On Service and the F-35

On Service and the F-35

Will Herbert

For years now there has been controversy brewing around the F-35: over-budget, under-performing and increasingly bolstered by questionable rhetoric extolling its virtue.  Over the last several years the Air Force has repeatedly tried to retire to venerable A-10 in order to “free up funds” for the F-35, despite lack of viable replacement.  For those unfamiliar with the debate, the A-10 is a proven attack plane that excels at directly supporting forces on the ground. Frankly, some of specifics are out of my wheelhouse – by trade, I am an MC-130 pilot and only passingly more familiar with fighter airframe capabilities than your average well-informed citizen.  Still, I can recognize a quagmire when I see one.  To examine where the drive for the F-35 has gone astray we can look at the second of the Air Force’s core tenets: service before self.  This provides an interesting vantage point to examine where the Air Force has gone wrong. 

First, some reflection on the meaning of “service before self”.  I initially took it to mean placing the Air Force’s needs above my own.  While this is certainly a valid application, I don’t believe it encompasses the whole of the meaning.  “Service” cannot be attached to something as parochial as a specific service component.  “Service” needs to be reflected in its most basic meaning – putting any agenda aside that does not support the mission at hand.  That applies to everything from tactical support of the warfighter on the ground to procurement of major weapons systems for the nation’s defense.

My own background certainly has something to do with my understanding of service.  Special operations flying is not glamorous and it is not a pilot-centric world.  By definition, everything we do is in support of someone else.  It was certainly far different from the notions I had during pilot training – far different, but also far better.  Every time we flew, we knew who we were supporting and why.  Over the course of many TDYs and deployments, I got to know personally many of the operators and Army helo pilots we supported.  I knew without a doubt that my role and the role of my crew was to SUPPORT what our sister-service brethren were accomplishing.  Our mission truly is service.  I never kicked a door in or landed in a stadium – but I can say without a doubt that I served.  Any distinction or squabble of who is closer to the fight really starts to break down when everyone on the team knows exactly what is on the line and can see how they contribute to its accomplishment – from maintainers to intel to life support to our comm guys, we all knew our role.  Far from being a disappointment that I was less “special” than I previously imagined, my time as a line pilot in the 9th SOS was the most professionally fulfilling time of my flying career. 

So what does this have to do with the A-10 and the F-35?  If one zooms out to a macro-level, “service before self” looks an awful lot like considering the needs of the warfighter on the ground rather than the parochial wants of the Air Force.  In short, trying to cut the A-10 without a viable replacement is breaking faith with the people who count on its support.  The Air Force’s procurement efforts are too often unmoored from the realities of current conflict.  Former SecDef Bob Gates railed about this parochialism in the services during his time as SecDef – from the Army’s recalcitrance to field the MRAP to the Air Force’s refusal to add the UAV capability needed to support counter-IED operations.  When push came to shove, the Air Force was compelled by Congress and the SecDef to cut F-22 production far ahead of schedule and massively scale up UAV capabilities. 

The Air Force has come away from the A-10/F-35 debate with an unnecessary black eye.  Instead of “message control” and shifting metrics, a candid acknowledgement of the F-35’s shortcomings and clear path to a solution would likely be much more productive for F-35 and without a doubt staunch the Air Force’s hemorrhaging credibility.  I do not believe we should give up on the F-35 but I do believe we should take a serious look in the mirror, ask ourselves who we are serving, how best to serve them, and then go from there.

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Comments

Whether the F-35 will or will not (eventually) perform the mission for which it is being developed remains to be seen. However, one thing seemingly certain: we are once again learning the obvious – as we did in the TFX / F-111 era, it is almost impossible to cost effectively develop a weapons system / aircraft platform meant to perform multiple missions in multiple configurations. The complexities that come with that approach simply make the program too complex to manage. Single mission aircraft platforms remain the viable and cost effective approach.

It seems, from what I have read – although that is not a guarantee of fact, that the F-22 was intended to be a single mission air superiority fighter. If so, and if it performs that mission it should have been / should be produced in the numbers needed, regardless of the costs needed to reestablish those production lines.

As for CAS support, a budget for that mission should be determined and the responsibility for that effort, its squadrons, etc should be transferred to the Army. It was as I have read the Army that originally decided not to accommodate that mission in the late 1940’s. It is time to change that approach and for the Army to adopt that responsibility. CAS is effectively not an air superiority mission and certainly not a strategic mission of the nature best handled by the USAF. It would also reduce some level of inter-service rivalries that plague the military and add to the difficulties with managing the F-35 program.

Strategic bombing by Aircraft, Drones, Cruise type Missiles, etc. are the domain of the USAF as is Air Superiority, Electronic Warfare and the like over land, future space missions, etc.

Providing a single aircraft platform configured to operate off Aircraft Carriers and on land makes the program too complex. They are significantly different platforms. Also, the primary mission assigned to so called fighter aircraft flying off Carriers is Attack in Nature. Along with the missile defense systems on-board ships those aircraft are intended to achieve temporary air superiority over any target land area, but only temporarily. Long term, that is an Air Force Mission should the need arise.

However, given the investment in the F-35, it is probably too late to separate the two. Time will tell.

...it is almost impossible to cost effectively develop a weapons system / aircraft platform meant to perform multiple missions in multiple configurations.

Yes. This is the lesson from the F-111, where the A (Air Force) and B (Navy) versions had radically different mission and performance requirements. It's the lesson we're learning again from three different airplanes called F-35s.

...it is almost impossible to cost effectively develop a weapons system / aircraft platform meant to perform multiple missions...Single mission aircraft platforms remain the viable and cost effective approach.

No, particularly when it comes to fighter/attack aircraft. Most of history's most successful examples were multi-role, particularly as fighters became large enough to carry significant bombloads. In fact, sometimes in the face of dedicated opposition -- the design mantra for the F-15 was "not a pound for air-to-ground"...but the F-15E is a wonderful attack aircraft. There's similar opposition for an attack role for the F-22, but the design studies have been done....

Providing a single aircraft platform configured to operate off Aircraft Carriers and on land makes the program too complex.

Again, no. P-12/F4B. F-86/FJ-4. F-4B/F-4E. A-7B/A-7D. YF-17/ F/A-18. Granted, favor falls on the side of adapting a carrier design to landbased use, but it's been done successfully in both directions if performance and mission requirements are similar enough. (As you point out, it's also been fouled up mercilessly if they're not.)

As for CAS support, a budget for that mission should be determined and the responsibility for that effort, its squadrons, etc should be transferred to the Army.

The Army can't afford it, given the way they operate aviation. Look at the problems they're having maintaining the existing rotary-wing attack force. Parceling out aircraft by division or corps and establishing even minimal basing and support will bankrupt them, not to mention that bare basing, while it looks attractive, doesn't generate the sortie rates an established base can, so getting the same number of bombs on target requires even more aircraft (and support).

Moreover, the Air Force is doing CAS. Lots of CAS. The argument isn't about whether there's enough, it's about how it's planned and prioritized, and how it's conducted -- or how it's perceived to be conducted -- and how that may or may not need to change.

Even skipping a doctrinal argument in favor of what you may or may not remember from SOS or ACSC, at stake is credibility. Cite doctrine (or don't, in this case) all you like but fundamentally the Air Force is performing the CAS mission and if it wants to divest itself of that so be it - but do so in a responsible manner. The Air Force doesn't much care for CAS, SOF or ISR - but the fact is these are the most currently in demand mission sets and to rid itself of any of them quickly begins to beggar the question of what it is the independent Air Force is doing here. The F-35 has become a debacle as much in part due to the tone deafness or senior leadership as it has due to the failures of the air frame.

From what I remember from SOS, or maybe it was ACSC, the primary mission of the USAF is NOT supporting troops on the ground. It may have been that way back in the Army Air Force days, but no longer. Something like "air dominance" sounds familiar, which is primarily in the air domain, not ground. Does the USAF support troops in contact? Yes. Is it one of our main missions? I don't think so.

You need to go back and study your dirty purples more closely. Air Force doctrine says, "Airpower is the ability to project military power or influence through air, space, and cyberspace...." Air superiority is a condition: "That degree of dominance in the air battle by one force that permits the conduct of its operations at a given time and place without prohibitive interference from air and missile threats" (JP 3-01). In short, it's not what you do, but your ability to use the air (or space, or cyber) to either ruin or enhance someone's day. Counterair is a priority for defended airspace at the outset simply because it's not possible to apply maximum effort to anything else until airspace is secured. Once that condition is met, other missions shift to the fore.

CAS explicitly falls within the core mission of Global Strike (or as ACC still uses the older term, Global Precision Attack). In fact, if you look at the 2015 Air Combat Command Strategy (http://www.acc.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-150810-026.pdf), you'll find the statement, "We must also continue to develop balanced CAS capability across all Global Precision Attack platforms, explore opportunities for a dedicated CAS platform, and enact specific initiatives to insure we maintain a CAS culture throughout the Combat Air Force."

The question we're all wrestling with is how much will future CAS differs from the refined WWII tactics the A-10 was built around, in the face of increasingly effective low-altitude threats. We've managed to avoid significant change this long, but that won't last much longer.