Reshaping US Forces When Money is Tight As the Obama Administration shapes the acquisition approach of the Department of Defense for the years to come, hard choices will be taken. And these choices will have significant impact both in implementing and in shaping strategy for years to come.
Among the key drivers will be Afghanistan, Iraq and the operation and shape of power projection forces. First, how the Afghan strategy is re-cast and how US forces are equipped and the concept of operations of those forces, in concert with those of allies, will shape US capabilities for years to come. Second, the drawdown in Iraq and the re-deployment of the significant stash of equipment from US forces, either within the region or returned to US forces will also shape US and allied capabilities in the region. And, finally, how the administration approaches the re-shaping of US expeditionary and power projection forces will have a fundamental impact on the US posture. Power projection forces shape how the US approaches allies, how allies deal with the United States and in the future will shape the calculations of adversaries with regard to the real military capability of the United States in global affairs.
Acquisition is inextricably intertwined with military capability. In the ongoing debate about acquisition processes and of the proper balance between industry, civilians and the military, what is often forgotten is that acquisition is about buying things. Too often the lawyer mentality of those shaping the process enforces the notion that process is more important than outcome. The critical question is the ability to buy the right equipment, at the right time, with the right effect and with core capabilities to sustain that equipment worldwide.
The press of financial limitations further complicates the challenge. Those limitations include: a crisis in financial resources; costly “overseas contingency operations;” growth in the numbers of military personnel which reduces resources available for equipment buys and sustainment; a shift in domestic priorities away from those represented by the Department of Defense; growing competition in global markets to sell US equipment; and the lingering impact of cacophony in US export policies which, in the case of the satellite market, has virtually eliminated US suppliers from the global competition.
At the heart of the challenge will be how to leverage austerity. The current strategic review process owes the country more than simply justifications for canceling programs and supporting counter-insurgency operations. It owes the country some foundational principles for launching a new architecture and new programs to support U.S. and allied power projection forces providing for security and military needs.
One of these principles could be “leveraged” modernization, whereby well-established platforms are used to provide for new capabilities and to seek to connect these legacy platforms into new “connected battlespace capabilities.” One example is the USMC “Harvest Hawk” program. The USMC is using its KC-130Js to craft a roll-on, roll-off ISR platform. The USMC is looking to do the same with its Ospreys. The program will yield an operational aircraft in less than a year.
The airlift fleet, crucial for the future of US joint operations, could also become an example of leveraged legacy platforms with new capabilities. There are clear limits to the amount of capital available for the acquisition of new lift aircraft; and there is significant uncertainly with regard to the future disposition of US kit to be carried by the lift fleet. When FCS was clearly in place, one could project with some certainty the nature of the future lift fleet. Such certainty is now gone.
Add to this uncertainty the fact that the tanker fleet was already supposed to be in the process of recapitalization. One approach to rebuilding the tanker fleet would be to it use the C-5 modernization to provide a solution to the lift and tanker shortfalls. Some of the older C-5s are being retired, and the savings from those -- plus the savings from new efficiencies for the modernized C-5s -- will pay for themselves in operational savings. According to a 2008 USAF estimate (which is the current program of record), for the mixed C-5 fleet (52 C-5Ms plus 59 AMP C-5As) there will be a reduction of operation costs by $15 billion and a Reduced Total Ownership Cost of $8.9 Billion.
The upgrade program for the C-5 consists of two elements. The Avionics Modernization Program (AMP) provides a new cockpit, including several flight safety enhancements and upgrades which allow it to operate in modern civil space. The modernized C-5 has data links to connect with air traffic control. These links allow reduced separation of aircraft so they can operate in regulated air space. By being able to access optimized air traffic control routes, the C-5M gains fuel savings, time and can operate at longer distance.
The Reliability Enhancement and Re-Engining Program (RERP) updates 70 subsystems of the aircraft. The centerpiece of the RERP is a new General Electric engine which is used worldwide on civil aircraft and is found as well on Air Force One and KC-10 tankers. This allows access to GE worldwide engine system in offline locations.
This upgrade program not only virtually pays for itself through life cycle cost savings but yields new capabilities -– leveraged modernization – -which provides capabilities able to attenuate the tanker gap. As already noted, the C-5M can operate in civil airspace due to the avionics upgrades, which allows it to fly more efficient routes. The range of the aircraft allows it to avoid re-fueling in route (as compared to C-130s or C-17s), which means we need fewer tankers and don't need to rely on in-route tanking infrastructure (notably in-route air fields).
And the modernized C-5Ms provide significant contributions to dealing with strategic uncertainty as well. The US will clearly need insertion forces able to operate worldwide in very time constrained environments for humanitarian or military missions. The C5Ms will be able to carry significant or heavy loads over long distance, which provides for either longer range for C-17 sized loads or simply bigger, bulkier or heavier loads.
The increased reliability of the C5-M will allow the Air Force to use the C-5 on more austere runways. The C-5 has significant capability to land in austere runways; with the new systems it can be considered a core contributor to this capability. The airplane has a landing gear footprint (LCN landing classification number) lower than the C-17 and comparable with the C-130, which allows the aircraft to operate on soft semi-prepared runways. This inherent capability allows you to go beyond how the service currently uses the aircraft. Improved reliability from modernization means the tactical use of the C-5M can be expanded. In other words, by modernizing the C-5, the C-5M will be able to carry more cargo, over longer distances, and with less air refueling tanker dependency. The C-5M delivers 22% more power, provides 58% faster climb rate and 8 to 20% better fuel economy, depending upon the operational scenario. And the C-5M can expand its operations into airfields with shorter runways, thereby expanding its operational utility.
In short, austerity requires innovation. Leverage current assets where possible to gain further capability combined with the re-capitalization of the power projection forces will provide mid to long-term solutions in a constrained environment. Obviously, finding the balance between the two will be the art of policy and the crux of policy choices. Programs like “Harvest Hawk” and the C-5 modernization efforts make sense as part of the solution.
Robbin Laird, a former National Security Council staff member under Presidents Carter and Reagan, is an international defense consultant who works in Paris and Washington.