In a year long classified study called "Air Superiority 2030", the USAF has concluded that its "projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against the array of potential adversary capabilities." This rather shocking conclusion has led to a massive reexamination now underway of most of the Air Force's planned procurements for the next 15 years.
An unclassified "Flight Plan" outlines the Air Force's plan to address the classified study's conclusions and foresees an integrated and networked family of capabilities operating across air, space and cyberspace rather than a "silver bullet" solution as its most viable way ahead. The Plan emphasizes much shorter acquisition cycles that result in a series of developments rather then one big program.
One of the most salient material requirements cited in the study is the need for a Penetrating Counterair capability. Think of this as an integrated set of capabilities probably comprised of a follow on to the F-22 with additional accompanying unmanned capabilities. At one time this capability was called Next Gen Air Dominance (NGAD) but the Air Force is now shying away from that term. A 12-18 month Analysis of Alternatives commencing this fall will narrow down the exact requirements with a (probably) classified program to emerge in 2019.
Also cited in the Flight Plan is the need for a Stand Off Arsenal Plane (probably a B-52 with many long range air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles on board that are launched from the "mother" ship and then controlled by forward-positioned fifth generation fighters or other sensors). The Plan cites the importance of NOC's B-21 bomber, longer range air-launched weapons (LMT, RTN) and Electronic Warfare (provided today mostly by NOC and BAE).
To execute the new and diverse program broadly laid out in its Air Superiority 2030 flight plan, the Air Force must generate $2 to $3B dollars annually in its future budgets. The only way to do this is to change the current program of record for planned future procurements:
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This program is likely to see the largest changes in the future simply because it has the most money programmed against it (see Willie Sutton). The Air Force will declare Initial Operating Capability within the next month and is procuring 44 F-35As this year with plans to ramp up to 60 in 2018 and 80 per year by 2022 until 1,763 are procured (~2037). Reducing its planned future F-35A buys to 48 per year would in theory free up $2.7B annually. Some of that money would have to go to extend the life of F-16s and F-15s and account for probable increases to planned unit costs (currently $80-85M). The following chart shows the impact of a flatter production ramp on F-35 annual sales. Note that direct budget impacts from this step will not occur until 2020. Indirect impacts like unit cost increases are TBD.
A-10 Replacement. The Air Force's plan to retire the 40 year old A-10 Close Air Support aircraft and replace them with F-35s has run into a Congressional buzz saw. The Air Force's most recently floated idea is to procure ~250 inexpensive-to-operate (<$5K/hour) off the shelf aircraft ASAP for use in permissive environments (a la Afghanistan), extend the life of the A-10s and then develop an inexpensive formal A-10 replacement later in the 2020's. Candidates for the near term procurement include the propeller-driven Embraer (Brazil) A-29 Super Tucano and Beechcraft (TXT) AT-6. TXT's not-yet-certified but cheap Scorpion jet is also often on rumor lists. This concept has lots of moving parts and comes across as very half-baked to Pentagon budget critics (like me.)
Service Life Extension Programs (SLEPs) for some F-15s and F-16s would be a relatively low cost way for USAF to maintain the required minimum number of combat aircraft while stretching out the F-35 buy. Numerous contractors (NOC, RTN, BAE, LMT, BA) all have relatively low risk contract-ready programs to upgrade radar and other systems that have been developed for the large number of owners of these aircraft overseas.
Although 2030 is 14 years away, the Air Force's Air Superiority 2030 flight plan is going to be a big lift. One of the Air Force's going in assumptions for its plan is that the Pentagon will go "back to the future" and adopt a new acquisition system that will result in a dramatic reduction of the time it takes for a concept to become an initial operating capability. An excellent but optimistic goal.