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Balancing capability portfolios key to Air Force success

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 19, 2006) -- Every day, news headlines tout successes of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, but seldom make mention of Air Force contributions.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John D. W. Corley told lawmakers and defense industry insiders on Capitol Hill June 14 that that lack of coverage doesn't mean the Air Force isn't contributing to the war on terrorism.

"While the headlines don't really talk about Air Force fighters, I need you to understand that Airmen are a critical part (of the war on terrorism) -- from space, to fighters, to strike, to C4ISR, to mobility," he said. "We need to continue to remain strong and continue to remain viable."

But in order for the Air Force to remain a strong, viable force in the war on terror, it must work to recapitalize its fleet of aging aircraft, General Corley said.

The Air Force maintains three "portfolios" of aircraft, and each performs a separate task, the general said. Those portfolios include strike aircraft; mobility aircraft; and command, control, computers, communication, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or C4ISR, aircraft.

Strike aircraft include the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15 Eagle, F-22 Raptor, B-1B Lancer, B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress.

"This is the portfolio that brought us the effects of the (Abu Mousab al Zarqawi) attack -- rapidly, anywhere on the globe, to include non-permissive environments," he said. "That's what the United States Air Force does for you, that's what (it) brings to this president and this nation. We can hold targets at risk anywhere on this globe, at any time."

But aircraft in the strike portfolio are aging, and it is increasingly more expensive to maintain the capability those aircraft provide. That is money that could be better spent on newer aircraft that deliver more capability than the older ones, General Corley said.

"Some of those aircraft need to begin to retire, so we can stop spending money on (them) and begin to modernize and provide the appropriate tools for those youth of our Air Force to be able to use in the future," he said.

The Air Force wants to retire 18 B-52s in the 2007 president's budget, and an additional 20 in the 2008 budget. He said combatant commanders support retirement of those aircraft.

The Air Force also plans to replace fighter aircraft such as the F-16 and the F-15 with the F-35 and the F-22 respectively. The capability the F-22 brings to the fight far eclipses the capability of the F-15 it is supposed to replace. It leaves some asking whether that kind of capability is necessary.

During Exercise Northern Edge 2006 in Alaska in early June, for instance, the F-22 was pitted against as many as 40 "enemy aircraft" during simulated battles. The Raptor achieved a 108-to-zero kill ratio. General Corley said that while some may question the need for that much capability, he believes it is necessary.

"I don't want our nation's sons and daughters to be in the last airplane with the last missile, to go against the last enemy aircraft, with the hope that we will come out on top," he said. "I do want our forces to be incredibly capable and to be overwhelming in that battle."

In the mobility portfolio are aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster III, KC-135 Stratotanker and C-130 Hercules. General Corley would like to see more C-17 aircraft in the Air Force fleet, but says that the mobility portfolio must be balanced. That means dealing with aging aircraft such as the KC-135 and the C-130.

Today, 29 C-130 aircraft are restricted from flying, General Corley said. By the end of fiscal '06, that number will increase to 33.

"They are at the end of their useful life," General Corley said. "(They have) 35,000 baseline flying hours and it would cost us $27 million just to begin to fix the wings on these aircraft. Do you want to spend that kind of money, doing wing repair and other upgrades on an aging aircraft that is already at the terminal phase of its flight hours?"

General Corley said he would rather spend that money on new J model C-130s and the new joint cargo aircraft, a small airframe to be built in cooperation with Army, that would be used for intratheater airlift.

"New aircraft are the ones that will relieve some of the pressures in terms of intratheater airlift," he said. "They will be the ones that help us with those convoys and improvised explosive device exposure. They will be the ones that will give us increasing capability in terms of consequence management."

An aircraft such as the joint cargo aircraft could be used in place of conducting convoy operations in Iraq. It also could be used to provide relief supplies in disaster-stricken areas inside the United States.

The Air Force also is looking for a replacement for the KC-135 tanker aircraft. General Corley said as many as 43 of the Air Force's KC-135 fleet cannot currently fly, yet the service continues to spend money on them.

"It would cost us about $45 million per aircraft as we add up the cost of (operations and maintenance funds) and upgrades to those aircraft to keep them on the books," he said. "We have got to shift our investment strategy and move it to where the investment dollars that this nation provides for us can yield the greatest military utility and combat capability for the nation."

Even if the Air Force moves forward with a tanker replacement program, the last aging KC-135 tanker wouldn't be replaced for years. The current KC-135 fleet is, on average, 45 years old. The potential pilot of the last tanker to be replaced, General Corley said, hasn't even been born yet.

"Is that the tool that we want to refuel the fighters that have to be airborne over the cities inside of our nation in defense of our homeland?" he asked.

In addition to changing the makeup of the strike and mobility portfolios, the Air Force is also looking for ways to balance out the C4ISR portfolio. That includes aircraft such as the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, MQ-4 Global Hawk UAV and the U-2S Dragon Lady aircraft. The general asked how many U-2s should be maintained, in light of the increasing capability of the Global Hawk aircraft.

Whatever decisions are made about balancing the number of aircraft within each of the portfolios, General Corley said he is concerned about leaving a proper mix of capability to a younger generation of Airmen.

"I think we have to be prepared for long war, and it will be the war that is shared not just by me, but will be shared by my daughter and my sons when they become a part of this," he said. " I want to leave them with a legacy of the right tools, properly equipped, to be able to continue to do what you have blessed me with in this nation, which are the right people and the right things in terms of equipment."

General Corley also emphasized that what is right in terms of tools and equipment is not something the Air Force has arrived at independently. He said those decisions are made in partnership with the Congress, the Department of Defense, the other services and the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve components.

"(This) has been debated amongst the services, with the combatant commanders and with civilian leadership," he said. "And I think it is important to stress that this is not just an Air Force wish list."