The Air Force’s fighter fleet of the 2030s will strongly resemble that of the 1980s. Familiar jets like the F-15, F-16, and even the 1970s-vintage A-10 will remain. The 2000’s-era F-22 will be phased out. The F-35, still in production, will become the backbone of the fleet, supplemented by one or more new designs still to be developed. This is how the Air Force is balancing today’s requirements with those of the future.
The new fighters will include at least one Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) design, digitally engineered, and potentially optionally manned.
Future pilots “will fly multiple versions of air superiority aircraft over a career.”
Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, USAF requirements chief
“We are in a position of transition,” Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. told the House Armed Services Committee in June. The Air Force must retire some of its existing force to find savings it can use to develop new aircraft that can deter and defeat great power competitors like China; failure to act now, he warned, raises the “distinct possibility” that China could defeat the U.S. in a future air war.
A next-generation challenge to modern Chinese fighters and long-range missiles is “closer than we think,” said Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements in May. The unveiling of long-range fighter plans, he said, is part of a “transparency” campaign meant to alert Congress to the threat posed by China and the need to move rapidly toward a force that can handle it.
“The time is absolutely coming where the combination of something like a J-20 with an advanced … missile is a threat to air superiority for the United States,” Hinote said. The J-20 is China’s first stealth fighter and is now fielded. It poses a risk, Hinote said, that “we’ve got to address.”
The new plan awaits the reality check of a tactical aircraft study now underway by USAF, the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, and the Joint Staff. It will assess the fighter plan’s affordability and technological feasibility in the context of both “fight-tonight” needs and the capabilities of the other services, and will inform the fiscal 2023 budget and the five-year spending plan that should come with the next defense budget request. (No such five-year outlook was included this year).
The tacair study will not provide “the exact answer [to] what is the exact mix,” because “the facts and assumptions based on the threat will change over time.” It will, however, project a force structure for the 2035 to 2040 time frame.
Brown dropped the first big hint about the future fighter force structure in May, when he said the service will cut back from its seven-fighter force structure to “four-plus one:” the F-35—which he called the “cornerstone” of the force; the new F-15EX; the F-16 or a successor jet; and the NGAD, plus the A-10.
Brown conspicuously left out the F-15C/D and E, as well as the F-22. The F-22 inventory will be too small to affordably operate, officials explained later, saying the Raptor will not be upgraded much past 2030.
“The F-22 is still undergoing modernization,” an Air Force spokeswoman said, and “there are no plans to retire it in the near-term.” This includes upgraded F-22 sensors, improvements to stealth surfaces and capabilities, and the addition of new technologies developed for the F-35.
“Now is a good time for us to be able to talk about how we’re going to bridge” from the F-22 to NGAD, Hinote said. The Raptor will phase out in the “2030-ish time frame,” he noted, when it will be 25 years old and by which time NGAD could be in its second iteration. Although the F-22 has good bones, it “has its limitations,” according to Hinote.
“We can’t modernize our way out” of the air superiority problem “just using an updated F-22,” he said. While USAF is prepared to take some risk in various missions, air superiority “is not one of them,” Hinote added.
Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said the Air Force can no longer afford to sustain seven aging fighter fleets.
“About 44 percent of the Air Force fleet is now flying beyond its design service life,” Nahom noted. The seven fleets have to be consolidated “down to something manageable.”
Brown pointed out the F-15C has already outlived its planned life expectancy, and cannot be economically extended. The F-15EX represents an upgrade as it backfills the retiring F-15Cs—which are speed- and load-limited—and will eventually also take on the F-15E’s ground attack role.
Brown told the House Armed Services Committee in June that, with the fighter force’s average age stubbornly fixed at 28 years, buying the F-15EX is the quickest way to lower that figure.
New-build F-15EXs cost about the same as new F-35s, but they can be fielded faster and are cheaper to operate, the Air Force argues. The service can upgrade F-15C squadrons with EXs and be back in business within a few months. Upgrading to the F-35 is much more complicated, requiring new military construction, new ground support gear, and extensive pilot and crew training, but the F-15EX is still a fourth-generation fighter.
“Pre-decisional” talking points prepared for Brown’s presentation show the service has tightly bounded ideas about what the future fighter force will look like. Through 2026, the Air Force envisions cutting 421 fighters, and replacing them with just 304 new ones, for a net reduction of 117 airframes—the largest cut since the early 2010s.
All 234 F-15Cs could be gone by the end of 2026, replaced by just 84 new F-15EXs, although Air Force plans indicate it would add 60 more F-15EXs in later years; in all, the Air Force’s contract with Boeing includes options to build up to 200 EXs, in total. With two more weapon stations than the C model, conformal fuel tanks for extra range, and the ability to carry outsize long-range weapons, both for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, the EX will be, as the talking points describe it, a “weapon truck.”
Brown assured the Senate Armed Services Committee in June that the F-22 will be “with us a while.” Upgrades will continue up to the 2030s, but the talking points assert it “cannot be made competitive against the threat two decades from today.”
Older F-16s are also going away. Retiring the 124 “pre-Block” F-16s will leave 812 aircraft to be modernized with new radars and other gear by the end of 2026.
More will likely head to the boneyard: The talking points indicate about 600 F-16s can “provide affordable capacity for the next 15-plus years,” in both permissive and “competitive” air theaters, but an “eventual replacement” must be developed that can affordably perform missions like countering violent extremists and defending the homeland.
If operating and support costs could be brought down to acceptable levels, “the F-35 could fill this role,” according to the brief. Otherwise, the Air Force will have to seek “an alternative platform,” notionally labeled the Multi-Role Fighter-Experimental, or MR-X. The decision point for this new system is “six to eight years away” according to the document, dated April 2021. The MR-X would be a “clean sheet, open mission system-designed fighter.”
Brown has said that the F-16 replacement must be affordable to buy and operate and need not be as stealthy as an F-35. He speculated that F-35 operating costs could be reduced if it were saved for high-end missions and not flown as often or as hard, or used for missions not requiring stealth or high-end sensors.
The Air Force plans to buy 220 new F-35As over the next five years. Service officials have said they prefer to significantly increase their annual buy of the F-35A from the 48 or so of today only when the Block 4 model is in production, circa 2025. They want to bring down operating costs that, right now, are “unaffordable,” said F-35 Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Eric T. Fick.
Cuts to the A-10 fleet, from 281 aircraft today to 218, mean cutting two of nine squadrons by 2023. Those units will get new missions and the remaining aircraft will gain new wings and mission gear to fly into the mid-2030s. By then, Hinote said, the A-10 will no longer be viable.
The A-10’s “lack of survivability in the evolving global threat environment and its singular capability set render it ineffective in the needed role of affordable capacity” as it can’t do the suppression of enemy air defenses, homeland defense, or defensive counter-air missions, according to the talking points.
Hinote said the Air Force isn’t looking to create “another non-survivable close air support aircraft” like the A-10. Future battles likely won’t happen along a well-defined front, but will rather be “more distributed,” happening in disparate locations. This is driving the debate in the Pentagon about other services’ insistence on developing their own long-range strike systems, he said, and future close air support is going to “feel much different” than it does today.
Looking to the Future
The Next-Generation Air Dominance systems are the wild card in the Air Force’s fighter plans. Funded at more than $1.5 billion in the fiscal 2022 budget request, the program remains largely secret.
Some facts have been revealed, however. The first NGAD flew in 2020, setting records for altitude and possibly more in the process, said former Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper last September. Brown told the House Armed Services Committee in June that he expects NGAD to be a “multirole” aircraft, able to attack ground and airborne targets. He indicated ground attack capabilities may be needed to “ensure … that it can survive.” The aircraft must have “full spectrum stealth,” according to Brown’s talking points.
The NGAD has always been described as a “family of systems” likely to include unmanned escort aircraft for missions like defense suppression, electronic attack, and as a flying extra magazine for weapons. But Roper has said that the core of the system will be an aircraft.
Roper also said the NGAD concept is to rapidly design, develop, and field airplanes using the digital thread construct, but in limited numbers; perhaps as few as 50 to 100. To keep the technology fresh, the next iteration—or a competing design—would be fielded within five to 12 years, and the previous model retired. This would also save on decades’ worth of sustainment costs, while not “locking up” the fighter market with a single contractor for decades at a time. In fact, constant design would keep more fighter houses busy and open the door to smaller outfits which could maybe design a new fighter but lack the facilities to build it, Roper argued. By “owning the technical baseline,” USAF will be able to hand a design to another company to build it, or make parts for it.
It’s also been suggested by senior USAF officials that there could be two variants, or multi-aircraft configurations of NGAD: one optimized for the long ranges of the Pacific, another for the relatively shorter distances of the European theater.
Hinote said he doubts it will take 10 years for the first NGAD to be fielded, even though it’s on an “event-driven” schedule.
“We still have to make it real,” he said, but he’s impressed with its progress, as are “the airmen who are flying it.” For him and members of Congress who’ve been cleared into the program, “seeing is believing,” he added. Hinote declined to confirm or deny if a second NGAD type is in development.
Not yet clear is what role will be played in the future fighter mix by autonomous or remotely piloted aircraft. The Air Force is exploring Low-Cost Autonomous Attritable Systems (LCAAS); uninhabited aircraft cheap enough that their loss in combat would be bearable over a campaign. In May, Brown said ambiguously that recent wargames indicated the proper mix of manned and unmanned combat aircraft in the 2030s will be “some of both.”
Hinote noted that NGAD itself will be “optionally manned,” and that it may not be a “one-for-one” replacement for the F-22, given the role to be played by NGAD’s unmanned escorts. But the unmanned fleet will be “force multipliers,” Hinote added, especially if many of them don’t need a runway to take off or recover. That could be a game-changer in a future conflict, multiplying the number of locations an adversary like China would have to target.
The fiscal 2022 budget request sets the stage for these changes with planned retirements of 42 A-10s, 48 F-15C/Ds, and 47 F-16C/Ds; against those cuts, the Air Force plans to purchase just 48 F-35As and a dozen F-15EXs. In addition, the Air Force asked for another 12 F-15EX jets in its unfunded priorities list submitted to Congress in June, but did not included F-35s on that list. Congress could always add more, as it has done in recent years, but Brown’s talking points show the service plans to request only 43 F-35s a year until the Block 4 version is available.
As cutting-edge as the F-35 is, its roots date back decades, Hinote staid. The technology “is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 years old.”
“We are inventing how to think about an Air Force” where aircraft serve a “decade, two decades, but it’s not any longer than that,” he said. As the service “harnesses the power of digital design … and gets us to design-centered acquisition,” future pilots won’t spend their careers flying one plane, he suggested. Instead, they will fly “multiple versions of air superiority aircraft over a career.” That, Hinote said, should be exciting to today’s fighter pilots.