Air Force Speeds Up Fleet Upgrades as Big-Ticket Acquisitions Slow to a Crawl
Blue-suit leaders have said for years that the service needs to soon begin to modernize its aging fleet of fighter jets and bombers. But the Air Force still does not appear to be in any hurry to begin acquiring new hardware. Rather, it is planning to refurbish existing aircraft for as long as it takes before replacements are available.
It has been five years since Air Force officials announced plans to acquire, by 2018, a new long-range bomber to succeed the B-52 and B-1. Defense Secretary Gates scrapped the proposal and criticized the Air Force for being too traditionalist and for seeking to buy “more of what we already have.”
The Air Force still needs a new bomber but it now regards it as one piece of a larger “family of long-range strike systems” that will be needed to confront peer-competitors in the future, said Lt. Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements.
At a Nov. 4 Defense Writers Group meeting, Breedlove said he did not want to “pass judgment” on how the program has played out. But he was adamant that there is no firm target date for deploying any new systems. The “requirements,” Breedlove said, are still very much the subject of “spirited debate” within the Air Force and the office of the defense secretary, he said.
The goal now is to figure out what mix of weapons and aircraft will be needed to conduct strike warfare against every conceivable enemy target — guerilla fighters riding in pickup trucks, insurgents hiding in buildings, enemy air-defense systems, deeply buried bunkers as well as concealed nuclear weapon facilities. One possible new weapon under consideration is a “conventional prompt global strike” ballistic missile — armed with a non-nuclear warhead — that would be capable of hitting any target on the face of the globe in under an hour.
The family of long-range strike platforms, conceivably, would include aircraft and weapons from today’s inventory — fighter and strike jets, electronic-warfare aircraft, remotely-piloted planes, long-range missiles and possibly a newly designed bomber that could be manned or unmanned. The Air Force and the Navy will both contribute to the long-range strike “portfolio,” Breedlove said. This approach is far different from the earlier “next-generation bomber” program that Gates scuttled.
The family of long-range strike systems also would include electronic-warfare and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) spy airplanes.
So when must the Air Force have this collection of new systems in place?
“I’d rather not speculate,” said Breedlove. Until the Pentagon gets a more accurate picture of what future enemies may do, there is no hurry to pour billions of dollars into new weapons or aircraft that may or may not be needed. The safe course, in order to hedge the risk, is to update current bombers, Breedlove said. “We are right now looking at what we need to do to our existing fleet. … We will be continuing to upgrade the B-2, B-1 and B-52.”
There is no specific “timeline for when a decision will be made,” said Breedlove. The priority for the Air Force is to provide Gates with a “well informed and fiscally informed set of options.”
A similar rationale is being applied to the modernization of tactical fighter jets. The Air Force is “committed” to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Breedlove said. But it is anticipating a slowdown in the program and is moving ahead with upgrades for the F-16 fleet.
Even before the latest reports on projected delays in the F-35, the Air Force already had “begun to discuss how we move the current tac-air fleet to the right,” said Breedlove. The Air Force will modernize the F-16 fleet under a tiered approach, he said. Block 30 and older aircraft may receive substantial “structural” upgrades. The bulk of the fleet, Blocks 40 and 50, will receive new avionics, including new communications, navigation, and possible radar systems. “We’ll look at the fleet on a tail-by-tail basis to determine what we need.”