Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. wants to neck down the Air Force’s fighter inventory from seven fleets to four, and the F-22 is not on his short list.
Speaking during the McAleese FY2022 Defense Programs Conference on May 12, Brown said the tactical aviation study, which launched earlier this year, isn’t meant to produce the exact “right mix” of fighters for the future but to assemble a range of options that will shift as the threat does.
“What I’m looking for out of the [TacAir] study,” Brown explained, is not necessarily “the exact answer of what is the exact mix” of the USAF’s combat aircraft of the future. “I’m really looking for a window of options,” he said, because “the facts and assumptions based on the threat will change over time.”
He called the study an “internal document” and something that’s “not so much to be delivered to Congress.”
The study will “shape some of the ‘22” budget, “but it’s really designed to help me shape ’23,” Brown explained. The analysis is being conducted in concert with the Joint Staff and the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation shop.
The extant seven-fleet mix of fighters will need to be reduced to “four, … plus one,” Brown said. The objective mix will include the A-10 “for a while”; the Next-Generation Air Dominance system; the F-35, “which will be the cornerstone” of the fleet; the F-15EX; and the F-16 or its successor.
He did not mention the F-22 or the F-15E. Asked to clarify, an Air Force spokesperson said Brown is thinking very long-term and in the context of “a very small fleet,” which will become increasingly hard to support, especially as it passes the 25-year age mark in 2030. The F-22 will “eventually” retire from the inventory, she said, noting the F-22’s likely successor will be the NGAD.
“The F-22 is still undergoing modernization,” USAF spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said. “There are no plans to retire it in the near-term.” How and when the F-22 will retire will depend on the outcome of the TacAir study, she said, adding that the “plus one” Brown referred to was the A-10. “We have talked about the A-10 serving into the 2030s” but not beyond, she noted.
“We’ll have the F-16s with us for a while,” but it will be replaced with something else, Brown said. Whether that will be “additional F-35s or something else into the future” remains to be seen.
Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, noted earlier in the conference that the seven fighter fleets now include the F-15C/D, F-15E, F-15EX, F-16, F-22, F-35, and A-10. He said it is essential to reduce the number of fleets because of the excessive costs of maintaining so many logistics trains for them all.
Brown called the NGAD the “air superiority fighter of the future,” but he said it’s not just the aircraft that’s important to him but “how we build it.” He’s counting on digital design and acquisition to offer more options as time goes on.
His omission of the F-15E from his short list indicates that that aircraft, too, is being eyed for phase-out in the 2030s, when it will be as structurally aged as the F-15C/D fleet is now. The last F-15Es were bought in the late 1990s, but the bulk of the force is much older. The F-15EX, though planned for now to be flown by a single pilot, will have a second cockpit and all the structural strengthening of the F-15E as well as the F-15E’s conformal fuel tanks. Observers have noted the F-15EX is more like the F-15E than the F-15C, which it is now replacing. The Air Force has said it will acquire as many as 144 F-15EXs, but the contract with Boeing leaves the door open to as many as 200.
The decisions on how many and what type of aircraft will be in the mix don’t need to be made immediately but as long as eight years from now, Brown said.
“But you need to start shaping the thought process and realizing I can’t do this in one budget year,” he added. “This is why the collaboration with Congress is so important. I’ve got to lay this out with some analysis and then have a conversation of where we’re headed.” It will also require a “conversation with industry” about the art of the possible.
“I … need facts and analysis to lay this out, and that’s what I’m focused on,” Brown said.
As for unmanned/unpiloted aircraft, Brown said he anticipates they will make up a larger portion of the force in the coming years. Recent wargames have looked at the right mix of those platforms, he said, and there will be “some of both.” The Navy recently said it expects to transition to a majority of unmanned aircraft in its carrier air wings inside a decade.
He also said the TacAir discussion is leading to an analysis of “what the future fighter squadron will look like” in terms of its manned and unmanned components and how that will drive changes in training. The time is now to shape those future forces, Brown asserted, because he doesn’t want the Air Force leaders to look back in 15 years and think “they should have … planted these seeds.”