Scrap AWACS, JSTARS; Plough Dough Into F-35, Wynne Says

Former Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne wants the Air Force to get rid of large surveillance and reconnasisance aircraft such as AWACS and JSTARS, which are vulnerable to attack because of their huge radar cross-sections, and take the money saved and shove it into the Joint Strike Fighter program.

Former Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne wants the Air Force to get rid of large surveillance and reconnasisance aircraft such as  AWACS and JSTARS, which are vulnerable to attack because of their huge radar cross-sections, and take the money saved and shove it into the Joint Strike Fighter program.

Wynne made his arguments on the website Second Line of Defense, run by the international defense consultant Robbin Laird. I spoke with Wynne this morning. His essential argument is that large aircraft such as these, while possessing excellent capabilities, are so vulnerable in time of war that the enormous amounts of money spent paying the large crews needed to fly and maintain these systems would be better spent making F-35s into the flying intelligence and targeting networks that they are designed to be.

“The F-35s are far more survivable and therefore effective,” he said.  Combine F-22s and F-35s with a capability like Gorgon Stare and you would have a difficult to beat combination of highly survivable intelligence gathering and offensive capabilities.

Following is the full text of Wynne’s commentary.

The Air Force as well as the rest of the Armed Forces and the rest of the United States government faces an unusual crisis in budgeting. All are scrambling about trying to determine the least-bad parts of the budget to trim, or, in worst case, cut. Clearly this needs radical thought, but should be driven by mission in each case. When survivability is added as a requirement, and the threat is assessed as it is seen today, this becomes easier. Let’s consider the end of the large aircraft ISR fleet.

The large aircraft command and control as well as the large aircraft intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance fleet are artifacts of a different era, the era of satellites with insufficient range and scope, the era where remotely piloted vehicles were small and not worthy of the name C4ISR. Now, however, times have changed. The MC-12 is highly touted as the solution where one dominates the air domain. The Global Hawk and Predator B reigns supreme in many aspects of the fight. The need for the large C4ISR platforms has drifted away.

In a future era, where the air domain is disputed, can we really risk the large, populated C4ISR airplanes when we actually have penetrating stealthy aircraft with better radars and M-Int devices, and the 3-digit surface-to-air missiles are valid to 200 or 300 miles? This is well beyond the range for the systems known today. No wonder the Air Force is looking to partner with the Navy on the P-8 follow-on; there is no survivable mission when you get far off shore. Indeed, our ships are protected by an array of surface-to-air missiles with standoff range enough to truly discourage errant approach by these very expensive aircraft.

This is well beyond the range for the systems known today.

Recently, in a paper titled “Renorming the Asymmetric Advantage, I cited the need to leverage available stealthy technologies and their sensors to stay alive on the battlefield of the future. There seem to continue to be a belief system that indicates that the enemy will allow these airplanes to operate with impunity, but will otherwise attack the tanker aircraft that support TAC air assets. Where does this logic prevail? Well, for the most part, within the ISR force structure and the contractor community that supports this force structure. Strangely, it also dwells in the hears and wallets of the air combat community that pretends that they will have a very hard time surviving a future air battle yet defers to the ISR community for leveraging the sensor assets they and they alone carry.

I would strongly recommend to the present air staff that they do something radical, and that is to argue to stand down any C4ISR asset that is larger than an F-22 or F-35, and ask the question: what gap does this create, and how best is this gap filled? This is the true battlefield outcome. Much like thinking about a day without space, let’s really think about just how long the force will have access to the large C4ISR assets. And while we are at this analysis, consider how many lives that we systematically put at risk when reach back seems so very satisfactory in every other element of the expeditionary command and control, in this Internet age where satellites dwell and relay tremendous data streams and where Global Hawks and Predators infuse CAOCS with highly reliable target and intelligence information.

NATO is presently arguing whether they should own an AGS, and in response to September 11, 2001, they very generously allowed the deployment by the United States of their Airborne Warning and Control aircraft, illustrating that when used in the defense, there may well be merit in the C4ISR fleet. It is also noteworthy that in the Mid-East there is a small enough battle space that if they are aloft, they could provide some warning from incoming enemy aircraft. It is also known that in that role, they won’t last the first 10 minutes of the exchange. The United States is opting for missile defense and essentially integrated air defense system for missiles. Aircraft in that case are relatively easy to spot, and many countries are in fact installing such integrated air defenses around their countries.

Secretary Gates likes to eloquently equate a lack of use in the current engagements for assets he doesn’t wish to fund, and yet here is a marvelous opportunity to save an entire force structure. Where is the argument that they are a serious element of the fight in AFPAK? How long has it been since they were employed in Iraq? This argument needs to be seriously examined, because perhaps they have value in the defense of the American continent. But in this era where it is questionable whether even 4th generation will survive, a 737 or 767 would have no chance. The excess savings should be redistributed to leveraging TACAIR into a truly integrated attack force, in such a way that it is clearly capable of defeating all comers and to include present triple digit defenses. This is a deterrent effect which is credible, and if needed, deadly to the aggressors.