With Congress starting to go along with the Air Force’s wish to retire its aging A-10 fleet, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s “4+1” fighter plan of two years ago is “probably just ‘4’ now,” he said March 15.
“We’re retiring A-10s faster than we originally thought”, Brown said at the annual McAleese defense forum in Washington, D.C. “I think that’s probably the right answer.”
The A-10’s close air support mission can be carried out by a variety of other platforms, Brown said, and the Air Force must move on to cutting-edge capabilities that can survive in contested airspace and will keep the service ahead of China, the pacing threat.
The four fighters in USAF’s plan will be the the:
- F-22 before it transitions to the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter around 2030
At the moment, the F-35 is “right behind” the F-16 in overall numbers, Brown said, and “in the not so distant future,” it will become the majority fighter in the combat air forces, presuming the Air Force continues to buy them at a rate of 48 per year.
The F-15E and F-15EX will have a “similar capability” to each other, Brown noted. The service will focus its investments on its newest F-22s and is seeking to retire 32 of the oldest airframes, a move which Congress declined to allow in the fiscal 2023 budget. But the F-22 Block 30/35s will continue to be updated and kept in service until NGAD replaces them, Brown said.
Despite retiring A-10s to find the savings needed to afford new systems, Brown said he has forbidden his staff from using the phrase “divest to invest.” Instead, “we are transitioning to the future,” Brown said.
He also said he engages frequently with staffers on Capitol Hill, where the first element of the discussion is the threat, and after that, the relative contribution of aircraft “in their district that they want to hold onto.” Brown said the Air Force is making headway getting Capitol Hill to see the need to transition to new systems.
Brown noted press coverage of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s announcement at last week’s AFA Warfare Symposium that the service is pursuing a notional fleet of 1,000 Collaborative Combat Aircraft.
“I don’t know if that will be the actual number,” Brown said, but the effort has three elements.
“There’s the platform itself. There’s the autonomy. And then there’s the … organize, train and equip; the standing up units,” he said. These elements will be conducted “in parallel versus in serial” fashion, he said.
Just as important, Brown said the Air Force is investing in the munitions that will go with NGAD and CCA aircraft, and he noted emphasis on the AGM-158 JASSM-ER, the Stand-in Attack Weapon (SiAW), and AARGM-ER, the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile and more upgraded versions of the AIM-120 AMRAAM.
Research and Development
While the broader Pentagon focused its fiscal 2024 budget on buying things, Brown said the Air Force has put significant new funding into research, development, test, and evaluation. That’s being done to “give us options,” he said. As the threat evolves and advances, the Air Force needs to be able to shift gears to keep up with it, Brown said, and “you can’t produce what you haven’t started.” But not all technology initiatives will go forward.
Brown said there are no “gaping holes” in the Air Force budget, and the service is moving forward in virtually all areas where it needs to. He cited $26 billion focused on Kendall’s Operational Imperatives. The remainder of the $185.1 billion USAF “blue” budget—meaning what’s left after Space Force and ‘pass through’ funds are subtracted—is focused balancing the “fight tonight” readiness needs of the service versus “what we need for the long term,” Brown said.
Asked what Congress can do in terms of adding funds or emphasis, Brown said what USAF needs most is “a budget on time.”
Addressing the Air Force’s recent decision to abandon its KC-X, Y, and Z plan to recapitalize the tanker fleet, Brown said the move was due to the fact that “the threat is completely different now” than when that plan was crafted more than 10 years ago.
“We will … shorten the bridge tanker” plan which was the KC-Y, and move as rapidly as possible toward what used to be the KC-Z, now known as the Next-Generation Air refueling System (NGAS), Brown said. The old method of relying on derivatives of commercial aircraft such as airliners and freighters for tankers won’t work, Brown said. Instead, NGAS will be a stealthy and more survivable aircraft, and the service is trying to move its development “to the left,” he said.