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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Study: U.S. Combat Aviation Stuck in the Industrial Age
Study: U.S. Combat Aviation Stuck in the Industrial Age
By Sandra I. Erwin

U.S. combat air forces are ill equipped to fight a technologically empowered enemy, and it could be years or decades before the Pentagon deploys more advanced weapons. Such is the grim picture painted in a new study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The authors, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula and CSBA analyst Mark Gunzinger, make the case that aviation forces are not up to the challenges of 21st century warfare and the Pentagon has only itself to blame.

"Fourteen years into the 21st century, the U.S. military is still living off investments in combat aircraft that were made prior to or during the Reagan administration," Gunzinger told an Air Force Association forum in Arlington, Va.

For instance, the Air Force’s combat force primarily consists of aging A-10s, F-15s, F-16s, B-1s, B-52s, B-2s, and a handful of new F-22s. "Overall, the Air Force’s combat force is the smallest and oldest that it has ever fielded," he said.

Shortsighted Pentagon budget decisions have weakened the aviation fleet, the authors contend. The United States Air Force only has a small number of its most advanced aerial weapons — the B-2 bomber and the F-22 fighter jet — and the next generation of systems is still years away. The Pentagon terminated production of the B-2 bomber in 2000 at 20 aircraft and the F-22 stealth fighter in 2010 at 187 airplanes. The thinking was that these aircraft were too expensive and soon would be replaced with more affordable alternatives. "Apparently this saved money," Deptula said with sarcasm. In hindsight, the military is paying a big price for these decisions, he said, because new systems are far more expensive and nowhere close to being ready. "Numbers matter," he said. The Air Force is buying new aircraft today, but most are cargo planes or unmanned surveillance drones. The military has more than 11,000 unmanned aircraft, but most are not equipped to survive enemy air-defense missiles.

Although no enemy air force has yet challenged the United States, the study predicts it is only a matter of time before the U.S. military is put to the test.

The risk posed by enemy technologies also applies to the Navy and Marine Corps, the study noted. The Corps continues to rely on non-stealthy AV-8B vertical/short takeoff and landing ground attack aircraft that were designed in the 1970s. The replacement F-35B Joint Strike Fighter is still in development.

“The Navy’s fixed-wing combat aircraft force is not as old as the Air Force’s because it is just completing its F/A-18 fighter program,” Gunzinger said. “However, the F/A-18 is non-stealthy, and the wisdom of deploying carriers within range of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles so their short-range fighters can reach their objective areas is doubtful at best.”

With the exception of the F-22s and B-2, the Pentagon’s fighters and bombers have “lost their ability to operate in high-threat areas without the risk of significant losses or the need for very large supporting force packages to suppress enemy air defenses,” the CSBA study said. "America’s recent focus on counterinsurgency operations has given China, Iran, North Korea, and other competitors breathing room to develop anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities that could threaten U.S. access to areas of vital interest," the report said. "The proliferation of guided ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-satellite weapons, cyber threats, integrated air defense systems and other asymmetric threats are intended to erode the U.S. military’s ability to effectively intervene in crisis situations."

The term A2/AD is Pentagon-speak for an enemy's ability to neutralize the traditional advantages of U.S. weaponry. Command and control networks may susceptible to electronic jamming. Air bases may be vulnerable to precision-guided missiles, and U.S. non-stealthy aircraft — manned and unmanned — may not be able to enter hostile airspace without risking major losses. "Enemy antiship ballistic and cruise missiles that are supported by space-based sensors and long-range surveillance aircraft may force U.S. aircraft carriers to operate a thousand miles or more offshore," the study said.

To overcome enemy technologies, the U.S. military needs more than just new hardware, Deptula said. It needs its weapon systems to operate like a network, where information is shared across all services. The Pentagon has championed for decades the idea of “network centric” warfare, but in reality each service and each program operate independently, he said. “We're in the era of information-age warfare, and we are having a bit of a challenge managing that transition,” said Deptula. “We need to think how we can better share information that turns into relevant knowledge and we need to do it automatically.” The Pentagon functions in budget-line items, not as an integrated enterprise, he said. “You need to get beyond the traditional labeling of systems, which is last century’s perspective. We need to think about how all systems in space, land and sea and air can operate in an integrated fashion.”

The need for information-focused weapon systems will be the subject of an 18-month study by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute, which Deptula leads. The military should have for a "combat cloud" where information can be shared regardless of what weapon system is used, he said. “It is difficult to explain, and that is one of our challenges as it is not a ‘thing’ or even a collection of ‘things,’ but rather an approach.” Deptula told National Defense. Aircraft today are connected as sensors and shooters. “While this limited collaboration is positive, future developments in data sharing promise to dramatically enhance the way in which combat effects are attained as individual airborne assets are fully integrated with sea, land, space and cyber systems,” he explained. “Individual systems connected to the broader ‘combat cloud’ are able to leverage their respective strengths.”

To move its weapons into the 21st century, the Pentagon also needs help from Congress, Deptula added.

If the recent round of military oversight hearings on Capitol Hill is any guide, Congress is less worried about the modernization of the U.S. fleet than it is about protecting favored projects and jobs in members' home districts.

Air Force leaders have argued that, in times of declining budgets, they cannot afford to continue to sink money into aging airplanes and should redirect funding to new systems such as the F-35, a refueling tanker and a long-range bomber. While the plan sounds reasonable in theory, it has turned into a political football. Air Force officials have been hammered by lawmakers for their proposal to retire the entire A-10 fighter force, 46 older C-130 aircraft and the entire U-2 reconnaissance aircraft fleet.

These budget quagmires only keep the military saddled with older technology, the CSBA study said, and contribute to the erosion of the nation’s manufacturing base. “Fifty years ago, the Defense Department was in the process of building six fighters, three bombers, and two antisubmarine warfare aircraft,” said the report. Today, there is one new American fighter in production — the F-35 — and three that are about to end their production runs. “With the exception of the Air Force long-range bomber, the Navy’s P-8 maritime aircraft, and possibly a carrier unmanned combat aircraft, there are no other major new combat aircraft in the Defense Department’s program of record.”

Credit: F-16 Fighting Falcons (Air Force photo)


Re: Study: U.S. Combat Aviation Stuck in the Industrial Age

And the F-35, because of its obsolete joint operational requirement document (JORD), composed in the 1990s and signed off on at the beginning of the last decade, will be too weak to stand up to emerging threats and too expensive to own and operate for lesser threats.  That assumes it works... which with so many serious faults in development--12 years after LM was awarded the Joint Strike Fighter contract--is in serious doubt. The F-35 is no solution to USAF needs. And USAF has only itself to blame when one USAF boss and One Sec AF signed off on the bad idea of ending F-22 production. If USAF is wondering why it has a tac-air recapitalization problem, it only needs to look in the mirror.
Eric Palmer at 4/20/2014 3:36 AM

Re: Study: U.S. Combat Aviation Stuck in the Industrial Age

The US outspends the world; the combined spending of the rest of the world on our military. Every budget I have seen continues the path we are on to outspend the world. Yet the authors would have us believe that "aviation forces are not up to the challenges of 21st century warfare". Who is this enemy that so threatens us with technology that we cannot handle the challenge, despite vastly outspending them on technology? How is it that despite today's dominant air superiority and continued world leading spending, it will be "years or decades before the Pentagon deploys more advanced weapons"? And why does the world want our aircraft, when thay are not up to the challenge? 
Phil at 4/21/2014 1:38 PM

Re: Study: U.S. Combat Aviation Stuck in the Industrial Age

In my 40 years in this business, I have never seen the US "coast" on existing hardware for so long.  Also concerning, is the high per unit expenditure and the low production volumes.  Arguably, the Soviet Union was bankrupted by the cold war and with our current economic situation we are forced to balance our defense expenditures against our GDP.  Three things must happen if we are to upgrade our military fleet of aircraft:
a. We must have new technological innovation particularly with respect to energy conversion.
b. We must change our service/prime/sub contracting model to improve time to deliver.
c. We must re-evaluate our platform/weapon mission cost effectiveness.
If we try to upgrade using the Hi-Lo mix of the 70s we will fail.  If we try to darken the skies with aircraft like we did in the 40s we will fail.  We must change entire air warfare paradigm to succeed. 

Carl Peterson at 4/21/2014 3:02 PM

Re: Study: U.S. Combat Aviation Stuck in the Industrial Age

No surprise that a retired USAF GO paired with an analyst at a think tank funded partially by the aerospace industry would argue that the US should invest more in aerospace. If Newport News Shipbuilding donated enough to CSBA, I bet they could find a retired USN Admiral to co-author a study that we need more sea-power!
Defense Analyst at 4/21/2014 4:28 PM

Re: Study: U.S. Combat Aviation Stuck in the Industrial Age

So what is so hard about the concept that replacing older aircraft with aircraft costing 3 to 5+ times more is not going to work?  That has been the Air Force way.  The result is 20 B-2s, less than 200 F-22s, and F-35 is following the same formula with a similar results likely to follow. 

The Navy is not in as bad a shape because they bought affordable aircraft costing little more than they aircraft they replaced yet having substantially greater capability.

So what about the future:  New weapons can change the overall effectiveness dramatically.  LRSB is coming and with the threats we face (and the ranges required) we really need 300 not 80.  F-35 is positioned to bankrupt the DoD with unaffordable acquisition and O&S costs and there is no plan B that supports a reasonable air power force structure.   

As far future needs,  it is clear that a new air dominance fighter is needed now, the tough thing will be making it affordable since no stealth aircraft todate has pulled that off.  If T-X ever happens, a tactical version may be needed as a low cost way to fill force structure that F-35  cannot affordably solve.   Other X-factors are how UAVs, manned/unmanned teaming, swarms, electronic warfare and directed energy will change the cost equations and the way air warfare is conducted in the 2020s and beyond.
Weaponhead at 4/22/2014 2:01 PM

Re: Study: U.S. Combat Aviation Stuck in the Industrial Age

Air Force priority: fighters. we haven't had a dogfight since Korea, so we need more fighters. Second priority: bombers. Last priority: airlift and ground support.  If the Army needs them so bad, they should get their own. What the Air Force needs is to go all out with pointless aircraft -- a fighter with no humans can pull more Gs and defeat any piloted plane. It can be smaller, more stealthy and stay up longer. It can change its home-based crew in mid-mission. We can have the best air force in the world, if we keep the fighter jocks away from decisions.
true blue at 4/24/2014 9:49 AM

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