Ran across this recent PowerPoint from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which paints a grim picture of Air Force combat capabilities against more technically-advanced foes.  The study, authored by (Ret) Lieutenant General Dave Deptula and the center’s Mark Gunzinger, offers a sobering assessment of where we stand, capability-wise, after the “procurement holiday” of the 1990s and more than a decade of COIN-focused air operations.  A few take-aways:

  • Our fighter and bomber fleets are dwindling and aging rapidly; the “typical” fighter aircraft in the USAF inventory was built–or budgeted for–during the Reagan Administration, and has been in service for 24 years
  • Our average bomber is 38 years old, reflecting continued reliance on the Eisenhower-era B-52, which still forms the backbone of our bomber fleet 
  • The number of aircraft capable of penetrating an advanced air defense network is small, and essentially consists of a handful of B-2s and the 187 F-22 Raptors that were produced before production of that stealth platform was halted a couple of years ago.  Other combat platforms, such as the F-16, F-15C and F-15E, would be unable to operate in a “dense” air defense environment, protected by modern SAMs like the Russian-built SA-20, along with advanced surveillance radars and modern command-and-control systems.
  • While the USAF has more than 11,000 unmanned airframes, most are built for surveillance and virtually none can survive against advanced air defense systems.   
  • Air Force aircraft procurement budgets have hit an historic low, with no signs of reversing that trend over the near term; the service is currently buying about 100 each year, while the Navy is adding 350 new airframes a year and is actually spending more money on aircraft procurement than shipbuilding.  
  • The USAF will need at least 174 of the long-range strike/bomber, LRS-B platforms now under development to provide needed penetration/strike capabilities needed through the middle of this century.  Unfortunately, the first LRS-B won’t be operational until the middle of the next decade–at the earliest.

Deptula and Gunzinger also observe that restoring “balance” and capabilities in the combat air forces (CAF) will require more than just “iron on the ramp.”  Future platforms–as well as legacy aircraft still in service after 2025 (think B-2s and B-52s) will require a secure combat “cloud,” providing “highly-interconnected capabilities to conduct cross-domain, distributed and disaggregated operations over a wide area.” 

To be sure, the CSBA presentation was created with two goals in mind: first, reinforce the case for the LRS-B, and secondly, illustrate the precipitious decline in USAF procurement budgets and the erosion in capabilities that has occurred over the last 10 years.  In that sense, the briefing easily achieves its objectives.

But, as an advocacy pitch, the CSBA brief also ignores (or down-plays) some essential elements.  The first of these is cyber.  There isn’t a campaign plan on the books–or in development–that doesn’t integrate cyber-warfare to some degree, and that “tool” would play a prominent role in any conflict against an advanced adversary.  How much damage could a dedicated cyber campaign inflict on China’s air defense network, or the power grid in Iran?  Will it be sufficient to allow less-stealthy platforms to attack targets inside the SAM belt, or even neutralize entire defensive systems and networks.  What impact will those capabilities have on LRS-B procurement? 

Likewise, do we need the new long-range strike and bomber platform if UAVs can be made stealthy and carry larger payloads?  In fairness, the Air Force is looking at manned (and unmanned) options for the LRS-B but there’s a significant element in the service that’s actively rooting for a man in the cockpit.  But continued advances in UAV technology will make those platforms more survivable and with lower training costs for an unmanned platform, the USAF may be compelled to field LRS-B as a UAV.  That decision will also reduce unit costs, offering the potential for a larger buy, at least in theory. 

To their credit, Deptula and Gunzinger observe that re-vitalizing the CAF is more than an Air Force problem.  The Navy has been steadily buying new F/A-18s for decades, giving its fighter and attack squadrons a more advanced airframe and enhanced mission performance.  But the various Hornet models are not stealth platforms, so much of Navy air would face the serious challenges against modern air defenses, much like the “legacy fighters” still in service with the USAF.  That’s one reason the Navy’s UCAS program is so vital; against a technically-advanced Asian foe (think: China), penetrating platforms from carriers and bases east of Japan and south of Singapore would have the ability to strike at great distances, from locations less vulnerable to enemy attack. 

Review the whole presentation; it’s well worth your time.  And while you’re flipping through the slides, note the aircraft that is conspiciously absent from the entire discussion.  We refer, of course, to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the program that is blowing a hole in DoD’s procurement process. 

Obviously, the JSF isn’t designed for the types of missions described in the PowerPoint, but it is relevant in this regard.  With the F-35 program in trouble, will there be enough money to field a smaller number of JSF airframes for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps (plus foreign customers) while, at the same time, fund develop the LRS-B?  Cost overruns in the F-35 have made many procurement officials leery of another “big” aircraft program, despite the fact that the LRS-B “buy” will represent only a small fraction of the JSF purchase.  Consequently, the biggest threat facing our next generation strike and bomber aircraft may not be a new version of the SA-20, but all that money being funneled into the F-35 program.