The Air Force's munitions shortage is about to get even worse

Military Tech

VIDEO: The Small Diameter Bomb vs. ISIS

The Air Force is currently in the middle of a major precision guided munitions shortage stretching back nearly four years — and according to the service's top general, budget jousting in Congress could prove "truly damaging" to the Pentagon's ability to fix the problem.


Speaking during an Air Force Association breakfast in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said that a congressional failure to pass a formal defense appropriations bill would end up screwing over roughly 145 major projects, Military.com reports.

According to Air Force Magazine, which has been closely tracking the service's munition problems, those projects include the purchase of 1,000 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance conversion kits, 99 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and 665 Small Diameter Bomb II munitions.

"I have to go to them and say, 'Hey, I don't know exactly how many of these weapons I'm going to buy from you this year because I can't do any new [projects]," Goldfein said, according to Military.com.

"And I know if I ever get the money, I'm going to buy this amount of weapons, so I want you to keep this very sophisticated workforce with high-level security clearances … and I only have six months to get a year's worth of munitions, so I need you to be ready.''

Public affairs officials from the Air Force and Air Combat Command did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

This isn't the first time this has happened. Speaking at an Air Force Association symposium back in September 2017, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson stated that congressional lallygagging over the fiscal year 2018 defense budget would dramatically undermine the branch's ability to replenish the missile and bomb stockpiles that were rapidly depleted by the accelerating air campaign of Operation Inherent Resolve.

On the upside, OIR is no longer draining munitions stockpiles as quickly as it once was. According to the latest batch of Air Force Central Command airpower statistics released in September, the U.S. has only conducted roughly 4,251 combat sorties so far this year, down from 8,713 during all of 2018 and far below the peak of 39,577 weapons releases in 2017.

However, the same airpower statistics reveal a surge in sorties conducted in support of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan: the number of combat sorties has grown from 947 in all of 2015 to 7,362 in all of 2018, with 2019 sorties currently at 5,431 as of September 30th, an uptick that's only accelerated the Pentagon's demand for munitions.

"We're very focused on munitions capacity, because we've been dropping a lot of weapons," Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said in February, per Air Force Magazine, noting that the Air Force has dropped "over 70,000 weapons on ISIS, … and we need to be able to buy back many of our weapons at scale."

That's where the congressional trouble comes in: if lawmakers should reach an impasse on this year's defense appropriations bill, a continuing resolution would not leave the service's munitions procurement efforts at fiscal year 2019 levels, but impact the critical weapons systems the Air Force needs to accomplish its mission. From Air Force Magazine:

The key weapons in the fight are the satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, which comes in variants ranging from 500 pounds up to 2,000 pounds; the AGM-114 Hellfire laser guided missile, which equips Army helicopters as well as Air Force MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft; the Small Diameter Bomb, which is a 250-pound satellite-guided munition; and Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, or APKWS, a seeker head for Hydra rockets carried by helicopters and F-16 fighters. These weapons have been used the most in the war against ISIS since the rules of engagement demand extreme precision: ISIS targets are usually mixed in among civilians, and the coalition has made minimizing civilian deaths a top priority.

Among the other Air Force programs that would suffer, according to Military.com: the new F-15EX fighter jet, advanced new sensors for the F-22 Raptor, critical maintenance modifications for the F-35, not to mention $466 million in disaster relief and modernization efforts Tyndall Air Force base in Florida and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, both of which are still recovering from hurricane and flooding damage in recent years.

Gen. Chuck Horner (ret.) commanded the air campaign of Desert Storm (Task & Purpose photo illustration)

When Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner (ret.) took to the podium at the dedication of the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial site in Washington D.C. last February, he told the audience that people often ask him why a memorial is necessary for a conflict that only lasted about 40 days.

Horner, who commanded the U.S. air campaign of that war, said the first reason is to commemorate those who died in the Gulf War. Then he pointed behind him, towards the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the names of over 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam are etched in granite.

"These two monuments are inexorably linked together," Horner said. "Because we had in Desert Storm a president and a secretary of defense who did the smartest thing in the world: they gave the military a mission which could be accomplished by military force."

The Desert Storm Memorial "is a place every military person that's going to war should visit, and they learn to stand up when they have to, to avoid the stupidness that led to that disaster" in Vietnam, he added.

Now, 29 years after the operation that kicked Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army out of Kuwait began, the U.S. is stuck in multiple wars that Horner says resemble the one he and his fellow commanders tried to avoid while designing Desert Storm.

Horner shared his perspective on what went right in the Gulf War, and what's gone wrong since then, in an interview last week with Task & Purpose.

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