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.

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

Read More

Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism throughout the movie.

When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Read More
U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division, board a C-130J Super Hercules, assigned to the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on January 5, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez)

The Defense Department has remained relatively tight-lipped regarding the brazen Jan. 5 raid on a military base at Manda Bay, Kenya, but a new report from the New York Times provides a riveting account filled with new details about how the hours-long gunfight played out.

Read More

The Defense Department just took a major step towards making the dream of a flying drone carrier a reality.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's air-launched and recoverable X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle finally conducted a maiden flight in November 2019, Gremlin contractor Dynetics announced on Friday.

Read More