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Gates drops ball on U.S. Air Force needs

By LOREN B. THOMPSON   |   April 21, 2009 at 11:40 AM   |   Comments

ARLINGTON, Va., April 21 (UPI) -- Gen. Norton Schwartz, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff, faced biting criticism from his service's senior leaders in a video teleconference last week.

They accused him of betraying the service's requirements process by siding with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in terminating key airpower programs without rigorous analysis and signaled that Schwartz's credibility is at risk among his Air Force peers.

Doubts about Schwartz have been rife since Gates selected him to replace the less pliable Gen. T. Michael Moseley last summer after Moseley clashed with Gates over the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor fighter and management of nuclear weapons. A look at Gates's plans for Air Force programs shows why Schwartz's tenure could resemble a controlled flight into terrain.

Airlifters. Gates wants to end production of the only long-range airlifter currently being built, the Boeing C-17 Globemaster, at 205 planes. That number is the low end of a fleet mix recommended in the 2005 Mobility Capability Study, adjusted to compensate for a later decision to forgo putting new engines on most older Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy transports. The C-17 and C-5 are the only long-range jet transports in the joint fleet, and under the Gates plan that fleet would be capped at about 315 planes.

But a U.S. Government Accountability Office report found the 2005 study probably underestimated future mobility needs. Also, Gates is increasing the size of ground forces that would use airlifters by 92,000 personnel while expanding operations in Africa. Nonetheless, he decided to terminate the C-17 without completing a new mobility study.

Fighters. Gates proposes to end the F-22 fighter program at 187 planes while sticking with plans to buy 2,443 less-pricey Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters -- about 1,800 of which would go to the Air Force.

But the two planes were designed to operate together, with the F-22 providing air dominance and the F-35 focusing on ground attacks. The F-35 lacks features such as vectored thrust and fuel-conserving super-cruise, so it is not as capable in combating enemy defenses.

Ten years ago Defense Secretary William Cohen wrote, "The F-22 will enable the Joint Strike Fighter to carry out its primary strike mission. The JSF was not designed for the air-superiority mission." Neither Gates nor Schwartz has explained how this division of labor can work while ending F-22 production far below stated requirements.

Bombers. The war-winning potential of long-range bombers was the original rationale for an independent air force, and today the U.S. Air Force still has a sizable fleet of heavy bombers. But Gates said on April 6, "We will not pursue a development program for a follow-on Air Force bomber until we have a better understanding of the need, the requirement and the technology."

Money set aside for a future bomber has been taken for other purposes, leaving the service with a decrepit fleet of 160 Cold War bombers. Only a handful of these planes -- the stealthy Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirits -- are likely to survive a prolonged encounter with modern air defenses.

Tankers. The Air Force has been trying since the 21st century began to modernize the aerial refueling tankers that make it possible for U.S. airlifters, fighters and bombers to operate in remote places like Afghanistan, and Gates has stood by plans to develop a new tanker. That is good because most of the planes in the aerial refueling fleet are approaching half a century of age.

But even on tankers, it isn't so clear Gates knows what he's doing. He says he will lay his body "across the tracks" to prevent Congress from splitting production between two teams because it would cost too much -- ignoring the fact that a dual award would replace aging tankers much faster and avoid billions of dollars in upkeep for the current fleet. Is it any wonder Schwartz is having a hard time explaining himself?

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(Loren B. Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank that supports democracy and the free market.)

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