Will the U.S. Air Force be Totally Obsolete by 2030?

Will the U.S. Air Force be Totally Obsolete by 2030?

Can the USAF change course before it’s too late? 

The United States Air Force will have to build a new Penetrating Counterair (PCA) capability to gain and maintain air superiority in the post-2030 global threat environment. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that a combination of Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will not be sufficient in the decades to come.

“You can assume if the F-22 and F-35 were good enough for everything, we'd stop there and or buy more,” said one senior Air Force official familiar with the service’s next generation air superiority efforts. “This is the need.”

Further, the official added that it is a mystery to most of the Air Force senior leadership as to why Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh suggested in May that the he would be open to restarting production of the F-22. Not only would the Raptor be extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive to revive—given its obsolete avionics and problems with recovering its manufacturing tooling—the F-22 is simply not going to be effective or survivable in the post-2030 threat environment. “Nobody has any idea why he said that,” one senior official told me. “A senior moment, perhaps.”

In any case, it is exceedingly unlikely that the Raptor will be revived. That’s despite the best efforts of the House Armed Service Committee Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), who inserted language into the 2017 defense authorization bill that mandates that the Air Force study the issue. Instead, the Air Force will need to take a broader, more comprehensive approach to air superiority that includes a host of platforms, electronic warfare systems, datalinks and new weapons. But while the Air Force will need new hardware, the service must break free of platform-centric thinking.

“The Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against this array of potential adversary capabilities,” reads the Air Force’s 2030 Air Superiority Flight Plan. “Developing and delivering air superiority for the highly contested environment in 2030 requires a multi-domain focus on capabilities and capacity. Importantly, the rapidly changing operational environment means the Air Force can no longer afford to develop weapon systems on the linear acquisition and development timelines using traditional approaches.”

The Air Force expects that emerging integrated and networked air-to-air, surface-to-air, space and cyberspace threats—as well a dwindling and increasingly obsolescent tactical fighter fleet—will threaten the service’s ability to gain air superiority inside the highly contested airspace in 2030 and beyond. These threats include advanced new enemy fighter aircraft like the Russian Sukhoi PAK-FA and the Chinese Chengdu J-20, new sensors and new weapon systems. “While near-peers have most of these capabilities today, advanced air and surface threats are spreading to other countries around the world,” the document reads.

Further, new threats could negate traditional U.S. advantages. “Increased threat capabilities to negate our advantages in the space domain, increased quantity and sophistication of cyberspace threats, and air threats including hypersonic weapons, low observable cruise missiles, and sophisticated conventional ballistic missile systems,” the document reads. “How, when and where these capabilities emerge is less clear, but it is certain air superiority forces will face many of these threats by 2030.”

To counter the rising threat, the Air Force will have to address everything from hardening bases against attacks, to aerial refueling tankers to developing a “cloud-based sensor networks”—what former Air Force intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, current dean of the Mitchell Institute, refers to as the “combat cloud.” But the service, as mentioned earlier, will also need new platforms. “To achieve air superiority against this strategy in support of joint force mission objectives, the Air Force needs to develop a family of capabilities that operate in and across the air, space and cyberspace domains—there is no single capability that provides a ‘silver bullet’ solution. This family must include both stand-off and stand-in forces, integrated and networked to achieve mission effects,” the document reads.

Both the Pentagon’s Stand Off Arsenal Plane and the developmental Northrop Grumman B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber will play a role in gaining and maintaining air supremacy. The Air Force will also have to develop new electronic warfare capabilities—which the service used to publicly disavow—to counter next generation threats rather than purely relying on stealth. It will also need a host of new weapons. “Specific weapons development efforts will be paired with platform development efforts,” reads the document. “Both long-range and high capacity weapons will enhance the overall effectiveness of the AS 2030 family of capabilities.”

Perhaps the centerpiece of the Air Force’s air superiority flight plan is the need to develop a new Penetrating Counterair capability. This would be a new aircraft—but the Air Force is loathe to use terms like “sixth-generation” or “next-generation” platform. “The Air Force must reject thinking focused on ‘next generation’ platforms,” the document states. “Such focus often creates a desire to push technology limits within the confines of a formal program.”

Nonetheless, the document provides some general cues about what the PCA might look like. “Capability development efforts for PCA will focus on maximizing tradeoffs between range, payload, survivability, lethality, affordability, and supportability. While PCA capability will certainly have a role in targeting and engaging, it also has a significant role as a node in the network, providing data from its penetrating sensors to enable employment using either stand-off or stand-in weapons. As part of this effort, the Air Force should proceed with a formal AoA in 2017 for a PCA capability. Consistent with an agile acquisition mindset designed to deliver the right capability on the required timeline, this AoA will include options to leverage rapid development and prototyping in order to keep ahead of the threat,” the document states. “In addition to F2TA capabilities above, the penetrating capabilities of PCA will allow the stand-in application of kinetic and non-kinetic effects from the air domain.”

The Air Force will start an analysis of alternative next year in 2017 to determine what the PCA—previously known as Next Generation Air Dominance or F-X—will ultimately look like. What from Air Force officials tell me, it is exceedingly unlikely that the PCA will be any derivation of the F-22—despite the wishes of the some in Congress.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.