CSBA Study Calls for Increase in Size, Capability of USAF Fleet to Meet Russia, China Threats

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on display during Aviation Nation on Nov. 12, 2016, at Nellis AFB, Nev. Air Force photo by SrA. Christian Clausen.

The Air Force needs to increase its combat fleet beyond the service’s “Air Force We Need” assessment and develop new advanced weapons systems if it expects to remain competitive in this new era of great power competition, according to a congressionally mandated think tank report.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments on Thursday released the study, “An Air Force for an Era of Great Power Competition,” that offers its own assessment on how the USAF fleet should grow by 2035 so it can take on China in the South China Sea, Russia in Eastern Europe, and effectively protect the homeland. The study was required by the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which also mandated the “Air Force We Need” study and a similar report from MITRE Corp. The MITRE report has not yet been released. The Air Force’s study focused on squadrons but not fleet size.

The CSBA report calls for a force size larger than the Air Force’s own study because it uses a “different force planning construct,” which says the Air Force “ought to organize, train, and equip to conduct combat operations against China and Russia simultaneously,” said Mark Gunzinger, an author of the study and senior fellow at CSBA.

The study states the Air Force needs a large increase in its bomber fleet, a new combined penetrating counter-air and penetrating electronic attack fighter, advanced remotely piloted aircraft, and a new airborne battle management capability in addition to maintaining much of the fleet it currently has. Specifically, CSBA states the Air Force needs equivalent of 58 squadrons of bombers, fighters, RPAs, refuelers, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems.

The Air Force’s B-21 buy needs to increase from the current plan of 100 to 206, and the combined KC-46 and next-generation tanker fleet needs to total 630 to meet the needs laid out in the study. The “sixth generation” fighter fleet would need to total 282 in addition to the full fielding of F-35s. CSBA calls for 359 next generation RPAs, including a new “MQ-X” to follow on to the MQ-9 Reaper and a separate new multi-mission unmanned aerial system. Additionally, the service would need 120 new penetrating ISR platforms alongside RQ-4 Global Hawks, RC-135s, and new Airborne Battle Management System platforms (the eventual replacement for the service’s JSTARS fleet).

Gunzinger noted that although its recommended fleet is larger than USAF’s study, it is still smaller than the Air Force size during the Cold War. Significantly, the report calls on the Air Force to drastically change its force mix of legacy and stealth aircraft. Currently, only 17 percent of the USAF fleet is stealth and can operate in a contested area. In the recommended force mix, about 68 percent of the fleet would be stealth.

CSBA used a series of simulations and wargames, looking at hypothetical battles in 2035 with China over large areas of the South China Sea and against Russia after an invasion by that country into the Baltic states. The scenarios use constellations of operating bases throughout the Pacific for the China scenario, and NATO operating bases for the Russia scenario. Under these wargames, the largest threat to USAF fleets would be from high-volume missile attacks at these bases. This scenario showed a large need for standoff systems such as battle management and tankers, plus the new advanced penetrating weapons systems.

Like the “Air Force We Need” study, the CSBA report does not look at funding levels or make recommendations for budget requests.