A draft requirements document for a “follow-on” close air support airplane is making its way around the Air Force now, top service planner Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes told reporters following at an AFA-sponsored, Air Force breakfast Thursday. The service will look for “the sweet spot” of capability and cost on a continuum that ranges from a “low-end” CAS platform, like the A-29 Super Tucano or AT-6, to continuing operations with the A-10, to something all-new that would be uniquely configured for a future CAS mission. “We’ll be looking for … what we can afford in the numbers that we need to do the mission,” Holmes said, but the “commitment is a long way off” before USAF can actually launch a program of record. Affecting it, too, will be how much room USAF will have in a Combat Air Force level of 1,900 aircraft “that Congress gave us,” Holmes said, and how much of that can be apportioned to aircraft that can only function in “a permissive environment.” The figure of 1,900 is “close” to what USAF thinks it needs, but has to include F-22s and F-35s, the new “penetration” aircraft that will derive from the Air Superiority 2030 plan, and is “all complicated by the bow wave” of other requirements, such as nuclear triad modernization, that starts to hit in 2023, he said. It’s possible the T-X program will yield a spinoff aircraft that could meet the CAS need, Holmes acknowledged, but USAF has adamantly kept any CAS requirements out of the T-X. “We’re buying a trainer,” he insisted, although offerors might possibly get extra credit for having the power and growth space for a possible CAS function. The CAS platform requirement will land on Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh’s desk “this spring,” Holmes said, and will fold in with a larger study of Combat Air Forces by the fall. (See also What’s Next for CAS from the December 2014 issue of Air Force Magazine.)
The Air Force overall reduced its size by 120 aircraft in fiscal year 2021, but kept about the same number of fighter, bomber and attack aircraft, according to data supplied by the service. The F-35 fleet saw the biggest increase while the B-1B bomber fleet saw the largest decline.