Poor Deborah Lee James. She’s only been Secretary of the Air Force for about six weeks but she’s been handed the problems of a huge cheating scandal, a $400 billion fighter aircraft that can’t fly in combat and an air force that not only has made some enormous mistakes in the past decade, but seems eager to make another by retiring an attack aircraft the force can’t do without.
She’s a natural for the job, at least by Obama administration standards. She spent 20 years of her 30-year career as a House Armed Services Committee staffer and a Clinton administration Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. Her last ten years were spent at SAIC (a large Beltway consulting firm). She’s not a warrior by any standard, but she reportedly met one once. It’s not your father’s Air Force anymore (or mine, for that matter).
The question is whether her qualifications and experience will enable James to deal with some enormous challenges that face the force. So far, the outlook is pretty bleak.
The cheating scandal is not the ordinary mess that occurs in one of the service academies every few years. This one involves at least 92 officers who are implicated in cheating on their proficiency examinations to qualify (or requalify) for missile duty. These are the men and women who are put in charge of intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads and the job requires not only proficiency but a psychological balance that’s not easy to achieve or maintain.
Ms. James said that there are “systemic problems within the force,” and apparently believes she knows how to fix them. With TLC and sympathy.
She’s quoted as saying that the airmen assigned to the nuclear missile mission live with “undue stress and fear.” She added, “I believe that a very terrible irony in this whole situation is that the missileers didn’t cheat to pass, they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent. Getting 90 percent or 95 percent was considered a failure in their eyes.”
She’s obviously wrong in that, and more. Of those suspected cheats retested so far, 22 have flunked the exam.
Let’s be clear, but sympathetic only when sympathy is due. All of those who are found to have cheated should be kicked out of the Air Force, without tea and cookies or another chance to pass the test. Those men and women have forfeited their chance to serve. There is no “right” to serve: it’s a privilege that has to be earned every day.
For those who didn’t cheat and still can pass their exams, some re-examination of their lives and careers is necessary. Sitting hundreds of feet below ground, waiting for an order that would mean Armageddon on the surface above, has to be one of the most stressful existences known to man. Missileers are usually on duty for 24-hour stretches ten times a month. That’s why their psychological fitness is monitored closely and their command atmosphere has to take the stress the job causes into account.
If there’s a systematic problem in the force, and there apparently is, commanders have to be held accountable. The Air Force’s nuclear enterprise has not been functioning well for about a decade, and reports of security lapses have recurred for about a year. MGen. Michael Carey, who was in charge of the nuclear arsenal, was fired last year for unspecified misconduct.
A “security lapse” on a nuke can be anything from the most minor — like the failure to keep a maintenance log correctly — to the most serious like losing a bomb. (That happened in 2007 when six warheads were mistakenly mounted on cruise missiles before the missiles were flown from North Dakota to Louisiana. There, they sat on the aircraft for about 36 hours until someone discovered the nukes were missing.) Mistakes like that cannot be tolerated and aren’t. Cheating on proficiency exams can’t be tolerated either.
Nor should aircraft that can’t fly. Ms. James has a real problem in the F-35.
The F-35 “Lightning II” is the most expensive defense procurement program ever. It’s going to cost more than $400 billion to buy and, according to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, about $1 trillion for the Air Force to own and maintain over its life. For that kind of money, you’d assume that the damned thing would work. But it doesn’t, even in its thirteenth year of “development,” as I’ve written before.
A lot has happened since last June when that article appeared. Suffice it to say that there are about 125 companies each writing software for the F-35 because so many of its systems are computer-controlled. And, if you believe the latest reports from the Defense Department’s Office of Test and Evaluation, the combined skills of those software writers is equaled only by those who created the Obamacare website.
Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine used to be nicknamed “Aviation Leak” for the currency of its news. Every week for too long, it’s been the place to get the latest bad news on the F-35. This week, the report is really depressing. The F-35’s software is keeping its flight availability to 37%. Think about that: the 37% availability means it can’t fly at all for 63% of the time, and having no IOC, it means that it can fly precisely 0% of the time in combat. (The “IOC” is the “initial operational capability” date, which is the first day an aircraft is tested sufficiently to be cleared to fly combat missions. After IOC, will the availability soar as high as 50? I doubt it.)
The Marines, having suffered along with their comrades the multi-billion-dollar overruns and yearlong-delays (the contract was awarded in 2001), want an IOC date in 2015. The latest from the OT&E guys says that plan could suffer yet another delay of thirteen months or more.
Ms. James has to figure out that it’s time to slow or stop the F-35 in favor of an interim buy of combat-ready F-15 Silent Eagles (or an Air Force version of the Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet, or both) and save a few tens of billions in the process. The objection is that the F-15s aren’t as stealthy as the F-35 in theory. But the F-35 loses much of its stealthiness the moment you hang a missile or bomb on an external bomb rack (and its wingtips reportedly make contrails visible to the naked eye from miles away.) I’m confident she will neither delay the F-35 nor decide to buy the essential gap-fillers that could be produced at very low cost and in little time.
Nobody needs to buy the venerable A-10 “Warthog,” which has been a combat-dependable close air support (CAS) and strike aircraft since 1979. It’s armored, ugly, and packs the wallop of almost every sort of bomb and missile as well as a 30-mm cannon. Except for its big brother, the slower AC-130, it is unsurpassed in the close air support mission. It also can linger over the target area longer than anything except the AC-130. (Just think of what one of either could have done orbiting Benghazi on the night of September 11, 2012.)
But the A-10 is old, and the F-35 is sucking so much money out of the continuously cut budget that the Air Force wants to retire the A-10 this year. One former Navy official stupidly suggested that the Army take over A-10 operation.
Not only can’t the Army afford the A-10 (it’s preoccupied, as always, with tanks, helicopters, and the lessons of the Battle of Stalingrad) but it’s really not a good idea to split the Air Force’s structure and let its strategies, doctrines, schools, and training forget the CAS mission. With the AC-130 and the A-10, the Air Force has a unified strategy and doctrine for the CAS mission. Which it’s performed perfectly — yes, perfectly — since 1953. April 1953, for those who need reminding, was the last time an American ground soldier was killed by an enemy aircraft. Protecting and supporting the ground pounders with close-in fire support with the A-10 and AC-130 and high protection from enemy fighter and bomber aircraft is something the Air Force does mighty well. James should find a way — even if the F-35 program has to be cut — to save the A-10 and preserve the ability to provide high cover.
The F-35 will break the Air Force’s back. The program should be cut drastically and a plan emplaced to fill the years of gaps in the fighter force it has caused and will cause in the future with an advanced Air Force version of the Navy F/A-18 and the F-15 Silent Eagle. That way, our national security needs will be met regardless of how long the F-35 takes to be ready for combat. Ms. James should make that decision. But you can take this to the bank: she won’t.