Counting RPAs

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes says he’s working through how to count all the aircraft in his command, and specifically how the Air Force should think about remotely piloted aircraft. “One of the things on my do-list,” he told a symposium of the Langley chapter of the Air Force Association April 13, is how to “rationalize the words that we’ve used in the past” to describe the combat air forces. There are 55 fighter squadrons “plus 60 lines of RPAs/ISR.” He noted that “we renamed our MQ-9 squadrons ‘attack squadrons’ for a reason: they’re attack squadrons,” and he wants to “bring that attack enterprise” into the discussion of USAF’s overall capability. The good thing about couching it that way is that it compels thinking “about how you’re going to replace them and what you‘re going to do with them.”

To have a decent recap rate, he said he needs to buy 150 fighters and 20 RPAs a year. At 100 fighters a year, “I’d be on a 20-year recapitalization schedule, and I’ve been on more like a 50-year recapitalization schedule,” with only 40-some F-35s a year. Holmes also said that “I can’t stop buying MQ-9s just because I’ve bought out what I need. I have to replenish them. I’ll be looking at upgrades as I do it, but we have to be looking at a replacement platform. I’m not ready to do that yet, but I know I have to do it.” To maintain a fleet of about 250 MQ-9s, he said he’ll need to buy about 20 a year, until it’s time to transition to an MQ-X or “what comes next.” Holmes said MQ-9s have been flown in Red Flag, and that has yielded new insights into how the aircraft can be used in a “contested environment,” but Holmes said, “I don’t want to overplay that … I wouldn’t tell you that we have an experimentation campaign in place to find out what it can do.” For right now, every RPA and operating crew are needed in the current fight, he said.