Its aircraft fleet averages 27 years of age and rival nations are rapidly modernizing, but the U.S. Air Force is not rushing to commit to futuristic weapon systems.
The Pentagon’s budget proposal for 2016 seeks more than $48 billion for new aircraft production and upgrades. It is buying airplanes that are either already in production or in late stages of development, including 57 F-35 joint strike fighter jets, 41 logistics support aircraft, 300 helicopters and 53 unmanned aerial vehicles.
These acquisitions will help replenish the Air Force fleet but new aircraft designs are years or decades away. The next major development is a stealth bomber planned for the 2020s. But the Air Force is hitting the pause button on several programs, including a next-generation fighter, a new trainer airplane and a ground surveillance jet. Officials said they are being cautious about committing to new designs at a time when technology is advancing far more rapidly than the military’s procurement decision cycle. They also are resistant to make big wagers on unproven technology during a period of great uncertainty about future threats.
Illustrating the Air Force’s modernization dilemma is the so-called “sixth-generation” fighter that would succeed the fifth-generation F-22 and F-35. The Pentagon has funded research work in the 2016 budget but officials insist the program should not follow the traditional path of military acquisitions. “It’s a concept, and there’s money scattered throughout the budget,” said Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget Maj. Gen. James F. Martin.
As national security threats become more complex and the challenges too unpredictable, a different approach to developing future weapon systems is needed, said Air Force Lt. Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements.
That means a departure from the predictable cycle of replacing an airplane with another airplane. “We’re trying to not jump straight to the idea that we’re going to build a sixth-generation fighter,” Holmes said during a roundtable with reporters at the Pentagon.
For the Air Force, the question is how to ensure “air superiority” in the future, and a new-and-improved stealth fighter might no longer be the answer, he said. “We’re trying to get a feel for what is the requirement for air superiority in the future and look at all the domains and not just jump into another air platform.”
Under the traditional process, the Air Force would conduct an “analysis of alternatives,” or a market study and years later choose an airplane design and begin development. The service wants to do business differently, said Holmes. “We just don’t want to jump straight to the AOA on the next airplane before we’ve looked across the range of ways of doing air superiority in the future. That includes cyber, space systems, ground and maritime. Not just jump straight to an air solution.”
The procurement system was designed for a more foreseeable world, he explained. “With 20-year development programs, by the time you design it and set requirements, by the time you field it, you have to think about what comes next.”
Another concern is how to get ahead of the fast-moving innovation train. Other countries have studied U.S. weaponry and how they are employed, and are now making systems to neutralize U.S. advantages, Holmes said. This is happening “faster than was anticipated,” he added. “The gap between our capability and the capability of potential adversaries is decreasing, and it’s decreasing at an accelerated rate.”
While it is “prudent to think about what comes next,” Holmes said, the military has to avoid the traps of traditional thinking. The tendency is to build a “little bit better F-35 or even a leap ahead F-35 or F-22” rather than “think about the right approach to solve problems.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert shares that view. In a presentation at an Office of Naval Research conference last week, he observed that advanced stealth fighters are not a silver bullet. Holmes said the CNO makes a valid point. “Our analysis says that with modern integrated air defense systems, stealth is necessary but may not be sufficient.”
The military has to be prepared to fight “air against air, air against ground, ground against air,” Holmes said. “You could see an application of swarming autonomous [vehicles] to go target surface-to-air defenses.” If so, he added, “Is it worth the cost to pay for autonomy for something that’s going to blow itself up when it hits a target? There are a lot of things we need to learn.”
The Air Force is reluctant to move forward with some modernization programs until is has more certainty about the state of technology. A case in point is the replacement of the T-38 trainer, a project called T-X. The service initially wanted to keep it simple and choose a trainer aircraft from among a handful of available models flown by countries around the world. But the technical requirements grew more complex in recent years as the Air Force realized it needed more advanced airplanes to train F-22 and F-35 pilots. Companies like Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Textron are working on clean-sheet concepts, and forced the Air Force to question whether it should buy off-the-shelf or gamble on a new design.
Officials are once again scrubbing the T-X requirements and are making it a test case for a new procurement reform initiative called “bending the cost curve.” T-X is years behind schedule but the Air Force is comfortable with the delay because it is allowing program officials to better understand the technology offered in the open market and to capitalize on private investment, Holmes said. The Air Force also is reevaluating the T-X acquisition rules so that proposed aircraft that exceed the baseline requirements without adding cost can get credit in the competition.
The Air Force in this case benefits from putting off contract awards and letting market forces work in its favor. “We think that keeping multiple teams in competition” helps the Air Force, said Holmes. “Having airplanes that are flying puts pressure on developmental airplanes, and having developmental planes puts pressure on airplanes that are flying.”
Doubts about earlier acquisition plans also prompted the Air Force to delay a competition to build a ground surveillance aircraft to replace the aging JSTARS, or joint surveillance target attack radar system. Companies like Boeing, Bombardier and Gulfstream are expected to propose JSTARS concepts built in smaller, commercial airframes that they claim will save the government money both in the procurement and lifecycle support of the aircraft.
Officials for some time had begun to question whether the JSTARS’ intricate sensor suites and electronics could be squeezed into smaller airframes. The Air Force decided to delay the program in order to further investigate the issue. The question is “what’s possible and what’s not,” Holmes said. “When [Air Force officials] looked at the strategy we had built for acquisition, they thought it was risky. The integration challenge may have been understated by some of the proposals. We want to keep the competition longer, it drives the price down.”
A similar path might be followed for the modernization of the AWACS airborne radar plane, Holmes said. “We hope to see how the JSTARS plan goes in the new business approach to how we take sensors and people and put them on a more efficient, cheaper airframe.”