Pentagon are becoming increasingly alarmed that the machinery for building weapons is breaking down under its own weight.  “Something’s wrong with the system,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld recently told Congress.

The Pentagon has more than 80 major new weapons systems under development, which is “a lot more programs than we can afford,” a senior Air Force official, Blaise J. Durante, said.  Their combined cost, already $300 billion over budget, is $1.47 trillion and climbing.

In the civilian world, next-generation technologies, like cellphones and computers, rarely cost much more than their predecessors.  But the Pentagon’s new planes and ships are costing three, four and five times as much as the weapons they will replace.  As prices soar, the number of new weapons that the American military can afford shrinks, even with the biggest budget in decades.

Aging Aircraft, War Costs Weigh Heavily in Future Budgets“, National Defense (January 2007)

So will it be business as usual as the 2008 budget process gets underway?  “That’s my guess,” Haaland said {Senate Appropriations Committee staffer}.

Such predictions are not what Air Force budget officials want to hear. The service last year announced that it would cut 40,000 personnel, plus an additional 2,000 civilian jobs. It is also determined to recapitalize its aging aircraft fleet and maintain its technological edge. Meanwhile, requests to retire nearly 1,000 older aircraft have gone nowhere in Congress.

Something has to give.

Maj. Gen. Frank R. Faykes, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for budget, said the service’s personnel costs have increased 51 percent during the past 10 years. Higher pay and added benefits have helped the Air Force close the so-called pay gap between itself and the private sector. “All those things are good, but all those things have put pressures on the budget by driving our personnel costs up,” Faykes said at an Air Force Association conference in Washington. Skyrocketing medical costs have added to the personnel budget woes, he added.

USAF Struggles To Replace Aging Aircraft — Age Limits 14% of Fleet“, Defense News (19 February 2007)

The youngest of the U.S. military services finds itself burdened with the oldest equipment, facing major recapitalization challenges in an increasingly tight budget environment while trying to do its part in the global war on terror, U.S. Air Force officials say.

More than 800 of the service’s aircraft – 14 percent of the fleet – are grounded or have mission-limiting restrictions due to age, according to service officials.

We are challenged with an aging fleet right now,” said Maj. Gen. David Edgington, director of global power programs in the Air Force acquisition office, at a Feb. 15 defense budget conference. … The Air Force, which has about 6,000 aircraft, is buying about 60 new ones each year, Edgington said. “That’s a 100-year rate of recapitalization,” he said.

Aging Array of American Aircraft Attracting Attention“, Defense Industry Daily (8 August 2007) – Note:  at the end of the article is an excellent list of links to other reports.

The current US Air Force fleet, whose planes are more than 23 years old on average, is the oldest in USAF history.  It won’t keep that title for very long.  Many transport aircraft and aerial refueling tankers are more than 40 years old – and under current plans, some may be as many as 70-80 years old before they retire.  Indeed, even if the US military gets every plane it asks for in its future plans, average aircraft age will continue to rise.  Nor is the USA the only country facing this problem.

U.S. Fighter Modernization Plans: Near-Term Choices“, Congressional briefing sponsored by The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) (19 September 2007) – Air Force Magazines reports on the briefing:

The Air Force’s attempts to fund replacement of its aged aircraft fleet by cutting personnel is failing, and if Congress and the White House don’t provide an infusion of cash soon, the service will no longer be able to win wars, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne declared. … the service’s stay-within-its-topline bootstrap approach isn’t arresting the aging aircraft problem, and the inventory age is still rising, from 23.9 years today to 26.5 years by 2012.

The Air Force’s older fighters aren’t up to defeating a modern air defense system or modern foreign fighters, Wynne said, and in a fight with Venezuela or Iran, such aircraft would probably be shot down.

“No [USAF] fourth-generation fighter would be allowed into war over Tehran or over Caracas, once they buy what the Russians are selling them,” Wynne said. He noted that as far back as 1999, only stealthy B-2s and F-117s were actually allowed to overfly the murderous air defenses around Belgrade in operation Allied Force, and foreign air defense systems have improved dramatically since then.

… It was Wynne’s idea, he said, to “voluntarily downsize and restructure the force, just like an industrialist would do, in order to gain the resources to recapitalize his asset base.” The reductions targeted 40,000 full-time equivalent uniformed slots.

However, “it isn’t working,” Wynne admitted.

“What does that mean to an industrialist?” he asked and answered: “It means you are going out of business. It is simply a matter of time.” All that has been accomplished, he said, is to slow down the pace at which Air Force aircraft race toward their retirement dates.

“This can’t go on,” Wynne asserted. “At some time in the future, they will simply rust out, age-out, fall out of the sky. We need, somehow, to recapitalize this force.”

5 thoughts on “Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral”

  1. Maybe we are facing a ‘stalemate’ situation? The USA may be technologically superior in many area’s and may indeed have the ability to control the battle-space, but as has been seen time & time again, a technologically superior force does not mean much when faced with numbers. In conventional terms anyway.

    With the Russians exporting their defence technology to anyone willing to buy it and in many cases help to develop far better versions of their equipment, the Indian Sukhoi Flanker & considerable enlargement of undersea forces throughout Asia as cases in point, it simply may not be possible to defeat states as how we previously did.

    This could be seen as a ‘castle’ mentality, as I see it anyway. States build up their defence forces to the stage where it simply is not an option to just attack. So as canon defeated castles maybe the future lies in stand-off weapons and a siege mentality to warfare. One can own the battle-space, but does not need to enter it if they have sufficient capability. In realistic terms, energy is the only asset the USA would have to actually kick down the door for. Yes we like to see instant results these days but history has shown that war tends to be a long-term investment.

    The air force needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Owning space and being able to observe every movement an enemy makes then tasking others to intercept is probably the future of air/space control, enabling the more efficient use of whatever forces are available. But until then we are in a twilight were the implemention of one is a far way off while we can not do without constant cover of jets.

  2. “The air force needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.” Perhaps so, but there is insufficient money in the till to do so as presently configured. It is not going to happen.

    This may be OK. We can skip a generation, and rebuild with remotely piloted vehicles at a fraction of the both initial and operating cost of the F-22 and F-35 – and probably far greater utility.

  3. Matthew Williams

    I recommend ‘The Baroque Arsenal’ by Mary Kaldor. Published in 1981 .

    Ms Kaldor proposes that buying weapons has become a form of corporate welfare – giving money to specific industries and geographical areas. If the complex (baroque) weapons happen to be useful, then that is a welcome surprise.

  4. I tend to get a little skeptical about RPV’s. The counter measures have not yet appeared (though I’m sure they are being built). Basically block the communications and the RPV’s crash. There is a useful role for local operations, but for long range missions?

    I’m personally in the Straus (military reform) camp. More simpler, cheaper aircraft.

    One thing that doesn’t come up enough is comparitive performance data to make rational decisions. For example, what is the best (in kill for kill) 1970/80’s aicraft?

    I’m sure that the F-15 would come up, the F-16 would get a mention, some Russian planes (the F-14 would never come up), the Aussies get wonders out of their F-18’s. But the best was actually the Sea Harrier. Kill ratios of 5:1 against F-15s, etc, much cheaper too. Best ground hitter? Close support the A-10 of course (US Air Force hated of course) but Schwartzkof stated after Gulf War 1 that the Marine’s Harrier were one of his top war winning tools. Kosovo, RAF Harriers made a major contribution again.

    So the actual reality is always different to the money getting propaganda. Old F-15’s stuffed, maybe, or just an attempt to get more money for F-22/35 boondangles? Stealth? Been around for 30 years now, counter measures – definately.

    The US military procurement system is so systemically corrupt, in both the ‘give me cash’ sense and political influence terms, that nothing rational can come out of it. Data is so propagandised that finding out any real details is almost impossible (honourable exceptions to CDI and the GAO of course). Corporate socialism anyone?

    2 old jokes: The US has developed the ultimate plane, 1000:1 kill ratio, hit the left knacker off a fly at 200 miles, trouble is it has only 1 of them. The other is the old Soviet one: 2 Soviet Generals standing at the English Channel after their triumphant march through Europe, one turns to the other “by the way, who won the air war”?

    Now if only we in Australia started getting sensible stuff rather than buying the right old over priced rubbish we get from the States (F-111’s, Sea Sprites, Abrahms, etc, etc).

  5. I knew Maj. Duricy, his death was a shock and tragedy. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but good lord knowing nothing was learned from his death makes it a catastrophic shame.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for this personal note. It is too easy to see these things from such a high-level perspective that one forgets the real cost — the most important cost — of maintaining the shield that protects this nation.

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