Think Tank Urges USAF to Dial Back RDT&E, Buy In-Production Hardware

A new white paper from the Heritage Foundation rejects the Air Force’s approach to current and planned budget requests, urging the service to de-emphasize its Joint All-Domain Command and Control and research and development imperatives in favor of buying more in-production hardware such as fighters, tankers, and munitions while budgets are still high.

Penned by Heritage Senior Research Fellow John Venable, the white paper —“Rebuilding America’s Military-The United States Air Force”—charges that USAF is already too small and antiquated to further defer replacing old gear with new. Venable asserts that the service already can’t meet the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and investing in a new internet of military things will come at the cost of having sufficient gear to fight a war with China or Russia.

“The Air Force should prioritize procurement well ahead of research, development, test, and evaluation,” Venable wrote. It should continue to fund the Next-Generation Air Dominance aircraft, the penetrating Counter-Air aircraft and the Air Battle Management System, but “at reduced levels.” Venable suggested the service invest only “reasonable funding” for hypersonics, directed energy, manned-unmanned teaming, Low Cost Attritable Strike aircraft, and improvement of the Combined Air operations System.

Congress and the Trump Administration have “provided the funding required” for USAF to meet its NDS obligations, both for hardware and readiness, the Heritage paper maintains, but only if the service cuts RDT&E from 22 percent of “blue” funding to 18 percent, shifting the savings to military construction and “the ramp-up in training pipelines to implement the recommended changes.” If more RDT&E is needed, Venable suggests retiring the fleet of 27 E-3 AWACS and replacing it with “drone technology.”

The last 28 years “of downsizing, combat deployments, and funding challenges” have made it essential that the Air Force repopulate its force with a steadily-rising number of F-35s, KC-46 tankers, and B-21 bombers, Venable posits, also predicting that the B-21 won’t be available in adequate numbers until “the mid-2030s.” He therefore also said the Air Force should hang on to all its operational B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers until their replacements are well in hand.

The service must also re-invest in readiness, he said.

The Air Force’s answer to Congress on “The Air Force We Need” to carry out the NDS is a good one, Venable notes, urging the service to put its money where its white paper is and add seven fighter squadrons, five new bomber squadrons, 14 new airlift squadrons, and an additional strategic lift squadron as the starting point.

For example, having only 30 Total Force fighter squadrons available for war out of 50 “would fall well short of the number that would be required to force an aggressor nation to retreat back within its borders, and deploying all 30 would leave no combat capability in the states either to defend the homeland against a cruise missile attack or to provide a strategic reserve,” Venable wrote.

He recognizes the “fear” that building up “The Force We Need “ would prevent the Air Force from adapting to new technologies as they come along. “Almost every technological innovation has been born with—and perhaps in spite of—that same fear,” but if the history of land and naval warfare is a guide, he said, the nature of air combat “will be changed around the edges over the coming years, not fundamentally transformed by a new breakthrough.”

“The danger of the Air Force’s fleet hitting obsolescence when faced with a peer competitor is now at hand,” the Heritage paper asserts. Venable called it “remarkable” that despite aged equipment, combat losses have been low and there have been “no major mishaps or significant combat loss.” Unfortunately, this has created the expectation “that the service can maintain that record without significant reinvestment.” And after years of “fighting those expectations,” the Air Force now seems to have “embraced” that mindset.

The service has to fight a “different kind of enemy,” the Heritage paper said, one that, after years of sub-par capability, “can shoot back” with modern systems, and in numbers.

The Air Force “needs to move immediately” to acquire the force laid out in The Force We need, “and posture itself for the conflict on the horizon while the current surge in funding is available.”

Venable said USAF should ramp up, by 2023, to buying the 110 F-35s a year it had planned to purchase by this point in the program, as well as 22 KC-46s per year in the same year. Current requested rates are 48 and 15, respectively. He would retain KC-135s and KC-10s until they can be supplanted by newer aircraft.

He also urged that Active Duty units get top priority for the new gear, in the Pacific and Europe, and defer equipping the Air National Guard with the new machines. Pacific Air Forces should get six new fighter squadrons and two additional air refueling squadrons “for a total of 14 and three, respectively,” and PACAF should get priority for new F-35s.   

In readiness, Venable wants USAF to fly aircrews “a minimum of three sorties a week,” of greater complexity, and “significantly increase sortie rates and flying hours within the current fighter force (particularly the F-35) to enable more rapid development of experienced pilots to man additional squadrons.”  

 He also urged reinforcing the Air Force Reserve to make it “once again, … a strategic reserve” force and creating the infrastructure to train 1,700 new pilots per year.

Senior Air Force leaders have argued the exact opposite, saying potential adversaries have been watching and learning from the USAF and modernizing its forces to counter U.S. capabilities.

Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein acknowledged recently that the “risk is real,” saying if money was unlimited the service would indeed look to bolster its Combat Air Force. “I believe if we get the Joint All-Domain Command and Control investment piece right, you actually drive risk down over time because you’re able to use tools that today you’re not able to use,” because they’re not connected, Goldfein told reporters at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium.