Five Money-Pit Projects The U.S. Air Force Can Do Without
By Loren Thompson
The U.S. Air Force is currently flying the oldest, smallest fleet of combat aircraft in its history. It has fewer than 200 heavy bombers to cover the entire world, and many are not available for flight on a typical day. Most of the aerial refueling tankers that are supposed to support those bombers on long-range missions are over 50 years old. Hundreds of Air Force fighters suffer from age-related maladies such as corrosion, metal fatigue and parts obsolescence.
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These problems are all traceable to low levels of investment in new technology for two decades after the Cold War ended. The service now has to play catchup, buying new bombers, tankers, fighters and trainers all at the same time. Meanwhile, the Air Force needs to re-architect the satellite constellations it operates for the joint force, to make them more resilient against growing threats from China and Russia. Precision-guided “smart bombs” often won’t work unless they have access to a GPS signal.
With so many investment needs burdening their budget, you’d think Air Force planners would grasp the urgency of staying focused on what really matters. Well, guess again. There are voices within the service constantly second-guessing technology initiatives that have taken many years to bring to fruition, and must be kept on track if the force is to be modernized. As a result, the current moment of abundant funding for new weapons might slip away with little to show for decades of planning.
History demonstrates that surges in weapons spending typically last for only a few years before economic slowdowns and/or competing priorities bring them to a close. It is crucial to keep the Air Force’s modernization efforts focused on replacing old hardware while the money is available. With that in mind, here are five costly projects that the Air Force does not need to pursue, projects that are distractions from the hard work of keeping America the world’s dominant aerospace power.
“Attritable” century-series aircraft. Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper has been pitching the idea that the service should buy “attritable” (expendable) combat aircraft every few years with the idea of only keeping them in service for a decade before spiraling on to something better. His model is “century-series” fighters developed in rapid succession during the 1950s that kept several different plane companies engaged in continuously developing new ideas. But the original century series was a disaster: the F-100 program lost over 500 fighters in accidents; the F-102 didn’t meet performance goals; the F-103 was so poorly designed it was never produced; and the F-105 saw half of its entire production run lost to mishaps or enemy fire. Roper’s idea is politically unsaleable and no way to stay ahead of the Chinese; what we need are modular, open-architecture aircraft that can be upgraded as threats dictate, not thrown away after a decade.
Penetrating counterair fighters. The Air Force is developing a new bomber that can attack the most remote, heavily-defended targets in China and Russia. It’s an essential component of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, but shortly after the bomber contract was awarded the service began talking about a super-stealthy, long-range fighter that could accompany the bomber on penetrating missions. The performance features and small number of fighters needed pointed to a cost per plane approaching a billion dollars (R&D included). This is too high a price to pay for a mission that probably will never need to be executed. If the bomber is correctly configured, the fighter shouldn’t be needed. It may not even be technically feasible. The Air Force has begun backing away from the idea, saying it probably needs a “family” of future penetrating capabilities, not a dedicated airframe. Hopefully the service will stay on that vector.
A smaller, stealthier tanker. The Air Force is in the early stages of fielding a next-generation aerial-refueling aircraft that can replace hundreds of decrepit Cold War tankers. It is based on the Boeing 767, and is by far the most capable tanker ever built. But some Air Force seers think that a smaller, more survivable tanking plane could extend the range of fighters operating in contested air space. It would probably be unmanned, and take on fuel in the air from the larger manned tankers. This isn’t a horrible idea, but in a tight budget environment it might drain money needed to replace 400+ aged tankers in the current force, which should be the top priority for modernizing the aerial refueling fleet. The next-gen tanker currently in production has numerous defensive features to enhance its survivability, and the range of the Air Force’s stealthy F-35 fighters can be extended hundreds of miles by developing a new engine on which the service is already funding research.
Propeller-driven combat planes. Propeller-driven planes are usually cheaper to operate than jets, and they perform well against undefended targets in what the Air Force calls “permissive air space.” That’s why the U.S. has bought such planes to be operated by Afghan pilots. However, the Air Force has recently been toying with the idea of acquiring its own such fleet for conducting counter-terror and other low-end missions. This idea falters on three counts. First, permissive air space is disappearing; even rag-tag terrorists now have shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Second, small fleets of specialized aircraft are expensive to operate, because there are few economies of scale. Third, prop planes may be useful for fighting insurgents in places like Nigeria, but U.S. strategy has shifted to an emphasis on great-power competition where they are probably useless. We should buy them for needy allies, but not for ourselves.
High-price, vulnerable drones. Iran’s recent shoot-down of the Air Force’s most capable drone should be a wakeup call about the limitations of unmanned aircraft. Global Hawk, as it is called, costs over $100 million per drone, but a fifth of the fleet has been lost to accidents. Now a second-rate military power has shot one down using a locally-designed missile. It is hard to see how a costly, vulnerable unmanned vehicle would be much use in any kind of conflict with China or Russia. Although the vehicle can stay aloft for very long stretches, that depends on having enemies who lack air defenses. The manned U-2S spy plane flies higher, can see further, and is much better protected against armed adversaries. Some Air Force visionaries think autonomous vehicles are the wave of the future. Maybe so, but that future won’t arrive until the cost comes down and the survivability goes up. Predator and Reaper are even less survivable against a capable enemy.
Planners could make a plausible case for pursuing any of the above five projects if the government wasn’t already borrowing $2 billion per day and there were no competing demands on the budget. But chances are that weapons spending will be going down from here, not up, so the Air Force needs to focus what investment resources it has on the most important modernization priorities. None of these projects makes the grade.
My think tank receives funding from contractors who might lose or gain funding from the priorities I recommend here. Some of the companies are also consulting clients.