The Air Force Can't Have It All

The U.S. Air Force will lose dominance of the skies within ten years to mass produced Chinese and Russian stealth fighters unless it gets thousands of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters by the 2020s. That's the pitch service officials made today during the Air Force Association's annual conference outside Washington.

However, if budget constraints brought on by sequestration continue, the service may only be able to buy these new, so-called "5th generation" jets if it retires hundreds of older, "4th generation" fighters that it had planned on keeping.

A "4th generation fleet by itself will be irrelevant," said the Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of the service's Air Combat Command, during a speech here while showing a picture of Russian and Chinese stealth fighters. "A 4th generation aircraft meeting a [Chinese or Russian] 5th generation aircraft in combat may be cost effective, but it will be dead before it ever knows it is in a fight," said Hostage, making the case as to why the service must buy new fighters.

Retiring large numbers of the service's 4th generation F-16s, F-15s and A-10s soon would allow Air Force leaders to buy 1,763 F-35s as well as roughly 100 new stealth bombers in time to defeat Chinese or Russian-made stealth jets and advanced air defenses, according to Hostage.

"1,763 is not a luxury, it's national defense priority," said Hostage during his speech. If all goes well, "I think we'll have the F-35 [fleet] growing and at a size in 2023, that it will be more than sufficient" to fight against modern threats.

The F-35 has been plagued by development problems leading to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of redesigns. These redesigns in turn have led to years' worth of production delays for the airplane and a massive reduction in the planned number of jets the Pentagon plans to buy. The latest figures indicate that the military will only have 365 JSFs by 2017 instead of the 1,591 it originally planned on having by then.

The Pentagon currenlty plans to buy a total of 2,443 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps over the coming decades.

"If the F-35 program stays to where it's been whacked down to, we'll be alright" but that number can't go any lower or slow down, Hostage told reporters after his speech.

If purchases of the F-35 slow, "we'll have a serious problem," he said.

The F-35s must be purchased in large numbers by the beginning of the next decade to offset any retirements of its older fighters, according to Hostage.

His comments came the same day as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said that the service is looking at cutting aircraft that can only do one mission in order to free up funds for the hundreds of new tankers, bombers and F-35s it wants to have by the middle of the 2020s.

"If there are airplanes that are better suited for multiple missions than another airplane, then the one that isn't is at risk as we look at downsizing and saving money," said Welsh, shown above wearing a Mexican wrestling mask during his speech here.

"If you don't have [F-35] you can't operate against advanced air defenses of the future," said Welsh. "You can't dress up an old [fighter] and make it a new one."

One example of a plane with limited roles is the legendary A-10 Warthog ground attack plane. The Warthog has provided close air support to generations of troops on the ground with its 30-mm Gatling gun along with bombs and rockets. However, the Warthog's run may be reaching its end.

Hostage is looking stronly at the possibility of sending the roughly 30-year old A-10 fleet to the boneyard in order to afford new fighters, an option he says he is not happy about.

Hostage told Army leaders that, "in order to ensure the jet noise you hear over your heads in the future is friendly, I've got to pair the force down, and one of the things I think I have to give up is [the] A-10. While they were not happy, the accepted it."

He went on to say that jets like the F-35, the B-1 bomber and even the service's new stealth bomber will be able to replace the A-10 in the close air support role. Hostage also acknowledged that retiring the A-10s and other older aircraft may not be easy. Governors and lawmakers with Air National Guard A-10 units in their states are likley to put up a massive political fight over any such descision, said Hostage.

With the war in Afghanistan winding down and defense spending in decline, the Air Force is facing the fact that can't have it all. It will shrink and retire the jets that have served it well since the 1980s and scramble to field brand new fighters and bombers in time to meet new threats.

Air Force Association

National Security

The Air Force's Drone Base in a Box

Drone bases, they can pop up anywhere nowadays. The U.S. Air Force's special operations command now has mini bases for drones that can be packed in a cargo plane and transported anywhere in the world, launching unmanned missions within four-hours of arrival at their destination.

A typical base includes two partially dismantled MQ-1 Predator drones, plus the Hellfire missiles and fuel the planes need to fly and shoot. The base also has two tents: one to shelter the drones and another to house the bank of computers that serves as the drones' cockpit. (That second tent also comes with a bit of extremely Spartan living space for the crews and aircraft mechanics.) All told, 18 cargo pallets and 32 people constitute the base in a box that Brig. Gen. Albert "Buck" Elton, Air Force Special Operations Command's (AFSOC) chief of requirements, described as a "rapid reaction fleet."

"After we unload this capability wherever we're at, four hours later we have a flying, armed [drone]," said Elton during a speech at the Air Force Association's annual conference just outside of Washington. And that gives special operators the "speed so that we can respond to certain crises."

Drones have, of course, become a central component to U.S. military operations worldwide. But they're especially important on missions to hunt and kill militants in remote corners of the world. That's when the drones' ability to conduct 24/7 surveillance and to strike from a distance come in especially handy.

Hence the base-in-a-box. The command has deployed the tiny bases twice since 2012, according to Elton, who showed a picture one of the aircraft taxiing along a plywood ramp at an undisclosed "international airport" in a dusty corner of the world.

"I won't get into specifics on where we went, but we had something happen and we needed ISR so we launched on very short notice and we set up in another country to support an operation there," said Elton, describing a six week-long deployment for the drones.

AFSOC provides the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones used by the U.S. special operations community.

While the command only has the ability today to deploy its MQ-1 Predators in a hurry, it is trying to develop a way to pack up its fleet of larger MQ-9 Reapers in "the next couple of years," Elton said.

This comes as AFSOC is working to station its fleet of several dozen small, civilian-looking propeller planes at remote airstrips in every corner of the globe.

"We've got aircraft that, for the most part, stay forward and we rotate through our crews and maintainers," said Elton.

These planes, often painted in civilian-looking livery, are used to move U.S. military and intelligence operatives to small airports around the developing world without attracting the attention that would come with the arrival of a large U.S. Air Force cargo plane.

AFSOC uses twin-engine, Dornier 328 propeller planes to get operatives to little regional airfields across a place like Africa, for example. It then uses even smaller M-28 Skytrucks to bring operators to places in the countryside that don't have real airports, often landing on small dirt strips or clearings in the brush. Think of it as a hub and spoke system for spies and special operators.

"Some of the little ones, like the M-28 go about 120 knots, so it takes a couple of weeks to get them forward where the need to go," said Elton after his speech. "We swap them out for heavy maintenance when we need, but for the most part they go forward and stay there for 80 to 90 to 270 days and we'll swap ‘em out and bring them back."

"Being forward based has certain advantages," said Elrod who pointed out that the little planes are located in "nodes in every geographic combatant command," a referral to the term the U.S. military uses to describe how it divvies up regions of the globe among its battlefield commanders.

AFSOC, along with the rest of the U.S. special operations community, is focusing on growing its permanent overseas presence.

Special Operations Command commander Adm. William McCraven's "vision through SOCOM is to push more to the theaters so we can do more, more staffs, more people, more capability on a rotational as well as a forward presence," said Elton. "We're looking at putting more aircraft in Europe and the Pacific."

Including, apparently, some drones on very short notice.

U.S. Air Force