Air Force Could Struggle to Grow Its Fleet
Photo: Air Force
The Air Force hopes to ramp up to 386 squadrons by 2030, but it could face challenges just to maintain its current size.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the service would need significantly more funding annually than it has received in recent decades simply to replace aging airframes.
The Air Force has about 5,600 aircraft, many of which are nearing the end of their service life, the nonpartisan research group noted in a recent report, “The Cost of Replacing Today’s Air Force Fleet.”
CBO estimates that replacing the planes in the current fleet one-for-one would cost an average of $15 billion a year (in fiscal year 2018 dollars) in the 2020s. That figure would rise to $23 billion in the 2030s and then drop back down to $15 billion in the 2040s. In comparison, appropriations for procuring new aircraft averaged about $12 billion per year between 1980 and 2017, and just $9 billion between 2010 and 2017, the report noted.
“In CBO’s projection, the procurement costs of new aircraft … would rise to and remain at levels considerably above historical averages,” it said.
Fred Bartels, a defense budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, said the Air Force is at risk of shrinking due to fiscal constraints, especially as other services such as the Navy seek to beef up their own force structures in the coming years. Even if the Air Force doesn’t decline in size, modernization and force level increases could be delayed, he noted. “I can see the growth being slowed down a little bit here and there.”
To maintain force structure, the Air Force might have to resort to life-extension efforts, he said. But that creates its own set of problems.
“Your aircraft cost even more to operate because you’re … [holding] together a 50-year-old airplane,” Bartels said. “You’re just creating different challenges all the time and you’re increasing your [operation and maintenance] costs, which in turn decreases the availability of resources that you have to procure a new platform. So you end up in that vicious cycle.”
Delaying modernization also puts the U.S. military at risk of falling behind the technological curve as it faces advanced adversaries.
“You can’t expect the same aircraft to still represent air superiority 30 years from when it’s first released,” he said.
The Air Force has been conducting an assessment to determine its force structure and modernization needs for the 2020s. Officials have concluded that the service would need 386 squadrons by 2030 to fulfill the requirements of the latest national defense strategy, which was released last year. It currently has 312 squadrons.
The final results of the study are expected to be delivered to Congress in March.
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson said the service will present a strategy-driven assessment, not a “budget-driven strategy.”
“The force that we think we need for the war fight that we think we need to be prepared for, is that 386 [squadrons],” he said during an interview with National Defense at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December. “We’re going to continue to … have that dialogue with both the House and the Senate.”