Air Force Could Struggle to Grow Its Fleet

By Jon Harper

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.” 

Topics: Air Power, Budget, Air Force News

Comments (3)

Re: Air Force Could Struggle to Grow Its Fleet

The US Air Force needs to be moving towards a purchase of new F-15X Super Eagles from Boeing. F-15C/Ds that are attached to three active-duty units need to be replaced with the new F-15X, enabling the older Eagles to cascade down to the Air National Guard. This will, in turn, enable the ANG to retire its two-seat F-15Ds that retain original AN/APG-63(v)0 mechanically scanned array radars.

The USAF is facing a conundrum of whether to embark on expensive upgrades that are needed for its existing F-15C/Ds, or purchase new aircraft. Last week Lt Gen Arnold Bunch, the USAF’s top acquisition officer, said that the USAF will seek to add new Super Eagles in the FY2020 defence budget in order to replace the oldest F-15C/Ds still in service.

This is linked to meeting the new National Défense Strategy, with increased F-35 purchase rates unable to meet the USAF’s time-critical demand for expansion. Senior USAF officials want to tap into the Advanced F-15 that has been developed for Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The F-15X will likely be offered as single-seat F-15CX and two-seat F-15EX versions of these variants, and is available in relatively short order from Boeing.

Keeping the F-15 production line active in St Louis means the US and the allies doesn’t become overly reliant on Lockheed Martin. In addition, the F-15X is likely to be sold as a spend-to-save — a new Eagle runs out at the $100 million mark according to previous delivery costs, however the new USAF F-15X is likely to run out far cheaper at $75 or $80 million per aircraft. Officials have made no secret that the suite of upgrades required to keep old F-15C/D Eagles credible is almost prohibitively expensive. New weapons racks, new wings, upgraded cockpit and a new electronic warfare self-protection system to mention a few.

Even throwing a huge upgrade package at the F-15C/D would still see the aircraft falling short of the capabilities of the Advanced F-15, which features a Digital Flight Control System. This is critical in that it opens up wing stations 1 and 9, enabling expanded weapons carriage — a significant factor for the USAF as it seeks to up-arm it’s Eagles to act as ‘weapons trucks’ to complement its stealthy fifth-gen fighters.

It's no secret how old the current F-15C/Ds are and that at some point in time they'll need replaced. The need is based on the national security strategy and how that trickles down to DoD (Department of Defence) requirements to fill war plans to meet that strategy. Since most if that is classified, it's tough to define the DoD need in an unclassified forum. There is no good ratio for fifth-to-fourth generation replacements seeing as how the USAF never really been forced to use their fifth generation assets against a near peer in real combat. While the pilots can train to many different scenarios and simulate threat aircraft in large force exercises such as "Red Flag", it won't completely validate the force structure until those capabilities are used in a real conflict.

The USAF didn't buy enough F-22A Raptors to fill the need for air superiority and that's why you've seen them extend the life of the existing F-15C/D models. Given that the F-35 production line is still opened and in fact the F-35 program needs to be cancelled. The question becomes one of cost compared to an alternate capability like the new F-15 from Boeing. It's my opinion that, for several reasons, it's beneficial to have a new modernised fourth generation fighter assets.

I add that it also comes down to an ability to support those assets in service, the need to procure and/or sustain larger fourth generation aircraft fleets being a major factor in the need for overall mass. You can see the benefit of retaining several wings of fourth generation fighters and the options that gives combatant commanders. I believe it's one of the main reasons why the F-15C/D and the older type the A-10C Warthog are still so valuable and haven't been retired yet.

The sixth generation PCA (Penetrate Counter Air) fighter is still years away and likely will not be purchased in sufficient numbers to address all the force structure requirements that future national security strategies could require. If I was Boeing, I'd take the F-15QA, make a single-seat F-15CX and also make a two-seat F-15EX versions of these variants, call it the F-15X, offer it up as cheap as possible to the USAF and to the new and existing customers and see what happens.

Another Guest at 4:21 AM
Re: Air Force Could Struggle to Grow Its Fleet

Re: Complementary Airpower: The Case for the F-15X


One clear solution to mitigate these challenges is the immediate introduction of Boeing’s F-15X into the current fighter force. While DoD was focused on getting the F-35 IOC and increasing inventory, Boeing continued to improve the capability and capacity of one of the most successful fighters in history.

The F-15X Super Eagle is a 4++ gen fighter that will significantly complement the capabilities of the current fighter force with better sensors, more weapons capacity, reliable data links, and extended range. In addition, the F-15X will provide relief to the 5th gen fleet from missions that do not require stealth but require advanced sensors, weapons, datalinks, and range to optimise effectiveness and survivability.

The F-15X is the common-sense answer to the limitations of both the current and future fighter force.

Here is my take? The F-35 has morphed. In order for the plane to survive they've had to sell its features as being high end. That and the fact that it's taken so long to develop and is NOT going to meet the promise of being as affordable as current fighters has led to a return to the past.

A high-low mix. The funny thing is that the USAF envisioned the F-35 as it's low end. Not anymore.

The reality now is that the high end portion of the mix is the F-22 and F-35. The low end will be so called 4th gen fighters.

The F-15X will certainly fill that bill.

But what about Lockheed Martin? The US can't have that manufacturer (despite their bad behavior with their thana marketing strategy) go down. So what do we do? I'm betting that we will see a US version of the F-16E/F Block 70/72 (F-21) for India to fill a portion of the low end mix along with the F-15X.

I've taken heat for my claim that the F-35 is headed toward a death spiral. Fair enough. But one thing is becoming apparent. You can probably scratch at least a 300-500 of them off the procurement list. The F-15X is a thing and it's coming. That alone means fewer F-35A's for the USAF.

Another Guest at 8:44 PM
Re: Air Force Could Struggle to Grow Its Fleet

The need for the F-15CX and F-15DX is now greater than ever. The F-15Xs seem to be the logical and mature choice for future USAF air superiority until the Sixth Generation Fighter or UCAV are produced.
Sure, the F-15X isn’t stealthy, but it doesn’t quite have to be for the roles it has to play. With CFTs, IRST, digital glass cockpit, helmet HUD, AMBER racks, AESA, AIM-9X, AIM-120D, advanced EW/ECM, and all the other mature and proven technologies, the F-15Xs should have few teething problems compared to the plagued F-35s. F-15s have the speed and range to take the fight further out, and those are key aspects. It may not be the best answer (should have built more F-22s at that time), but it’s not the worst lousy answer either. It’s not the F-15A.
Also, as the Russians and Chinese have demonstrated, the focus on their air superiority is longer-range AA missiles. The F-15CXs and DXs seem the likely candidates for externally carrying future longer and larger missiles compared to the fixed-sized internal bays of the stealthy F-22 and F-35.

trisaw at 11:32 AM
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