The incredible Shrinking US Air Force, or, Waiting for NGAD

Further to this 2020 post,

US Air Force Trying to Shake, Rattle…(and note NORAD)

the USAF is in a touchy position, forced to make retirements from an increasingly aging fleet while awaiting in particular the new sixth-generation super-fighter (with its accompanying drones) and the new B-21 stealth bomber (which should be in service much sooner). All while facing seemingly ever-growing and more capable PRC forces. The frankness and depth of public discussion about US defence matters can only make a poor Canadian green (with spring!) envy.

1) First from an article at The Drive’s “War Zone”:

The Air Force Has Abandoned Its 386 Squadron Goal

The Air Force Secretary has poured cold water on the previous goal of a 386 squadron USAF and wants a posture based on the Chinese threat.

by Thomas Newdick, Tyler Rogoway May 4

The U.S. Air Force’s long-standing aspiration to increase the number of its squadrons to 386 by 2030 appears to have been dropped. The goal of an enlarged force, which was announced as long ago as 2018, is now deemed less important than fielding more capable platforms, with a particular eye on potential future conflicts with an increasingly advanced Chinese military. That, at least, is the view of the Air Force Secretary, the senior leader overseeing the Department of the Air Force, comprised of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force.

The development was announced by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, speaking on a Brookings Institution webcast, under the title The future of American air power, on May 2nd, 2022. Among the highlights of a wide-ranging discussion were Kendall’s comments on Air Force size and structure and how these should be balanced, in the future, against capability levels which, in turn, will need to be optimized to meet the potential threat from the Chinese military.

“I’m not focused on counting end-strength or squadrons or airplanes,” Kendall said, but rather “I’m focused on the capability to carry out the operations we might have to support [toward] … defeating aggression. If you can’t deter or defeat the initial act of aggression, then you’re in a situation like we’re seeing in Ukraine: a protracted conflict.”

…the kind of Air Force structure that Kendall is proposing would be tailored very much for the kind of threat posed by China, not Russia [emphasis added], and which would involve fighting “several thousand miles away” from many established bases against an opponent that combines high-end weapons with innovative ways of employing them [see post on “Distributed Operations” noted at bottom of this one]

To…dissuade — and potentially defeat — a fast-expanding and increasingly sophisticated Chinese military, the U.S. Air Force needs to focus less on its size and more on fielding more capable and modern assets.

“An awful lot of equipment that we have is old,” Kendall said, pointing out that the average age of one of the service’s aircraft is 30 years, and that this number is growing every year.

Playing a fundamental part in modernizing the Air Force will be the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, or NGAD, one of Kendall’s key priorities, or operational imperatives. He described NGAD as a family of systems [emphasis added] that will include not just a new manned platform, but also uncrewed combat aircraft, new weapons, connectivity architecture, and relationships to outside support.

…With NGAD, as well as the B-21 Raider stealth bomber and nuclear modernization efforts all ongoing, there are some seriously expensive programs that all require funds. Development of the B-21 alone accounts for $381 million in the latest Air Force budget request, plus another $1.7 billion to actually begin purchasing the aircraft…

The idea of rapidly fielding a new platform and then working to improve it incrementally once it enters the inventory is espoused by Kendall and it’s one that we’ve heard before. Broadly, it parallels the so-called ‘Digital Century Series’ approach that was the brainchild of Will Roper, the former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics…

The biggest concern that is likely to come from Kendall’s emerging strategy is near-term risk, by retiring far more operational aircraft than the already ‘too small for demand’ Air Force is buying, and especially the idea long-term that quality will far supersede quantity in the aerial battlefield of the future [emphasis added]. No matter how capable a fighter or bomber may be, it can only be in one place at one time, and that is usually on the ground, with a substantial part of that time being torn apart for maintenance. In an expeditionary fight, where the U.S. is fighting thousands of miles from home, or even from secured airfields, quantity becomes a real issue in order to sustain the fight over the long haul. China will be fighting on its own turf without these strangling issues and its force is growing in both quantity and quality…

2) And from Aviation Week and Space Technology on the fighter force:

New Leadership Reimagines U.S. Air Force Fighter Fleet Structure

Steve Trimble Brian Everstine April 29, 2022

A new, long-term vision for the U.S. Air Force fighter fleet has gradually come into focus, and, if Congress approves, the changes for the tactical aviation portfolio could be stark.

A sixth-generation fighter to be acquired in the next decade by the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program will cost in the “hundreds of millions” each and enter service in the 2030s alongside a phalanx of uncrewed Collaborative Combat Aircraft with autonomous control systems, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) panel on April 26.

Until then, the Air Force plans to nearly halve a Trump administration plan to buy at least 144 Boeing F-15EX fighters as a short-term replacement for more than 200 F-15C/Ds, cutting the procurement program off after ordering only 80 of the Eagle II fighters in fiscal 2024.

Although the Lockheed Martin F-35A is the only feasible alternative as an F-15C/D replacement in the near term, the Air Force instead aims to slash planned orders for the stealthy, single-engine fighter over the next two years by as many as 34 jets, then ramp up orders after F-15EX procurement is completed in fiscal 2024. The 33-year-old F-15E fleet, meanwhile, emerges from the fighter reshuffling unscathed.

Finally, the Air Force wants to offset cuts to other fighter fleets with major upgrades to the remaining aircraft.

Controversially, the Air Force plans to retire all Fairchild Republic A-10s over the next five years, along with the 33 Lockheed F-22s that are not equipped to fight in combat.

In exchange, the Air Force would like to invest money in major upgrades. More than 600 Lockheed F-16s would be upgraded to the Block 70/72 standard, including Northrop Grumman APG-83 active, electronically scanned array radars and the Northrop Grumman Next-Generation Electronic Warfare suite.

Meanwhile, the surviving fleet of nearly 150 F-22s also is in line for new equipment. Gen. Mark Kelly, the head of Air Combat Command, may have previewed some of the options in an April 27 tweet that celebrated the anniversary of the first F-22 public demonstration routine in 2007.

Kelly’s tweet included a concept image of an F-22 equipped with pods mounted on outboard wing pylons carrying apparent infrared search-and-track sensors, low-radar-cross-section fuel tanks and a next–generation air-to-air missile. The F-22 supposedly receives the first operational Lockheed AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile this year, but Air Force officials said during the April 27 hearing that the long-range weapon remained in development.

All of this fleet reshuffling would result in a 16% reduction in fighter fleet capacity through fiscal 2027, cutting a 2,138-strong fleet now down to 1,792 jets over the next five years [emphasis added].

Air Force officials are seeking to finance new fighter capabilities such as NGAD and F-35 Block 4 by retiring aircraft in the short term. The strategy has usually been met with resistance by Congress…

Kendall has proposed reengining the F-35. The Pratt & Whitney F135 is meeting specifications, but Block 4 electronic upgrades risk overwhelming the power and thermal management system. Pratt designed the 43,000-lb.-thrust engine to provide bleed air from the compressor to cool the onboard electronics [see this story at Breaking Defense: “How to save $40B on the F-35 Program: Cost, risk, and alliances are key considerations for F-35 propulsion modernization”].

…In written testimony submitted to the HASC, a joint statement from Kendall and current Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., is explicit: “This [NGAD] family of systems will include a sixth-generation crewed platform as well as uncrewed combat aircraft and a cost-effective mix of sensors, weapons and communications systems.”

Kendall said he expects to be fielding the NGAD in the 2030s, but two lawmakers, Reps. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) and Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), said they understood the program is delayed [emphasis added]

The sixth-generation fighter at the heart of the NGAD program is already expected to become the most expensive tactical aircraft ever developed. The price of “hundreds of millions” each cited by Kendall aligns with a 2018 projection by the Congressional Budget Office, which estimated a unit cost of about $300 million each for a future penetrating counter-air platform.

With such a high price per copy, the Air Force is trying to shift to a different approach for its fighter fleet.

…Air Force planners are internally debating how future fighter squadrons will be composed with crewed and uncrewed elements [emphasis added]. The newly branded Collaborative Combat Aircraft—formerly described as “Loyal Wingman”—builds on autonomous technology developed as part of programs such as Skyborg and Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat platform in Australia. It is “quite a few ways out,” Brown says.

Kendall has said he expects these aircraft to cost about half the price of the crewed platform, or potentially $150 million or more. In the short term, that is why the service is focusing on its four-aircraft mix of F-15s, F-16s, F-35s and the NGAD.

Challenges, challenges, challenges. But the RCAF can only wonder at how seriously the American administration and Congress take them. But they are a great power and we most certainly are not. Whether Canada even remains a middle power is open to real question.

And, boy!, does the US have vibrant, intelligent and well-informed defence media. A Canadian sighs.

Related posts;

US Air Force Planning for “Distributed Operations” in Pacific

US Air Force Planning vs PLA in Indo-Pacific

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

3 thoughts on “The incredible Shrinking US Air Force, or, Waiting for NGAD”

  1. A friend who knows military aircraft observes:

    “The A-10 was designed as part of the later Cold War Air-Land Battle concept to stem a massive Red Army attack in Europe; it was considered that by the time the Red Army could be stopped most of the A-10s would have been destroyed. First Gulf War basically proved the anti-armour concept, at least half-way since there wasn’t enough aerial opposition. The plane’s rugged design and own armour succeeded in saving lots of damaged aircraft. Then the GWOT gave it a long second career vs insurgents.

    But it doesn’t have the range for Beijing-related scenarios and modern ground defences are probably too lethal. Maybe a third act in Korea but aside from a small number, the costs of rebuilding are too high. It’s been a great one.

    It still has friends in Congress but the USAF is making a credible case to re-allocate resources.

    Meanwhile the A-10’s Russian counterpart, the Su-25 Frogfoot, doesn’t seem to be playing a significant role in the Ukraine war, perhaps because all those MANPADS donated by friendly countries have created the local version of too lethal an environment. Apparently several have been shot down.”

    Facing reality vs sentiments.

    Mark Collins

    Like

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