After U.S. officials agreed last week that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on its people, politicians and pundits resumed making the case for a U.S. intervention in Syria. And they speak as if the budget cuts affecting the Air Force and Navy won’t affect our ability to launch operations overseas. Their heads apparently aren’t around that reality yet.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) suggested that enforcing a no-fly zone could be required. He expressed concern that the administration would maneuver to delay action – and he is no doubt right. Charles Krauthammer pointed out on Fox News’s Special Report that the president’s credibility is on the line, given his clear identification of chemical weapons use as a “red line” for the U.S. on the Syria crisis. But no one mentioned the core limitation of military readiness.
You may or may not think it’s advisable for the U.S. to intervene in Syria, even with an operation of minimal scope. But it should all be pretty close to moot, because the Air Force standdown means that we just don’t have that many combat-ready strike-fighter squadrons to put on the problem. There is no Navy aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean either, and there is only one in the Persian Gulf. While it is possible to deploy the USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) Strike Group from the East coast, where it lingers in a non-deployed Twilight Zone, the Navy would have to ask for more operating funds to do it.
Air Force readiness
Air Force strike-fighter squadrons in Europe now are down to two (there’s a handy visual representation put together by Al Clark for The Aviationist), with a potential plus-up from three additional combat-ready squadrons in the U.S. The squadrons in Europe:
- 510th Fighter Squadron in Aviano, Italy (F-16C)
- 493rd Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, UK (F-15C)
Combat ready back in the States, and not currently dedicated to the Far East, are:
- 7th Fighter Squadron at Holloman AFB in New Mexico (F-22A)
- 335th Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina (F-15E)
- 55th Fighter Squadron Shaw AFB in South Carolina (F-16C)
This tally excludes the squadrons dedicated to the Pacific and Far East or deployed to CENTCOM. Augmenting the combat-ready squadrons listed above would require reassigning units away from the Far East or CENTCOM – obviously not a prudent measure. Between them, the squadrons in CENTCOM and the Far East, along with the global bombers (B-2 and B-52), will get the lion’s share of flying hours for the rest of 2013 (and quite possibly for the foreseeable future).
Note additionally that the 81st Fighter Squadron in Spangdahlem, Germany, with its A-10 Warthogs, will be inactivated in May 2013. This will leave Europe with no Warthogs. The only combat-ready A-10s will be in South Korea and deployed to Afghanistan.
With each passing day, meanwhile, the time required to restore combat readiness for the non-ready forces increases. The longer a unit is out of readiness, the more it must do to regain combat readiness.
This calculus affects the Navy as well, and the Navy’s posture is declining on much the same glideslope as the Air Force’s. In addition to the fundamental carrier readiness problem, the Navy is having to cut back on underway days for deployed ships, and even on flying hours for deployed aircraft. The Military Reporter has a presentation the Navy put together in January to show what it would have to cut in 2013 to “operate down” to the minimal funding from the old continuing resolution – as modified by the sequester. Highlights of the potential Navy cutbacks in 2013 included:
- Cancel several SSN (attack submarine) deployments
- Flying hours on deployed carriers in Middle East reduced 55%; steaming days reduced 22%
- Reduce WESTPAC (Western Pacific, or Far East) deployed operations by 35%; Non-deployed Pacific ships lose 40% of steaming days (Note: this is the theater to which we have shifted our security emphasis)
- Cancel all non-BMD deployments to Europe (this means deploying NO cruisers or destroyers beyond those assigned to ballistic missile defense patrol – roughly cutting the number of surface combatant deployments in half). But also…
- Reduce total number of BMD deployments for Europe, Atlantic Ocean stations, and Middle East (leaving our European and Middle East allies more vulnerable to missile attack) To summarize: fewer BMD deployments, and no non-BMD deployments
- Cancel 23 “ship availabilities” – that is, pierside maintenance periods – leaving over $800 million worth of scheduled maintenance undone
- Cancel $433 million worth of maintenance on fleet aircraft
By early April, the delivery of an actual defense budget for the remainder of 2013 allowed the Navy to scale down these cuts. Originally facing a $9 billion shortfall for operations and maintenance, the Navy will get through 2013 with a shortfall of half of that, or about $4.5 billion. That won’t translate into a problem-free readiness picture, however. Cut the worst-case picture in half, and it’s still pretty bad.
At least one SSN deployment has been cancelled, along with the deployments of three surface combatants and two auxiliary ships. The planned deployments of at least two other ships remain a question mark. That’s in addition to the non-deployment of the Truman strike group, which includes surface combatants as well as the carrier. Eight ship availabilities are being deferred (rather than 23), meaning the maintenance won’t happen until at least 2014. There is already plenty of maintenance due in 2014, of course, beyond the maintenance due in 2013; anyone who works with complex equipment knows that the failure-to-maintain snowball becomes an avalanche very quickly.
The most illuminating way to view the Navy cuts is probably through the prism of carrier air wing readiness – and it illuminates what the Air Force is facing as well. If the Navy had had to take the cuts originally identified, four of its nine carrier air wings would have had to “shut down” in 2013. With the smaller cuts from the 2013 defense budget, the four air wings won’t have to shut down, but neither will they be able to retain readiness beyond basic safety qualifications. The San Diego Union-Tribune, doing the work the national media won’t do today to report on defense readiness issues, interviewed Navy officials, one of whom put it this way:
“As resources become available, the air wings previously slated for shut down will be able to operate at least to minimum safe flying levels for the remainder of the year,” Lt. Aaron Kakiel said. “We are still going through what the final readiness level will be for those air wings. Those discussions are still in progress.”
What they won’t be is four air wings capable of achieving combat readiness on the same schedule the president and the American people have been accustomed to for the last 30 years. They just won’t be able to fly enough in 2013. It’s the same problem the Air Force faces. When we get to October 2013, there will be a lot of unreadiness: planes and aircrews we may have in the inventory, but can’t assign to operations, and can’t plan to assign to operations without a much longer training period than they would have required one month ago.
Stretched to the max
I have only highlighted here the kinds of hits that would affect a no-fly-zone-type air operation in Syria; this piece doesn’t even start on the hits being taken by the Marines and Naval amphibious shipping, or by the Army. (There is no amphibious group in the Mediterranean today, and there is only one in CENTCOM.)
Given all this, it is correct to say that the U.S. would be stretched to the max, and quite possibly beyond, to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. For the Air Force, it’s not that four or five strike-fighter squadrons would be inadequate to the job; it’s that they wouldn’t remain adequate for very long – and the harder we drove them, and the more we cannibalized other units for parts, the less we would have available to deal with any other contingency, including homeland defense.
The same can be said for support assets – reconnaissance aircraft, tankers, E-3A AWACS air controllers – which could not be flown indefinitely without maintenance and relief. The support assets fall into the “low-density, high-demand” category: there just aren’t that many of them, and every airframe we have is on the hook 365 days a year for a high-priority contingency, such as the defense of South Korea. Using them for anything else creates a potential shortfall for a contingency plan somewhere.
Keep in mind as well: all the stood-down fighter planes and aircrews are falling out of readiness as you read this. When the currently ready squadrons reach their limit, there’s no one coming along behind them to take over in a Syria operation. We’re simply burning the readiness we have. The few squadrons that are working up to combat readiness today are already committed to replacing the ones operating in Afghanistan and the Far East.
Bottom line: there’s no point in starting a new no-fly zone, if you have what amounts to a date certain on which you can no longer enforce it.
A note on unmanned aerial vehicles, which are bound to come up: they are as likely to be shot down in Syria as they are in Iran. While the Assad regime has lost control of some of the territory on which it once deployed its anti-air missiles and artillery, it started out with such a huge inventory that it no doubt has a considerable arsenal left. Like the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, a Syrian SA-6 crew could even get lucky and shoot down a U.S. F-16. But – again, as the Serbs could tell us – an anti-air crew wouldn’t have to get that lucky to shoot down a Predator.
Navy air wing assets would be available if we deployed the Truman strike group – an unfunded expense, at a time when flying hours are being cut even for the front-line Persian Gulf carrier – or if we left CENTCOM without a carrier and put USS Nimitz (CVN-68) in the Mediterranean, or perhaps kept USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) there instead of letting her go home when Nimitz relieves her in the Persian Gulf in about two weeks. Ike has been out for 10 months now, minus her Christmas in port. The Ike option would require more funding. The only option that wouldn’t require a big hunk of additional funding is the one that leaves CENTCOM without a carrier.
There is also, of course, the possibility of deploying only a Navy air wing and basing it in the Mediterranean somewhere. The Navy-wide air wing readiness shortfall, with four of nine certain to not be combat ready for the rest of the year, significantly increases the danger to readiness inherent in doing something like this. It would be the kind of last-ditch effort we might undertake in a desperate defense of the American homeland, but is certainly beyond prudence for an optional overseas contingency.
There is no depth of force availability today. Here is how Navy Vice Admiral William Burke put it to Congress on Friday, 26 April (emphasis added):
The vice admiral said that prior to sequestration – which went into effect March 1 – the Navy was operating a fleet at levels below the baseline Global Force Management Allocation Plan, [levels] which suppress the readiness of deployed forces for full-spectrum operations and reduce the remaining surge capacity of the non-deployed force.
The U.S., not as global superpower but as miscellaneous ally
Presumably, we would approach a Syria intervention as a joint operation with our NATO allies. But our options for leadership – our discretion over the strategic purpose, tactics, rules of engagement, and so forth – would be reduced commensurate with the much reduced scope of our capabilities. Do we want to put our forces in harm’s way under these conditions?
When the U.S. can conduct an operation on our own, if necessary, then we can pick and choose which compromises we make to gain the participation of allies. But when we literally cannot mount the operation without their help, we become subject to their demands. We have reached the point at which we can’t do this – indefinitely enforce a no-fly zone over Syria – using only U.S. assets.
Indeed, think up any kind of U.S. intervention in Syria, and we don’t have the combat-ready assets for it. We are cutting back on training and maintenance to the point that our very large military will be largely immobilized, at least for an operationally significant period of time, if we do not change course.
Charles Krauthammer is right: Obama’s credibility – and America’s – will take a meaningful hit if he does nothing to follow up on his threat about the WMD “red line” in Syria. But given the plummeting readiness of the Air Force and Navy, it’s not clear that Obama has credible options anyway. Remember the minimal – weird – amount of military action we undertook in Libya in 2011? We don’t have even that many forces in theater now – nor do we have them available elsewhere.
Readers will be gratified to know, however, that the Navy’s biofuel program continues apace. Never forget that President Obama is engaged with his military, and sets its priorities for it every day.