Video Above: B-52s, B-21s and GBSDs: The Costs and Importance of Deterrence Modernization
For many years now, the Air Force has been working intensely to find the optimal balance between building new platforms and maintaining, upgrading and sustaining the existing ones.
The issue continues to take on new significance as the service reaches new milestones in the development of its new, much needed platforms such as the soon-to-take flight B-21 bomber and emerging 6th-generation stealth fighter jet.
New airframes and platforms have been crucially needed by the service to combat obsolescence for current platforms and breakthrough modernization is also needed in order for the service to stay in front of fast emerging threats.
F-15s, F-16s and A-10s
The Air Force is retiring a number of aging aircraft to free up maintainers, engineers, budget and fleet structures for new platforms. For instance, the service is divesting older F-15s, F-16s and A-10s, among others. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown recently told Congress about this delicate, yet extremely crucial balancing act.
“When I talk about balancing risk over time, there’s a balance between the operational risk we will see today as we make that transition versus the risk we’ll have in the future if we don’t start to modernize,” Brown said in response to a question suggesting the Air Force was retiring too many planes.
Brown was clear that modernization simply cannot be compromised in anyway to avoid what he described as “taking risk in any future conflict.”
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“We do have to make some tough choices. I don’t just look at the numbers. I look at the overall capabilities and capacity; not just the airplanes but what goes with the airplanes. … It’s a complete package. There is some risk there but I’d rather take a little bit of risk now than a lot of risk later in a future conflict,” he said.
The Air Force has wanted new platforms for decades, and has had many successes when it comes to achieving the modernization vs sustainment balance. For example, many legacy programs have been massively upgraded and in some cases completely overhauled to ensure continued relevance, functionality and, in some cases, superiority.
F-22 & B-52
The F-22, for instance, has received stealth coating maintenance and upgrades as well as extensive software upgrades to enhance its weapons performance. In recent years, an upgrade referred to as 3.2, greatly improved the targeting, guidance and effectiveness of the AIM-9X and AIM-120D weapons.
These enhancements, now in place throughout much of the fleet, enable the F-22 to stay in front of potential threat and, among other things, improve the weapons’ ability to stay on course to a target in an EW or “jamming” environment.
Yet another key example of Air Force success when it comes to modernizing existing platforms can be found with the 1950s-era B-52. Despite its age, the aircraft still has viable airframes and has been upgraded with new engines, an internal weapons bay, new communications technology and avionics.
While working quickly to make progress and secure funding for innovation and rapid development of emerging systems, Air Force weapons developers have had much success both extending the operational effectiveness of some of its best platforms while also recognizing that there are at times limits to the extent to which some legacy platforms can be improved. Therefore, the surge to engineer a new generation of platforms surges forward quickly with the strong support of Air Force leadership.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.