Achieving a Cost-Effective Balance in the Department of Defense: Concurrent and Proportional Recapitalization of the Air National Guard

By Valentine, W. Mark; Conroy, Sean Frederick | Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Achieving a Cost-Effective Balance in the Department of Defense: Concurrent and Proportional Recapitalization of the Air National Guard


Valentine, W. Mark, Conroy, Sean Frederick, Air & Space Power Journal


When Desert Storm kicked off, we had some great capability within the Air National Guard and the A-7 platform. But the active duty [Air Force] was not flying the A-7, and they were concerned with getting the top-of-the-line weapons in the fight, and we were not asked to participate. That seems to me to be a great waste of money. It makes no sense to have a platform that you're not going to use in war.

-Lt Gen Harry Wyatt

Director, Air National Guard

29 July 2009

The Department of Defense (DOD) is engaged in the final stages of its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), during which it seeks to identify likely national security challenges and associated response options to better guide future US defense investments. Each service has worked tirelessly to justify and advocate programs that pursue US strategic aims. For the Air Force, the primary goals have included rebalancing the force to increase competencies in irregular warfare and reinvigorating its nuclear enterprise.1 Through these efforts, the Air Force seeks to better contribute to ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and increase the effectiveness of the US nuclear deterrent.

Strategy is an art of making choices among exclusive options, and the Air Force is developing a strategy to manage tradeoffs in traditional strengths to enable growth in new areas.2 Today's zero-sum fiscal environment makes such actions difficult. The debate surrounding the structure of the Air Force's current fighter force provides a prominent example of a traditional strength's receiving attention as a likely "bill payer" due to perceived limitations in today's counterinsurgency conflicts. Current decision makers, however, have created a false dichotomy. Freeing resources for emerging mission sets does not necessarily have to come at the expense of the future structure of the fighter force- if the Air Force can maintain the structure in a more efficient manner. By leveraging and investing in the proven, cost-effective Air National Guard (ANG), the Air Force can realize these efficiencies.3

Thirty percent of the Air Force's current fighter fleet resides in the ANG, which maintains the majority of air sovereignty alert (ASA) sites, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, sitting ground alert and patrolling the skies above the United States, tracking potentially hostile targets and other targets of interest, including civilian aircraft in distress.4 Additionally, ANG fighter units execute deployed missions as full partners in the air and space expeditionary force. ANG aircraft, however, are the oldest in the fighter fleet and among the last scheduled for replacement with fifth-generation fighters like the F-35.5 Thus, the ANG shoulders the majority of institutional risk of losing aircraft with the consequent loss of capability and relevance. Without a change in the recapitalization plan, the Air Force stands to lose a majority of the most cost-effective portion of its fighter portfolio, with an associated loss in capability. This article presents a solution by means of concurrent and proportional recapitalization of ANG resources.

The Fighter Gap Debate

Grounded in the trade-off discussion above, one debate focuses on the sufficiency of the current fighter force to meet national objectives. The terms fighter gap or fighter bathtub represent the difference between the fighters the nation needs (to execute its strategy) and those it will have in the future.6 Three primary variables govern the existence and/ or extent of the fighter gap: the fighter requirement, the efficacy of the existing fleet, and the procurement plan for replacement aircraft.

Ultimately, the national military strategy and force-planning construct determine our fighter requirements. The impending QDR will inform both of these. Framing the debate is the fundamental question of how many fighters the United States needs to fulfill its strategic objectives. Notwithstanding Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's comments on the quality of the emerging fighter fleet, many factors affect this question, chief among them the quantity of fighters needed to execute existing operational plans, the steady-state security posture, and ASA operations. …

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