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Air Force calls for cheaper, quicker weapons development

Deborah Lee James, the 23rd secretary of the Air Force, speaks during an interview at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Sunday, March 23, 2014, at the end of her first overseas visit since becoming the Air Force's top civilian leader in December. James spoke on a range of topics, from the situation in Ukraine to the Air Force drawdown.

In an acknowledgment that the military may be pricing itself out of business, the Air Force on Wednesday called for a shift away from big-ticket weapon systems that take decades to develop and a move toward what Defense Department officials are calling more “agile” high-tech armaments that can be quickly adapted to meet a range of emerging threats.

A 20-year Air Force strategic forecast, spurred in part by looming budget constraints, also calls for a faster pace, with lower price tags, in developing both airmen and the technology they use, warning that the current way of acquiring warplanes and weapons is too plodding.

The report, labeled a “call to action” by the Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, limits itself to how the country’s most tech-heavy military service can adapt to looming threats and budget constraints. But it is also a warning to and an admission from the entire Defense Department that with military compensation and retirement costs rising sharply, the country may soon be unable to afford the military it has without making significant changes to the way it does business.

“To boil this down, we have to buy things very differently and develop and employ our people differently,” said Maj. Gen. David W. Allvin, the author of the report. “We have to behave more like an innovative 21st-century company.”

Much of the buying the future fleet of aircraft and technology will funnel through the Air Force Materiel Command, the service’s procurement headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

“There are several reasons why the Air Force must strive for cheaper, quicker weapons systems development,” AFMC spokesman Ron Fry said in an email. “Imbalances in global economic growth, coupled with global interdependence and increasing resource demands of rising powers will generate geopolitical instability in the years to come. This rise in instability will increase the range of potential adversaries, resulting in a wider range of operating environments in which the Air Force will execute its missions.

“Strategic agility will be the Air Force’s counterweight to the uncertainties of the future,” he added. “And AFMC is central to providing that agility.”

Dayton Area Defense Contractors Association Executive Director Deborah Gross said like any business, the Air Force must look at ways to be more productive and keep costs under control.

“I think that certainly when the Air Force procures weapon systems, it’s important for them to be able to do that in as timely a manner as possible because of the quickly changing threats around them,” she said. “Clearly, (the federal government) needs to do a better job of getting things out to the warfighter at less cost, and it’s a difficult problem to solve.”

Between 1998 and 2014, annual compensation costs per active-duty service member increased by 76 percent, to $123,000, while the overall military budget increased by 42 percent — yet, since 2010, the base Defense Department budget has been declining, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. So far, the military has dealt with the sharp increase in personnel costs by cutting the number of service members, and has managed to keep expensive weapons acquisition and technology at the same percentage of the overall budget — around 30 percent — as personnel and maintenance and training.

But with the Army, the largest branch in the military, now headed to its lowest personnel numbers since before the World War II buildup, Defense Department officials, particularly in the Army, warn that more cuts could bring increased risks to deployed servicemembers. While the Air Force and the Navy, with historic reliance on technology, are widely viewed as more willing to make personnel cuts than their Marine Corps and Army counterparts, even officials in those services say there is a limit to how much more they are willing to cut personnel.

What’s the future for large weaponry?

It remains unclear how serious the Air Force is about its call to move away from its focus on big, expensive weaponry, in particular advanced fighters and bombers.

Nowhere in the report is there a mention of scaling back on the trouble-plagued F-35 jet fighter — in development for 14 years so far — which was temporarily grounded last month after another in a series of problems.

Nor is there talk of getting rid of the next-generation long-range strike bomber, which the Air Force is working on for around $550 million per plane and which is expected to debut somewhere around the mid-2020s.

“They’re still going to buy the Joint Strike Fighter,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, referring to the F-35 warplane. “They’re getting squeezed, but they’re still going to buy the next-generation bomber and the KC-46 tanker” for aerial refueling.

In a meeting Wednesday with reporters at the Pentagon, the Air Force’s top leaders reiterated their support for all three fighter, bomber and tanker programs.

James told reporters more missions could be picked up by the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve as budgets shrink and the Air Force struggles to meet readiness goals. She said more would be invested in space, cyberspace and nuclear deterrence.

The amount of money spent at headquarters staffs and on contractors will be closely examined, the secretary added.

Space and information technology programs would probably be a first target of budget cuts, Defense Department officials said, with a view to building them in a more piecemeal way that would allow for quick adaptation as new technology emerges.

“The notion is, we can’t afford the big-bang programs anymore, so what if we approached it differently, looking at adding capability in smaller chunks?” said Beth McGrath, a director at Deloitte Consulting and a former deputy chief management officer for the Defense Department.

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