“The Air Force We Need,” which Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson outlined last fall, will continue to come into finer and finer focus this spring, as a series of follow-on studies near completion and the Air Force budget and modernization strategy is debated on Capitol Hill.
Encompassing 386 operational squadrons rather than today’s 312, the objective force was never intended to withstand a budget debate. Rather, it was designed free of budgetary constraints so leaders could understand the full extent of the mismatch between the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the force we have today. That force is too small, having been whittled and whacked over the past 15 years. The coming studies will provide alternative assessments regarding the service’s capacity demands and will consider force design alternatives that could potentially field greater combat power by means of new operational concepts and strategies.
Let’s hope so. The real world imposes budget constraints.
When the Trump administration unveils its budget the topline will be greater than 2019’s $716 billion, a goodly sum that could approach $750 billion. But with a cooling economy, rising interest rates, and a president indicating he’s had enough of “endless war,” another down cycle can’t be far off. Future defense budgets may not be able to keep up with inflation, let alone afford increases.
The Air Force, meanwhile, is behind the power curve. After failing for years to replace aging aircraft, it now must juggle multiple major acquisitions concurrently. Developing and acquiring the F-35 fighter, KC-46 tanker, B-21 bomber, T-X trainer, and UH-1 helicopter replacement at virtually the same time is already a perfect storm in budgetary terms. Every one of these programs is behind where it should be. And still, these are hardly the only priorities. The cost of modernizing nuclear forces is projected to rise 60 percent over the next decade (see Aperture, p. 12). Other priorities, from developing a more robust next-generation Global Positioning System and upgrading other space and cyber capabilities also add to the bill.
It’s like a family trying to buy two new cars, manage a whole-house renovation, take on a second home, and send the twins off to college—then repeating the feat every year for a decade. That’s a lot of risk to manage—no matter how much one scrimps and saves, such a load will put most families just one fiscal emergency from ruin.
And now comes a plan, in the midst of all this, to divert billions to buy a whole new fighter jet.
Air Force officials acknowledge the 2020 budget will include some $1.2 billion for 12 new Boeing F-15X fighters. This new, more capable version of the F-15 does offer some advantages: It provides an upgrade to legacy F-15Cs that will need major upgrades to keep flying; It would help in air defense against cruise missiles, homeland security, and carry more missiles than smaller aircraft; and it could help keep another fighter house in business and share costs with allied foreign military customers already committed to the airframe. Finally, because at least one customer is willing to delay its acquisition, the airplanes could be delivered almost immediately.
That’s an attractive upside—until you look at the risks those benefits entail.
No stealth. Worldwide, air defenses are getting more capable and more dangerous. It’s not for vanity that the last five Air Force Chiefs and Secretaries have steadfastly maintained that the US not buy any more 4th generation airplanes. It’s out of a robust desire to maintain air dominance and win. Were the US to find itself at war with Russia, China, or other allies of air defense customers, only stealth aircraft can expect to penetrate their modern air defenses. Until and unless those systems can be defeated, 4th gen aircraft will either get shot down or stay home. Ensuring the US has a full stable of stealth aircraft is the best way to ensure no such conflict ever arises.
Costly. At $1.2 billion for 12 airplanes, even assuming a share for spares, these airplanes are at best comparably priced to new F-35As, and tens of millions more than the cost of a service-life extension for existing F-15Cs. It also adds another small fleet to the service, and all the added sustainment costs that go with that. To go back to our family budget example, why buy a new, bigger car just a year or two before the kids fly the coop? Maybe it makes more sense to fix that transmission after all.
Overkill. While the F-15X may not be well-suited to the high-end fight attacking deep into a peer competitor’s territory, it is being pitched instead as an answer to base and homeland defense missions. That’s fair. But existing F-15s, F-16s, and even B-1s modified to carry missiles could do the same job for less. And for attack missions where the Air Force has already achieved air dominance, it’s simply more jet than you need. There, a lower-cost armed variant of the T-X, or even propeller aircraft like the Super Tucano, Wolverine, or a remotely piloted aircraft could provide sufficient utility at a fraction of the cost.
Deleterious. The Air Force has a stated requirement for 1,763 F-35s. To date, it’s purchased fewer than 200, and current plans call for acquiring just 48 per year. If the Air Force can find another $1 billion for fighters, investing that in more F-35s would accelerate procurement and drive down unit costs.
The F-15X is attractive, but its utility only fits into niche theoretical constructs.
Unconstrained by budgetary reality, it seems like a great idea.
In the face of reality, however, this is a luxury the Air Force can ill afford. To achieve “The Air Force We Need,” the Air Force needs a force we can afford.
Buying airplanes, even new updated versions, that date to the 1970s addresses only short-term risk.
If the United States Air Force must take on additional risk, the time to do so is now—when we can plan to solve the problem within a decade, not a decade or two from now, when we may not have time to recover.