What aircraft does the US Air Force need to beat China and Russia? This new study has an answer.
WASHINGTON — Last September, the U.S. Air Force revealed that it will need a total of 386 operational squadrons to take on future threats posed by Russia and China. A new congressionally mandated study posits that number may not be enough.
Further, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study — which has been obtained exclusively by Defense News — goes on to recommend that the Air Force begin developing a handful of new technologies not in its plans, including a stealthy weaponized drone, a new unmanned reconnaissance plane that can penetrate into contested spaces, and refueling tankers that are unlike anything in its current inventory.
The study is the result of language in the 2018 defense policy bill, which called for the Air Force, the government-funded research firm MITRE Corp. as well as CSBA to make recommendations for the future force structure of the Air Force.
In its study, which was delivered to Congress earlier this month, CSBA found critical shortfalls in the tanker, bomber, fighter, strike/reconnaissance drones, and command-and-control/intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance inventories, with the bomber, tanker and drone fleets especially needing a bump in aircraft numbers.
The bomber fleet, CSBA said, should grow from the nine operational squadrons around today to 24 operational squadrons at an unnamed point in the future. (CSBA declined to associate a specific year in its recommendations, as the hypothetical future force includes some aircraft that are not in the Air Force’s plans.)
Fighter squadrons should increase from 55 to 65, and the tanker fleet should jump from 40 to 58 squadrons. Strike/reconnaissance drone squadrons, currently typified by the MQ-9 Reaper, should skyrocket from 25 to 43 squadrons.
The C2/ISR inventory — which is currently comprised of assets like the E-8 JSTARS ground surveillance aircraft, the RC-135 family of recon planes and the RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone — shows a decrease from 40 squadrons to 33 squadrons. However, CSBA notes the importance of moving from the Air Force’s current inventory of aging battle-management planes to a more disaggregated family-of-systems approach like the Advanced Battle Management System, which will be able to provide more coverage and link together more platforms.
CSBA declined to comment further on the report, as it has not yet been briefed by Congress.
The report was briefly available on a Defense Department website before being taken down.
What the Air Force (thinks it) needs
The think tank’s assessment contrasts with the Air Force’s own findings, which center around the need for the force to grow from 312 to 386 operational squadrons. The service’s “Air Force We Need” study, which has not been released in full, differed from that of CSBA in that it included several types of squadrons that the think tank did not evaluate in detail — areas like space, cyber, missiles, airlift, and combat search and rescue.
The Air Force will need 14 bomber squadrons, 62 fighter squadrons, 54 tanker squadrons, 27 strike/reconnaissance drone squadrons and 62 C2/ISR squadrons by the year 2030, according to the service’s own study. However, the service has not revealed how those goals might influence future buying decisions, and whether current programs of record are to be expanded to meet those goals.
Another major difference is that the Air Force and CSBA formed their proposed future forces based on different threats. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein has said that its 386-squadron count is necessary to “defeat a peer threat while being able to deter a near-peer threat.”
By contrast, CSBA sought to create an Air Force that could take on a very concrete and possibly more ambitious goal. First, the Air Force would be confronted with a major conflict with a near-peer competitor, a “major Chinese military action in the South China Sea,” for instance. Then, 10 to 20 days later, it would be forced to address aggressive activity by a second near-peer, such as “a Russian invasion of one or more Baltic states.”
In that future, Russia and China will become even more capable of defending themselves, turning what is now a contested environment into a “highly contested” environment characterized by mobile, overlapping and interconnected surface-to-air missile systems that use passive sensors and other methods to avoid detection by U.S. equipment.
“The lethality, range and geographic dispersion of these systems, combined with modern fighters, electronic warfare aircraft, cyber attacks and other threats, create an all-aspect, multi-domain challenge for U.S. aircraft,” it said.
At this point, none of the U.S. Air Force’s inventory is optimized for such a battle, CSBA believes. The B-21 bomber built by Northrop Grumman is set to be the first when it becomes operational in the mid-2020s.
As China and Russia field more advanced and long-reaching air defenses, it will be vital for the United States to field long-range, stealthy bombers that can slip past radar, and for the U.S. to use its large payload capacity to take out surface-to-air missiles, adversary airfields and other targets of interest — clearing the way for fighter jets and other U.S. aircraft to fire from standoff distances or move farther afield.
But right now, the Air Force isn’t buying enough of its latest bomber, CSBA posits.
“The Air Force’s planned force of 100 [total aircraft inventory] B-21s could fall short of the penetrating strike capacity needed for a single major high-end great power conflict,” said the report, which recommends a future force of 288 B-21 Raiders.
CSBA recommends accelerating B-21 procurement, adding that “assuming annual B-21 production can ramp to a range between 10 and 20 aircraft per year by the late 2020s, a total of 55 [total aircraft inventory] B-21s could be in the force by 2030.”
Meanwhile, the Air Force should sustain its B-52 and B-2 fleets, and retire the B-1 as the B-21 comes online, it continued.
Should the Air Force buy the F-15X from Boeing?
The study gives an unambiguous answer of “no,” stating that spending its resources on new F-15s could take away precious funding away from the service’s next-generation fighter, which the Air Force needs to expedite and begin buying as soon as possible.
The F-15X, while a capable “fourth-generation-plus aircraft,” will not be able to survive the more contested battlespace of the future, the assessment stated, adding that “the Air Force should consider replacing some retiring F-15C/Ds with modified F-35As as a bridge to its future air superiority family of systems.”
The study prioritizes the development of a new sixth-generation fighter, known as Penetrating Counter Air, or PCA, as well as hastening to a procurement rate of 70 F-35As per year.
Not much is known about PCA, a classified program that is in the early stages of development. The study envisions it as a speedy, long-range family of systems capable of moving deep into an enemy’s airspace and taking out air defenses, opening the aperture up for other assets to move closer to the adversary.
To speed up the development of PCA so that the Air Force can buy at least 50 systems by 2030, the service could look to the B-21 program as an example: “Maximizing use of mature technologies and possibly components and mission systems developed for other advanced platforms could reduce the time and cost of fielding a multi-mission PCA,” the study said. “This capability is needed now, and therefore its development should be a top priority.”
CSBA also recommends the gradual retirement of F-16s, as F-35s come online, and the modernization of F-22 Raptors and F-15Es. Six A-10 Warthog squadrons should be retained into the 2030s as planned, but the service should not pursue a single-mission close-air support aircraft to replace it once the A-10 reaches the end of its service life, according to the think tank.
“Since nearly all of its future precision-enabled combat aircraft will be capable of providing close air support to friendly forces, the Air Force should not develop a future replacement for the A-10 that would be limited to operations in permissive environments,” it said.
With the estimated 457 tankers in the Air Force clocking in at an average of 53 years of age, the Air Force’s tanker force is too old and too small to meet future threats. As such, the Air Force needs to continue buying its latest aerial-refueling aircraft, Boeing’s KC-46, so that it can retire older tankers like the KC-10 and — eventually — the KC-135, CSBA said.
By 2030, CSBA recommends the divestment of the KC-10 as the KC-46 replaces it, as well as the retirement of about 50 of the oldest KC-135s. That, coupled with 179 KC-46s, would lead to a tanker inventory of about 520 aircraft.
At this point, the Air Force should expand the capabilities of the KC-46 with upgrades that allow it to “perform as a communications and situational awareness node to support multi-domain operations, as well as to provide it with some countermeasures against area-denial threats,” the report stated.
The service would need to move quickly to develop a KC-46 follow-on if a future tanker force of 630 aircraft were to be achieved. CSBA conceptualized that future tankers — potentially a family of systems — could involve manned aerial-refueling planes like the KC-46 that transfers fuel from U.S. bases to a number of small, lightweight drones or optionally manned tankers just outside a contested environment, creating a number of disaggregated “offload points” for fighters and other aircraft to get fuel.
Small tanker drones could even move into lower-threat areas inside of the contested environment, “extend[ing] the range and mission duration of penetrating aircraft” while not putting a human pilot and crew at risk, the report found.
Future ISR/light strike drones
In 2030, the Air Force will still be using its MQ-9 Reaper drones, and the service could begin using them in new ways, like for homeland or air base defense. But CSBA identified a “pressing need” for a stealthy combat UAV — a UCAV it terms MQ-X — that could conduct strike, electronic attack or counterair missions while teamed with other unmanned or manned aircraft.
Previous programs to develop a stealthy UCAV have been terminated before they ever reached fruition. One notable example was the Navy’s carrier-launched airborne strike and surveillance program, or UCLASS, wihch was killed in 2016 and reborn as the MQ-25 tanker drone.
CSBA stated that the Air Force should build on such efforts “to initiate development of a MQ-X UCAV that can penetrate and persist in contested environments as soon as possible.” It envisioned a need for 68 MQ-Xs in the future force, with as many as 40 such aircraft being adopted around 2030 if a program is started now.
The service might also consider fielding a family of drones it calls MM-UAS — for multimission unmanned aerial systems — which could eventually replace the Air Force’s current inventory of drones into the 2030s: As CSBA stated, MM-UAS could be based on existing technologies or involve upgrades to current systems.
It would operate in environments that are either permissive or slightly contested, and could accomplish a range of missions like conducting surveillance, executing airstrikes or acting as a communications node.
Of all the mission areas, it’s the Air Force’s ISR and battle management command-and-control aircraft that needs to go through the most revolutionary changes from 2030 onward, CSBA posits.
The Air Force should sustain its U-2 spy planes, RQ-4 Global Hawk drones and E-3 early warning aircraft through 2030, the report said. It’s RC-135 family of special-mission aircraft — which includes the Rivet Joint, Cobra Ball and other planes with unique equipment used in intelligence gathering — could be viable into the 2040s. Meanwhile, the E-8C JSTARS ground surveillance aircraft should be retired in the mid-2020s as long as a capability gap is mitigated by other assets, the think tank said.
CSBA predicts the Air Force will get its Advanced Battle Management System online in the early 2030s, recommending a future force of 21 systems.
The Air Force is pursuing the Advanced Battle Management System as a disaggregated family of systems that can provide command and control, as well as the surveillance of ground and airborne targets, in a contested environment. However, the service hasn’t made it clear what sensors, aircraft and communications gear will be included in the enterprise.
Here’s where CSBA diverges sharply from the Air Force: It calls for the service to develop one or more penetrating ISR drones in the 2030s, calling the fielding of a so-called P-ISR “one of the Air Force’s biggest priorities for its future global awareness force.”
Right now the Air Force has no plans — at least not publicly released ones — to create such an aircraft. However, the CSBA report sees an important role for an unmanned, stealthy spy plane in a future conflict with Russia or China.
“Persistent, penetrating airborne ISR would be critical to the air interdiction of highly mobile armored vehicles and other land forces invading a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally,” a typical scenario in war games involving Russia, the report said. “It also would be necessary to find, fix, track and provide shooters with cues to attack mobile surface-to-air missiles, missile launchers and other high-end Chinese and Russian [anti-access, area denial] systems.”