The Slippery Slope of SLEP


Service Life Extension Program (SLEP): Investing in Going Backwards

By Michael W. Wynne, 21st Secretary of the USAF

08/02/2011 – Pressure is growing on the DoD budget. Perhaps 80 billion, 400 billion or whatever on top of the one hundred billion in savings that has been demanded by the outgoing Secretary of Defense. According to published reports, the Air Force share is forty nine billion of the coming carnage. Perhaps it should be called the deficit peace dividend.The other services are posturing as the former Secretary of the Navy together with his era Commanders asked in a Wall Street Journal op ed simply to fund the Navy; and recently the incoming Army Chief of Staff pulled no punches as he transitioned from Joint Forces Command to the Army, testifying that it was Army all the way.

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Credit: USAF

All of this posturing does sound an alarm; and makes one wonder where is the strategy underpinning the future of America’s Defense?

Clearly it was not adequately expressed in the Quadrennial defense review, as the outgoing Secretary decried further roll-off in the DoD budget using emotional terms, in lieu of foregone strategies. Or simply, if there were a strategy in place it would inform the Afghan withdrawal, the Iraq transition and work with the rebuilding of US power projection capabilities.Instead we see, a platform cut mentality, which does not focus on what tasks will no longer be done, and identify those tasks which are central to the security of the Nation. What Oceans will not see a Navy ship in the future as the Navy degrades; or which Nation will not be invaded in response to a cut in the Army end strength; or what Air Space will not be declared passable due to the lack of Air power to defend it.The “policy” argument appears to be about gross reductions and then having the remnant simply managed “efficiently”.  Since the Defense Budget is annually settled; and now two years estimated; this will require adroit planning; and perhaps the Congress needs to be made aware of the consequences of their actions. They are not simply cutting things; they are significantly reducing US sovereignty.

Although there has been some writings about the consequence to operations of the Coast Guard; and some as to the pressure on the Marine Corps, the stealth US Air Force leadership has been absent.  Whatever the machinations of budget games, eroding air dominance has consequences for US sovereignty.The Air Force leadership has choices in this coming budget constrained environment.  They can leverage new capabilities and build a force for the future, or appear to manage by whittling down all aspects of the force to a point of little strength.  The second path is created by modernizing the past, and creating the illusion of strength, rather than building on the investments made in 5th generation aircraft.

What do we do? As is usual for any large organization, there is no going back, a la the B-1; so unfortunately we must not stare balefully back at the F-22 and wish it would return magically to its efficiency curve as it would cost under one hundred million. Can our Air Force get to where it has one understrength squadron at each base; and claim to be strong?  We have seen such a trend in some of our allied Air Forces, but will the U.S. be able to lead any coalition with such capabilities?A look back at the proud past of the Air Force yields some clues to ways to manage the future.  Following World War II, there was a tremendous drawdown; much savings achieved; and the Air Force chose to center itself on advanced technology; to set itself apart from the other services and to seek a solid future by pushing capabilities and accepting the concept of a smaller but fully capable force.

Here and now the Air Force has the choice to discard the whittling strategy; and discard the concept of creating an illusion of strength.  Instead, the motion needs to be forward, gaining the best from the remnant remaining.  This means leveraging, not offering greater vulnerability; it means a presumption of resilience in net warfare, not a return to semaphore flags (1); and to move boldly beyond the very constraining Link 16. This requires a deliberate assessment of capability and proscribed usage to maximize survivability; and thus the safety of the Nation.  Bold steps are required  to affirm the character of the force as embracing technology and shaping the future.  It is crucial to the viability of the Nation and of its warriors to continue to argue the merits of the ‘Unfair Fight’ with close hold technical advantages over any competitor air system.

With the current description of the deficit and the summation by the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the national crisis level of the deficit, one must envision that national survival is the issue.  Given this position, we can envision a strategy that maximizes resulting capabilities, at a best value for the Nation.Now, by inference, expeditionary warfare and wars where America has a choice in participation will fall precipitously from our National priority. Evidence of this is already in hand with the deferential attitude of the Libyan adventure to French and European Leadership; and the decision to not use American ground forces, but allow National liberation forces, untrained, and almost as badly led as American Patriots in 1776 to muster the courage and win international support, and maybe their country from mercenaries and dictator forces.We’ve seen as much from Egyptian patriots, and are watching carefully in Syria.   Teddy Roosevelt stated loudly, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick”.  It appears that the new trend is to “Speak loudly, but carry a little stick.”

Much of this is in process; and it is noticeably wearing on our Army centric military who wonder about the Air Force pressure on the Libyan Forces; yet getting more and more positive feedback that the time has been spent training a decent national force, accepting crossover fighters and not losing sight of the ultimate objective, succession from the current dictator to a citizen sponsored form of government. Sometimes as a participant it is hard to see the turn in strategy; but it is clear that the incoming Army Leadership does not yet comprehend this fundamental turn.Soon, they will be reminded that as the turn came for Russia, the realization of the expense in defense is people driven; and deterrence and international respect is equipment driven.  Hence the French motto; great nations build Planes, Ships and Tanks.

Let us take a look at the current response of the Air Force to this precipitous turn and deficit driven strategy.  The Air Force can look to Space and to Cyber and see the payback from investment continues to swell.  New technology investment is directionally driven, invented, and lagging by about one to one and a half decades for space; and less than half a decade for cyber.  Each maximizes capabilities, and leverages across domains.Some say cyber is quicker than that, but training, and distribution to be effective constrains the application.  Too fast will waste the resources, but too slow loses the engagement.  There is a great motto here; procurement at the speed of need.This leaves the Air Campaign which is the decisive arm of the Air Force and the ability to enable global operations; both in offense and defense.  The current state of play is force structure degradation; every year the fleet gets older; every year the fleet gets further back from current technology; as forecast this will continue for the foreseeable future as if we are planning our strategic withdrawal from the technology battlefield.

What is worrisome is there comes a time that dramatic leaps forward are feared, and vilified.  We watch once again as the F-35, which is the Allied and US  21st century fighter fleet  and is the current glue for the shaping of US power projection capabilities undergoes what every major platform that the Air Force has introduced in the last 30 years has had to endure; criticism from all sides until performance quiets the critics; and the platform forms the core of the Air Force Future  (e.g.; C-130; C-17; B-1; B-2; F-22; Global Hawk).The net effect is to continue to shrink the fleet, age it, and lose international competitions and their related jobs.  Our technological withdrawal by trying to upgrade 1950′s designs with constrained electronics; and insufficient connectivity does not impress any foreign buyers (India comes to mind); and may not impress future thinking enemies.

Some as well see a withdrawal of manned craft, announcing a withdrawal from the intelligent battlefield; as those forecasters would automatically leave our airfleet with yesterdays training, and yesterday’s engagement strategies. As any swordsman knows, agility comes from the arena; and it will in the future fight for Air Dominance.  Whether real or imagined, claimed losses to Iran and recorded losses in Georgia portend a short lifespan for undefended remotely piloted vehicles.How to best describe the strategic withdrawal from the technology competition; it is called SLEP; or Service Life Extension Program; and is a neatly derogatory term for upgrading older frontline weapons to a lower technology baseline than current 5th generation designs and production.

Sadly, it pretends to expand and modernize the fleet; but most pilots truly do understand the Physics of the Fifth generation versus the Fourth generation; and thus realize that their assignment will be to replace the F-105 Air Defender Mission; as they will desperately need additional protection from land based systems and familiar terrain to be successful. They also know that if their mission entails penetration of defended airspace, survival against current and for sure next generation of Integrated Air Defense could make losses incurred by the Eighth Air Force pale by comparison.  But we don’t have the fleet size that they had to sustain those losses; what to do?

The answer appears to be to hope that we can enter wars of our choosing, and thus engage forces that do not have access to advanced weaponry; but do we not believe that our enemy is a thinking enemy? Pursuit of the best weaponry for both offense and defense is required for global engagement; but this is not the trend we see.Who then are we fooling?  Perhaps only the Nations Leaders, who like the Egyptian leaders of the Mubarak era might want to see large numbers of equipment, even if useless, listed in Jane’s Defense.Sadly, this attitude, whether aimed at vulnerable Navy or Air Force Strategic Assets does not fool the thinking enemy.  Previously, the assessment of the survivability for large ISR and Command and Control aircraft clarified the potential waste of assets and people to continue the investment stream and maintenance for those systems, letting them essentially age out; or be relegated to specialty operations where their safety was assured; and their utility could be magnified in public lobbying.

The Air Force needs to do better than that in this arena.  The current plans are dedicating huge amounts of funding to bring fourth generation aircraft up to standards that will assure their defeat against known competitive air and even friendly avionics suites. In doing this we are promoting current technologies; while ignoring needed interoperable, and leveraging characteristics, as they are claimed too hard; and if achieved, might push our allies to also invest in leveraging advanced equipment.This is a recipe for slowly slipping the technology leadership position and yielding it to friendly or competitor Air Forces.

Why not challenge ourselves and our allies to get to move forward and embrace the new technology WHICH HAS ALREADY BEEN BUILT; and continue the formula that has actually kept our world reasonably at peace since 1947.The targeted SLEP programs for the F-16 and the F-15 will take time, and drain precious resources from the needed conversion of Americas Air Forces to Fifth generation across the Board.  SLEP is expensive and puts updated systems on aging air frames.What are you going to do with those new tailor made radars after the 2000 flight hours left in the SLEP air frames? They will be expensive paperweights.

As the Air Force moves from 6000 tactical airplanes to under three thousand, it needs to be clear that our national aspirations, or Sovereign Options will be diminished; it should not pretend that somehow a quantity of older air power is a deterrent.  Better a reality check be handled by the planners with corrective actions be taken now rather than an enemy force enforcing hard lessons.Although we have heard lots of complaining about the cost for the F-35, it should be asked: compared to what? By paying billions for SLEP, the USAF is diverting money from procuring the F-35A. It is a proven manufacturing dictum that articles bought at high volumes will cost less than similar articles bought at low volumes. Let us take the SLEP Program at the forecasted volumes and instead plus up the F-35 by adding those rates of production.  The F-35, at greater capability; will in fact be less expensive than a torn down, retooled, re-engined, zero based F-15 and likely an F-16 as well.

This is really due to the fact that one can marginally cost the units above the current baseline; but for the SLEP line, it is an art form, individually built; and individually delivered.  Can they be estimated less, of course; but let’s look at the current Tanker program, and we can see the future.

(1) The Semaphore flag signaling system is an alphabet signalling system based on the waving of a pair of hand-held flags in a particular pattern. The flags are usually square, red and yellow, divided diagonally with the red portion in the upper hoist.The flags are held, arms extended, in various positions representing each of the letters of the alphabet. The pattern resembles a clock face divided into eight positions: up, down, out, high, low, for each of the left and right hands (LH and RH) six letters require the hand to be brought across the body so that both flags are on the same side.