FAS | Military Analysis | GAO |||| Index | Search |

Combat Air Power: Funding Priority for Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses May Be Too Low (Letter Report, 04/10/96, GAO/NSIAD-96-128).

GAO provided information on the Department of Defense's (DOD)
requirements, capabilities, and plans for conducting the suppression of
enemy air defenses mission (SEAD).

GAO found that: (1) since the Vietnam War, DOD has recognized that SEAD
is a critical component of air operations, and it used extensive SEAD
support during the Persian Gulf War; (2) SEAD is expected to remain a
critical component of air combat capability; (3) airborne SEAD
capabilities are being reduced, because DOD is retiring the EF-111 and
F-4G aircraft, its most capable SEAD aircraft; (4) DOD has given a low
funding priority to SEAD programs in favor of such programs as the F-22
aircraft, which GAO believes is not urgently needed; and (5) DOD has not
assessed the cumulative impact of reducing SEAD capability.

--------------------------- Indexing Terms -----------------------------

     TITLE:  Combat Air Power: Funding Priority for Suppression of Enemy 
             Air Defenses May Be Too Low
      DATE:  04/10/96
   SUBJECT:  Defense capabilities
             Air defense systems
             Air warfare
             Surface to air missiles
             Electronic warfare
             High speed antiradiation missiles
             Air Force procurement
             Military budgets
IDENTIFIER:  F-4G Aircraft
             Phantom Aircraft
             Wild Weasel Aircraft
             EF-111 Aircraft
             Raven Aircraft
             EA-6B Aircraft
             Prowler Aircraft
             F-22 Aircraft
             EC-130 Aircraft
             Compass Call Aircraft
             F-16 Aircraft
             Falcon Aircraft
             F/A-18 Aircraft
             Hornet Aircraft
             Desert Storm
             Persian Gulf War
             High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile
** This file contains an ASCII representation of the text of a  **
** GAO report.  Delineations within the text indicating chapter **
** titles, headings, and bullets are preserved.  Major          **
** divisions and subdivisions of the text, such as Chapters,    **
** Sections, and Appendixes, are identified by double and       **
** single lines.  The numbers on the right end of these lines   **
** indicate the position of each of the subsections in the      **
** document outline.  These numbers do NOT correspond with the  **
** page numbers of the printed product.                         **
**                                                              **
** No attempt has been made to display graphic images, although **
** figure captions are reproduced.  Tables are included, but    **
** may not resemble those in the printed version.               **
**                                                              **
** Please see the PDF (Portable Document Format) file, when     **
** available, for a complete electronic file of the printed     **
** document's contents.                                         **
**                                                              **
** A printed copy of this report may be obtained from the GAO   **
** Document Distribution Center.  For further details, please   **
** send an e-mail message to:                                   **
**                                                              **
**                    <[email protected]>                        **
**                                                              **
** with the message 'info' in the body.                         **

================================================================ COVER

Report to Congressional Committees

April 1996



Combat Air Power


=============================================================== ABBREV

  DOD - Department of Defense
  SEAD - suppression of enemy air defenses

=============================================================== LETTER


April 10, 1996

The Honorable Strom Thurmond
The Honorable Sam Nunn
Ranking Minority Member
Committee on Armed Services
United States Senate

The Honorable Floyd D.  Spence
Committee on National Security
House of Representatives

The Honorable C.  W.  Bill Young
Subcommittee on National Security
Committee on Appropriations
House of Representatives

In March 1996, we issued a classified report on the Department of
Defense's (DOD) requirements, capabilities, and plans for conducting
airborne suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD).  This is an
unclassified summary of that report.  We conducted this review under
our basic legislative responsibilities and are addressing this report
to you because these issues fall principally within your Committees'

Airborne SEAD has been a critical component of U.S.  combat air power
for many years.  As part of a broad effort to assess the current and
projected U.S.  combat air power capabilities,\1 we sought to
determine whether (1) SEAD is important in the current and
anticipated national security environment and (2) SEAD capabilities
will be adequate in terms of the anticipated threats.  Appendix I
contains our review's scope and methodology. 

\1 In addition to this review, we have reviewed five other key combat
air power missions/functions, including (1) achieving and maintaining
air superiority in areas of combat operations, (2) interdicting enemy
forces before they can be used against friendly forces, (3) providing
close fire support for ground forces by attacking hostile forces in
close proximity to friendly forces, (4) refueling combat aircraft in
the air to sustain combat operations, and (5) performing aerial
surveillance and reconnaissance to obtain intelligence data for
combat operations. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :1

DOD acknowledges that SEAD has been and will continue to be a
critical component of DOD air operations for many years.  However,
DOD has recently made a number of budget decisions that result in
reduced SEAD capability.  DOD is abandoning deployed SEAD
capabilities that have significant military value and has dropped
plans to improve SEAD capabilities to meet new threats.  Despite the
potential adverse impact on war-fighting capability, DOD has chosen
to (1) retire the F-4G without a comparable replacement, (2) retire
the EF-111 and use the less suitable EA-6B for Air Force missions,
and (3) curtail funding for other SEAD programs.  These decisions
were made without an assessment of how the cumulative changes in SEAD
capabilities would impact overall war-fighting capability. 

These actions are not consistent with DOD requirements to have
systems capable of defeating a large spectrum of threats. 
Furthermore, DOD now recognizes that the decline in SEAD capabilities
may create a higher vulnerability for friendly aircraft as well as
frustrate achieving U.S.  military objectives and prolong future
conflicts.  Nevertheless, DOD has chosen to support less urgent and
more prospective combat air power programs, such as the Air Force's
F-22 aircraft.  We are concerned that DOD's decisions, if implemented
as currently planned, could reduce U.S.  war-fighting capabilities
and may have to be corrected later, possibly at much greater expense
and effort. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :2

The SEAD mission is designed to increase U.S.  forces' ability to
accomplish campaign objectives by improving the forces'
survivability.  SEAD involves neutralizing, destroying, or
temporarily degrading enemy air defense systems through either
physical attack or electronic warfare.  For physical attack (known as
lethal SEAD), aircraft use various weapons, including missiles that
home in on the radars used by the enemy's surface-to-air missiles and
antiaircraft artillery, to temporarily or permanently disable the
defenses.  For electronic warfare (known as nonlethal SEAD),
specialized aircraft electronically jam enemy radars and
communication systems associated with the defenses to reduce their

In practice, SEAD involves the synergistic use of (1) communication
jamming by the Air Force's EC-130H Compass Call and the Navy and
Marine Corps' EA-6B; (2) radar jamming by the Navy and Marines' EA-6B
and the Air Force's EF-111; and (3) destruction with antiradiation
missiles delivered by the Air Force's F-4G, certain F-16Cs, and the
Navy and Marine Corps' EA-6B and F/A-18.  Because it is considered
impractical to physically attack all elements of the enemy's air
defense system with conventional munitions, the goal of SEAD is to
protect friendly aircraft by suppressing enemy surface-to-air missile
and antiaircraft artillery sites
en route to and in the target area. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :3

Since the heavy U.S.  losses to enemy air defenses experienced at the
outset of the Vietnam War, DOD has recognized SEAD as a critical
component of air operations.  Now, when a crisis arises, SEAD assets
are among the first called in and the last to leave. 

Current war plans require DOD to be able to conduct and win two
nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts.  The most recent such
conflict, Operation Desert Storm, required heavy use of the SEAD
aircraft fleet.  These aircraft were considered a key to the
effectiveness of the air campaign.  For example, strike aircraft were
normally not permitted to conduct operations unless protected by SEAD
aircraft.  Also, according to the Air Force, no U.S.  aircraft were
lost to radar-controlled surface-to-air missiles during Operation
Desert Storm when an F-4G accompanied the strike aircraft. 

Because U.S.  and other friendly aircraft will continue to be
vulnerable to enemy air defenses, SEAD's role as a critical element
of DOD's air combat capability is expected to continue.  Even the
advent of stealth aircraft will not obviate the need for SEAD support
because the U.S.  aircraft inventory will continue to be
predominately nonstealth until at least 2005 and probably much
longer.  Moreover, even stealth aircraft require some SEAD support. 
Also, SEAD may be even more critical in future conflicts because the
Defense Intelligence Agency has reported that potential enemy air
defenses are expected to increase in sophistication. 

In addition to their war-fighting roles, the limited number of SEAD
aircraft and aircrews have also been used extensively in peacekeeping
operations, such as in enforcing no-fly zones.  For example, 13 of
the 24 EF-111 operational aircraft were recently deployed to 3 crisis
spots.  To further highlight SEAD's importance, a U.S.  F-16 was shot
down over Bosnia when no SEAD aircraft were present. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :4

Despite its own analyses that show SEAD capabilities need to be
improved, DOD's funding decisions are instead having the effect of
reducing those capabilities.  Planned improvements to counter newer
threats have been canceled, and the current force structure is being

The Air Force's radar-jamming EF-111 was to have been upgraded to
counter new threats but now will be retired.  The Navy will dedicate
some of its EA-6B aircraft to provide SEAD support for Air Force
strike missions.  However, the EA-6B is slower and has less range,
which may require different tactics, more sorties, additional fighter
protection, and more tanker support to provide equivalent capability. 
In addition, the EA-6B improvement program, which was intended to
address newer threats, was canceled in 1993.  Much less extensive
upgrades are now under consideration by the Navy but are not yet

Also, the Air Force will retire its most capable lethal SEAD
aircraft--the F-4G--by the end of fiscal year 1996, although there is
no major urgency to do so.  Its replacement, the F-16 equipped with
the High Speed Antiradiation Missile Targeting System, is recognized
as much less capable than the F-4G and was originally intended only
as an interim system until an equivalent capability to the F-4G could
be developed and fielded.  However, acquisition of a replacement for
the F-4G has been canceled due to funding limitations. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :5

As DOD reduces its force structure in response to budgetary
constraints, SEAD programs have been given low priority relative to
other missions or functions.  Despite its own analyses that show SEAD
capabilities need to be improved, DOD has instead decided to place
higher funding priority on other combat air power programs, such as
the Air Force's F-22 aircraft.  However, as we have previously
reported, there is no urgent need to deploy the F-22 aircraft because
current fighter aircraft can defeat the foreseeable air-to-air threat
well into the next century.\2

Conversely, both current and known near-term SEAD threats are not
being adequately addressed. 

DOD's decisions on the SEAD force structure have been made based on
budget constraints and with the assumed risk of not being able to
adequately counter enemy threats that were to have been addressed in
various SEAD improvement programs.  Further, DOD has not assessed the
cumulative impact on war-fighting capability resulting from the
individual program decisions canceling improvements or replacement
systems.  Moreover, the preliminary results of DOD's recent study on
electronic warfare requirements not only reaffirm the continuing need
to improve those capabilities but question the funding priorities
given to address air-to-air versus surface-to-air threats. 

\2 Tactical Aircraft:  F-15 Replacement Is Premature as Currently
Planned (GAO/NSIAD-94-118, Mar.  25, 1994). 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :6

The known contributions of current SEAD assets to mission
effectiveness and survivability and the identified need to improve
SEAD capabilities appear at odds with DOD's SEAD investment plans. 
Therefore, we recommend that the Secretary of Defense postpone the
retirement of the F-4G and EF-111 until the funding priority of the
airborne SEAD mission in relation to other elements of combat air
power is reassessed.  This reassessment should include extensive
input from the service secretaries and the war-fighting commanders
and be based on the specific threats expected in the two postulated
major regional conflicts as well as likely peacetime operations. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :7

In commenting on a draft of this report, DOD did not concur with our
recommendation, stating that such a reassessment of the SEAD mission
area would be redundant to some recent DOD studies.  Nevertheless,
DOD added that a mission area assessment of future electronic warfare
capabilities and needs is already underway and that it will take into
account evolving military priorities and increased fiscal restraints. 
DOD stated that it is sensitive to the SEAD mission but, with
declining budgets, it must weigh the SEAD war-fighting contribution
with other war-fighting assets.  That is precisely our intent in
recommending that the funding priority of SEAD be reassessed relative
to other elements of combat air power.  Our concern--which DOD did
not address in its comments--is that previous DOD studies and
assessments did not evaluate the relative cost-effectiveness of SEAD
to other elements of combat air power in meeting current and
anticipated war-fighting and peacekeeping needs. 

The full text of the DOD comments and our evaluation of them are set
forth in appendix II. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :8

DOD's planned actions in the next few years will have a negative
impact on SEAD capabilities and may need to be reversed in the
future, at much greater expense and effort.  In response to the
recommendation in our draft report, DOD said that a reassessment of
the SEAD mission would be redundant to recently completed and ongoing
studies.  However, DOD did not address our call to assess SEAD's
war-fighting and peacetime value relative to other elements of combat
air power.  Therefore, we suggest that the Congress consider
requiring that DOD, prior to retiring the F-4G and EF-111, reassess
the relative funding priority of SEAD and other elements of combat
air power based on their war-fighting and peacetime contributions. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Letter :8.1

We are also sending copies of this report to the Chairmen and Ranking
Minority Members of the House Committee on Government Operations,
Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, and House and Senate
Committees on Appropriations; the Secretaries of Defense, the Army,
the Air Force, and the Navy; the Commandant of the Marine Corps; the
Director of the Office of Management and Budget; and other interested

Major contributors to this report are listed in appendix III.  Please
contact me on (202) 512-4841 if you or your staff have any questions
concerning this report. 

Louis J.  Rodrigues
Director, Defense Acquisition Issues

=========================================================== Appendix I

In developing this report, we assessed the Department of Defense's
(DOD) current and planned suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD)
requirements, capabilities, and programs and obtained and analyzed
information on SEAD policies, strategies, and doctrine.  We also
obtained information on (1) the types and numbers of weapon
systems--dedicated and nondedicated--for use in airborne SEAD, (2)
their use and the types of targets they can engage, (3) their
capabilities and limitations, and (4) their age and physical

We evaluated service plans to upgrade existing and acquire new
airborne SEAD capabilities.  We analyzed information on the current
threat projections for integrated air defense capabilities.  We
reviewed a variety of documents and held discussions with DOD
officials on the roles and effectiveness of airborne SEAD assets in
Operation Desert Storm and more recent deployments.  Finally, we met
with representatives of the war-fighting commanders to discuss how
they assess the adequacy of existing airborne SEAD capabilities and
the services' plans to upgrade those capabilities. 

We performed our review from August 1994 to November 1995 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. 

(See figure in printed edition.)Appendix II
=========================================================== Appendix I

See comment 1. 

(See figure in printed edition.)

(See figure in printed edition.)

The following are GAO's comments on the Department of Defense's
letter dated January 18, 1996. 


1.  The studies DOD mentions, as well as previous electronic warfare
and SEAD studies, are not responsive to our recommendation because
they do not evaluate the relative cost-effectiveness of SEAD to other
elements of combat air power in meeting current and anticipated
war-fighting and peacetime needs. 

2.  In February 1995, the Deputy Secretary directed the Joint Chiefs
of Staff to study how the EA-6B could be used to provide non-lethal
SEAD support for Air Force missions.  The decision to retire the
EF-111 had already been made. 

3.  The EA-6B is slower and has less range than the EF-111, which may
require different tactics, more sorties, additional fighter
protection, and more tanker support to provide equivalent capability. 
In addition, given the additional costs to refurbish, upgrade, and
deploy the additional EA-6Bs for Air Force missions, it is far from
certain that the government will realize any net savings from
retiring the EF-111 and canceling its improvement program. 

4.  Although the analytical aspects of the Joint Tactical Air
Electronic Warfare Study were completed many months ago, its
recommendations have not yet been endorsed or rejected by DOD.  Until
DOD takes an official position on the study, we believe that it is
inconsistent to use its results for the electronic warfare mission
area assessment. 

5.  Fiscal constraints appear to be prominently mentioned in regard
to programs and functions like SEAD and much less so in regard to
high visibility programs like the F-22. 

6.  We do not disagree with DOD's comment, but it and the DOD
decisions it refers to seems to give little weight to the fact that
the F-16 with HTS is much less capable than the F-4G and there is no
major urgency to retire the F-4G. 

7.  Our review of DOD's studies indicate that they have not weighed
electronic warfare and SEAD's contributions in war-fighting and
peacetime operations with those of other combat air power
capabilities.  Our concern is that the criticality of the SEAD
function in both war-fighting and peacekeeping operations is not
expected to diminish despite DOD's decisions to give it lower
priority.  It may be much more difficult and costly to regenerate
SEAD capabilities than it would be to retain and improve on current

8.  We are concerned that the war-fighting commanders' input may not
have a timely and effective impact on those investment decisions that
directly affect their war-fighting and peacekeeping capabilities. 
The reason for our concern is that the commanders were given an
opportunity for input only after the decision was made to retire the
EF-111 and use the EA-6B for Air Force missions. 

========================================================= Appendix III


William Graveline
Carol Kolarik
Tana Davis


Jack Guin
Daniel Owens
Wendy Smythe


Terry Parker
Terrell Bishop
Michael Aiken

*** End of document. ***