by DAVID AXE
The U.S. Air Force’s fighter fleet modernizes on a roughly 20-year cycle. It takes at least that long for most new planes and munitions to complete development and enter service in meaningful numbers. Consider the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, which entered squadron service in 2005, 24 years after its initial requirement was written. New weapons are both driven by, and in turn drive, new tactics and procedures.
Broadly speaking, every couple decades represent a “generation” for the Air Force. Since the weapons completing development today will serve for decades to come, we know what the next generation will look like. But what about the one after that — the one we can start building today, essentially from scratch? What about this “Air Force After Next”?
I propose that the Air Force After Next could be represent the first generation in a century to take advantage of new ways of buying and using air power, particularly when it comes to fighters. By embracing the private sector’s “just-in-time” philosophy, the emerging “fast, inexpensive, simple and tiny” acquisitions model and the “orbit” construct that is rapidly gaining Pentagon currency, the Air Force After Next could be the most powerful and adaptive tactical air force, ever.
The Air Force After Next
In the most likely low-intensity war scenarios, c. 2050, naval or ground forces — or even government civilians — might be the first to reach the battlefield. They arrive with attached Air Force advance parties.
These first-to-arrive forces create a demand signal that the Air Force parties translate into a certain number of orbits, of a certain capability. In the case of a regional counter-insurgency campaign against a heavily armed and sophisticated enemy, the Air Force might decide to generate 20 armed-surveillance orbits and five air-defense orbits, plus all the associated support and logistics forces.
Existing forces mobilize to provide the 25 orbits, on an interim basis, deploying just a few hundred aircraft. At the same time, the Pentagon issues orders to small, nimble research teams to develop sensors and weapons fine-tuned to the specific demands of the conflict: foliage-penetrating radars for jungle warfare, for instance, or smaller, super-accurate bombs for urban campaigns.
Within weeks, aircraft are rolling off the factory floors, with the new sensors and weapons fits installed. The new planes replace the interim planes, and are themselves eventually replaced by even newer and more highly-adapted equipment, as the conflict evolves and new challenges arise.
When the conflict is resolved, the deployed Air Force returns home and reverts to a sort of “active stand-by” mode. Worn-out aircraft are retired. Factories continue producing new airplanes, at a lower rate and of a basic model that’s adequate for a wide range of potential conflicts. Recapitalization and diversified training never let up, but the intensive research and development base that produced the war’s specific fighter variants shifts into more theoretical work, while awaiting the next conflict.
Air Power Fantasy
Is this scheme bullshit? Probably. After all, I’m just a journalist with no specific training in aviation, engineering or defense planning. But it seems to me that three trends in today’s Air Force point straight towards my imaginary Air Force After Next.
The first is the explosive demand for and development of UAVs. In just a few years, Predator-class drones have evolved from glorified model airplanes, to fighter-class combat aircraft. All the while, they’ve remained cheaper than their manned equivalents, and more capable in many respects. Drones production is steady, and development is constant and fast.
The second is the recent popularity of pairing off-the-shelf aircraft with specialized payloads. In the past year, the Air Force has ordered dozens of Beechcraft King Air turboprops and is fitting them with a wide range of sensors and communications gear. The first of these “Project Liberty” planes went from idea to flying combat orbits in a year’s time, at a cost of just a few million dollars apiece. They are a preview of my just-in-time warplanes.
The third, similar to the second, is the fast, inexpensive, simple and tiny approach to acquisitions espoused by certain Air Force officers. Majors Dan Ward, Gabriel Mounce, and Christopher Quaid advocate buying small batches of off-the-shelf weapons tailored to the demands of a particular conflict. Today’s majors are tomorrow’s generals. The so-called “FIST” approach might become a service-wide philosophy in coming decades, just in time to lay the foundation for the Air Force After Next.
Leaving aside admittedly-important nuclear, cyber, space, support and Special Operations forces, the present Air Force generation includes around 2,000 modernized, non-stealthy combat aircraft of no fewer than four major types; some 150 new “silver-bullet” F-22s; and two types of armed drones numbering maybe 300. Most of these aircraft were built in the 1980s and currently fly under fatigue restrictions.
This mixed force still operates according to century-old models. For the most part, combat power is measured in the total number of squadrons, the number of sorties those squadrons can generate over a given distance and period of time, and the number of weapons they can accurately deliver during those sorties.
Most squadrons and wings function as holding organizations for capital-intensive fleets of airplanes plus their operators. Numbered air forces and regional or functional commands are administrative structures designed to generate and accommodate the mobile squadrons and wings as they shuffle around the world.
The next Air Force — the one that should be fully formed by around 2025 — won’t be much different than today’s. There will be slightly fewer aircraft, overall. The fighter fleet will be smaller as stealthy F-35s finally replace most of the F-15C and Es, F-16s and A-10s built in the 1980s. There will be more, and more capable, drone aircraft.
Structurally and doctrinally, there will be few changes between the present generation and the next. A single sortie by a single armed manned aircraft will probably still comprise the basic unit of combat power in the minds of most planners. That said, the “orbit” construct, conceived in the present generation to take advantage of drones’ long loiter times, should become more prominent.
My Air Force After Next would be a big departure from the previous two generations. Manned fighters should be mostly extinct, replaced by super-capable drones. Sorties would give way to orbits as the standard measure of combat power. Squadrons would possess few, if any, aircraft on a permanent basis, instead focusing on the speedy generation of large numbers of specialized drone operators, using simulators and shared training assets.
When squadrons deploy, they would fall in on orbits owned by the regional combatant commander, and constantly expanded and upgraded by a highly responsive manufacturing and research base.
Compared to the present generation and the one to follow, the Air Force After Next that I envision would have far fewer aircraft at most times, but would buy aircraft on a more predictable and sustained basis. Airplanes would be relatively cheaper and more disposable than they currently are, and would rarely serve longer than a decade.
During peacetime, the few hundred drone platforms in use and in production would be “agnostic” — that is, non-specialized. During wartime, these would be quickly replaced by highly specialized variants, carrying newly developed sensors and weapons.
There would be more operators per aircraft in the Air Force After Next than in any previous generation, as all orbits will be 24-hour operations, and individual drones will be flown hard — and thrown away when they break.
The Orbital Air Force
Orbits represent round-the-clock coverage of a given area of terrain by a given type of aircraft. Typically, a single orbit is filled by four or five drone aircraft, flying in shifts, that can both search for targets and strike those targets. Provided they have sufficient endurance, manned fighters can fill orbits, too.
Orbits are not, fundamentally, a new idea. A fighter combat air patrol is essentially a high-altitude orbit that looks out instead of down. Manned support planes have long operated in orbits, although rarely on the 24-hour basis that will probably be the standard in the future.
In a sense, land and sea forces have always operated in a manner that could be described as “orbits on the surface,” as they emphasize persistent presence to find an enemy, defeat him and prevent him from regenerating — or, alternatively, to protect the resource (in counter-insurgency, this is usually the local civilian population) that the enemy is targeting.
The Air Force After Next should replace sorties with orbits, as the standard measure of combat power. It won’t matter to commanders how many aircraft and sorties it takes to populate an orbit, as long as that orbit is populated. Where and how big your orbit is, and what asset you use to fill it, will vary by threat, terrain and political considerations.
In the unlikely event of a full-scale conventional conflict, orbits would be heavily armed, overlapping and greatly reinforced with attrition spares. Air-defense orbits might layer atop unarmed surveillance orbits, which might layer over armed-reconnaissance orbits, which themselves might sit atop orbits of robotic munitions primed to kill anything that moves.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, in small, politically-constrained conflicts, orbits might not be armed at all, but rather feature a few unobtrusive drones optimized for gathering intelligence for teams on the ground.
Orbits work for almost all types of air power. The only major exception is point-to-point logistics, such as cargo airlift. This function is mostly incompatible with the orbital model. For combat functions, however, orbits are superior than sorties, for they are persistent.
In the later years of the Air Force After Next, orbits might evolve into an even better construct, the “cloud.” The cloud would be formed by swarms of highly autonomous, “talkative,” interchangeable and disposable aircraft that are accessible by any “customer” with the right access code, whether he be a regional commander, a Special Forces terminal air controller or a State Department reconstruction team leader. The customer requests a service — the destruction of a target or an image or video of a piece of terrain — and the cloud automatically provides that service, by offering up the nearest suitable asset.
A particularly sophisticated cloud might eventually include some logistics assets, so that a customer can ask for a quick air-drop of water, plasma or ammunition, or for medical evacuation for his injured people.
Fewer Plane Types
A key advantage of orbits, besides their persistence, is their scalability. An orbit can be as heavy, lethal and populous as you need it to be. The tricky part is providing aircraft that are capable of providing the basic building blocks for these highly modular, “dial-able” orbits, while keeping down the complexity. You need basic airframes that are adequately capable across the widest spectrum of missions against the widest array of threats. For operations, the basic airframe is tweaked with new sensors and weapons to create specialized drones tailored for the geography, threat and politics of a particular conflict.
This basic platform agnosticism, coupled with great potential for specialization, would represent a big departure from today’s approach to air-combat technology. With its high speed, sophisticated air-to-air radar and expert pilot, a Boeing F-15 Eagle makes an excellent component of an air-defense orbit, but the same plane can’t loiter long enough for effective armed reconnaissance orbit, and is way too obtrusive for an orbit in a politically delicate scenario. Not to mention, manned fighters like the F-15 are too complex and expensive to buy quickly in large numbers — the only way to break today’s increasingly rigid and unaffordable acquisitions process.
Traditional fighters’ high price and relative inflexibility has fueled the recent rise of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. A General Atomics Predator B drone, a.k,a. “Reaper,” carries as much weaponry as an F-16, but loiters hours longer and is quieter and less visible to boot. Best of all, a Reaper costs less than a third of what a new F-16 sells for.
Today’s drones are not adequate replacements for today’s manned fighters, for all missions. Reapers are optimized for surveillance and ground-attack. They lack the field-of-view, sensor fidelity and speed for air-to-air combat. That will undoubtedly change in coming years as drones get faster and smarter. General Atomics’ new Avenger is a preview of fighter drones, as are stealthy, arrowhead-shaped demonstrator UAVs flown by Northrop Grumman and Boeing.
The next-generation Air Force will need to mix drones and manned fighters to fill both ground-attack and air-defense orbits. For the Air Force After Next, we should aim for drones for every mission. Just how many different drone types will be necessary?
Using today’s force as a guide, we can assume we’ll need: fairly slow, long-loitering drones for ground attack and surveillance; and faster drones — with necessarily shorter loiter times — for air-to-air combat and penetrating missions. Both basic types can be scaled upward or downward for niche missions. Optimistically, most tactical combat functions will be handled by just these two basic aircraft designs, versus the seven in service today.
Air Power, Just in Time
Today’s Air Force buys overall huge quantities of the same aircraft in increasingly infrequent yet prolonged stretches, after decades of pricey development. To realize a return on its research and development investment, the Air Force keeps its platforms longer than it should — even to the point of jeopardizing flight safety, as illustrated by the 2007
fatal crash of a fatigued Missouri Air National Guard F-15.
Prolonged development and manufacture risks fielding obsolete aircraft, as world politics might change faster than programs do. Risky, 20-year R&D also gives manufacturers time and incentive to build political alliances around their programs — meaning these programs become harder to kill or curtail, the older they get. Political entrenchment forces the Air Force to buy airplanes it might not want or need any more.
The current acquisitions process is unlikely to change in time to deeply affect the next Air Force, but there’s time to forge something new for the Air Force After Next. We should approach the acquisition of basic aircraft designs for the Air Force After Next the same way that the service and retail industries handle their logistics.
To keep down costs and avoid being left with large quantities of an obsolete product, most companies order only what they know they need, in the quantities they’re sure they’ll need, while still paying heed to the health of the supplier base. This is the “just-in-time” philosophy of Walmart and other big retailers. Orders are as small and frequent as possible, instead of big and infrequent. Companies forecast intelligently for the sake of supplier stability and low inventory. Production lines that stay hot mean companies can “surge” orders, when required, albeit at a premium.
By the same token, for the Air Force After Next, we should buy small numbers of a minimal number of different aircraft designs (again, two might suffice), on a constant basis: say, 50 planes per year, every year, during peacetime. For cost savings, the Air Force should own the designs, and license them to competing manufacturers, while also introducing annual upgrades to the basic airframes. Each company would get a proportion of the annual aircraft production that’s commensurate with the firm’s recent performance. Build planes well, on time, and you might get a bigger share next year. The overall demand stability would help keep down costs.
The permanent peacetime force would possess fewer aircraft than the current Air Force. Today, the Air Force “hordes” expensive aircraft because it is unable to purchase new planes quickly or cheaply. That’s how the present Air Force wound up possessing some 2,500 aging tactical fighters, when no current conflict has ever demanded more than a couple hundred fighters at any given time. Such a huge base force is analogous to retailer’s now-defunct practice of filling warehouses with goods that might very well end up unsellable.
Just as retailers have replaced warehouses with just-in-time deliveries, the Air Force After Next should abandon its large, unwieldy base force in favor of hot production lines that can be surged with customized products based on the most fool-proof basic designs. As I see it, the Air Force After Next should never buy fewer than 50 fighter drones per year, and rarely keep any of them longer than a decade. At no time would the Air Force have fewer than 500 modern fighters in service — all of them deployable and combat-ready. Surge production could double than number, in a year’s time — and the new copies would be optimized for the current conflict.
Five hundred fighters should be more than adequate, based on current demand. Today, the Pentagon has a near-term goal of 50 drone orbits, probably requiring around 300 aircraft once training and attrition are factored in. As demand for drones’ services keeps growing, it’s almost certain the requirement will soon exceed 50 orbits. Rounded up, we get my 500-fighter base force for the Air Force After Next.
The Human Element
So how do we organize the Air Force After Next to best generate tailored orbits of just-in-time tactical airplanes, as demanded by world events? In my opinion, the existing squadrons, wings, numbered air forces and functional commands must evolve, along with the acquisitions process. When it’s not fighting — which, admittedly, would probably be rare — the Air Force After Next would be mostly a human-resources agency, focused on maintaining adequate numbers of specialized operators. Airplanes would be built in the right quantity, with the right equipment, just in time for current conflicts, by taking advantage of constant production of basic airframes and a healthy R&D force.
But people cannot be produced on-demand as easily as machines can. With intensive, realistic training, the Air Force After Next must train up and keep in reserve every possible kind of operator: some trained for firepower-intensive strategic bombing campaigns, others prepared for strictly non-violent missions in support of non-military agencies. In wartime, the skilled operators who are best suited to that particular conflict would divide into two groups: one for flying the initial combat missions alongside less skilled “generalist” pilots, the other for quickly training additional aircrew in the specific, specialized skills demanded by the current war.
Squadrons and wings in the Air Force After Next may not have their own aircraft — at least not all the time. They would gain access to aircraft as they need them for training and operations. A small number of tailored aircraft might be necessary for certain kinds of training, but during peacetime most aircraft in the inventory are “agnostic.” The specialized planes would follow from conflict, and specialized aviators must follow, too, as quickly as possible, springing from the germ of the carefully-tended, and diverse, operator base.
It Beats Extinction
My vision for the Air Force After Next is undoubtedly rife with flaws, especially where I risk discussing specifics. But I believe the very basic principles are sound. U.S. air power c. 2050 must be:
The Air Force After Next can achieve these things by being:
*Smaller during peacetime
*More focused on human capital
Surely there are many, perhaps much wiser, alternatives to the models I propose. But one thing is clear: today’s air power is unsustainable. The U.S. Air Force must evolve, or go extinct.
(Photo: Bryan William Jones)