A Big Five program for the Air Force should focus on “things with wings,” since that’s where we need to see greater progress in terms of sustaining America’s global edge in air power.
Three of the programs on any Big Five list are no-brainers, because Air Force leaders have repeatedly stressed their importance to future combat operations. First, there is the stealthy F-35A joint strike fighter that will replace thousands of Cold War F-16s. The F-35A took on greater importance with the Administration’s termination of the more pricey F-22 fighter in 2009. The two planes were designed to operate in tandem as part of a “high-low mix,” but with the Air Force receiving only half of the F-22s it said it needed to make this concept work, the F-35 becomes central to preserving command of the air as Cold War fighters retire.
The second and third priority programs would be a new tanker and a new bomber. The tanker program was won by Boeing two years ago and is essential to recapitalizing hundreds of aging aerial refuelers that extend the reach of other aircraft in the fleet. The bomber, officially called the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), has not yet been competed but clearly is needed given the state of the heavy bomber force — which now consists of a mere 160 planes averaging 30 years of age. The Air Force must begin fielding both the tanker and the bomber sometime in the next decade if it is to have any hope of sustaining air dominance in places where vast distances need to be covered like the Western Pacific.
The Air Force had a plan when the new millennium began to replace its diverse fleet of radar and eavesdropping planes with a multi-mission sensor platform designated the E-10, but that plan died due mainly to the distraction of counter-insurgency campaigns in Southwest Asia. Service leaders today say that getting a better network for processing information collected by airborne and orbital sensors is more important than recapitalizing recon planes, but some of the eavesdropping planes that show up for every overseas war are approaching half a century of age. There needs to be a program for their replacement, probably using a militarized version of the Boeing 737 jetliner.
Putting a new trainer on the list would increase the visibility of a much-neglected effort that arguably contributes to the effectiveness of the whole fleet. The primary trainer that the Air Force uses to prepare young pilots for flying combat aircraft is outdated and beginning to exhibit age-related safety issues. Yet the service has repeatedly deferred beginning a replacement program due to more pressing needs. Buying a modern trainer that is better suited to pilot education in an era of fifth-generation fighters and networked combat forces is so important that it probably deserves inclusion on any list of Air Force Big Five aircraft efforts for the future.
Pic - "Transformation of American Air Power"