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The Air Force is moving with a sense of urgency to bring its new Fighter Force Roadmap to life, by pursuing a force structure and tactical vision intended to fully prepare the service for massive, high-end “peer” warfare in the skies.
There are many nuances and variables considered in the plan, the major thrust of which could be described as an effort to migrate the fleet much more heavily toward 5th and 6th-generation aircraft and away from decades-old “legacy” 4th-generation fighting platforms designed in the 1980s.
F-35s and F-15EXs
This means more F-35s, more new, yet-to-exist 6th-generation aircraft and even the addition of some F-15EXs, with a lot fewer “upgrades” and “service life extensions” for fighter jets intended to face a Soviet threat decades ago.
“Our fighter force was designed for a Soviet force. We are behind and our current incremental rate of change is insufficient. Fighter Roadmap is a change in investment priorities required for a peer fight. The fighter force will again need to flex from its original design to defeat a peer threat. We need to face the realities of a new threat environment and that requires the fighter force to change,” Gen. Mark Kelley, Commander of Air Combat Command, told an audience at the 2021 Air Force Symposium.
The F-15 and F-16, for example, while upgraded and intended to stay in the force for years to come, are essentially 1980s-era platforms designed for a different era and different enemy decades ago. Ultimately there are limits to how much aircraft such as these can be upgraded before eventually sliding into obsolescence.
Added to this equation, Kelley explained, is the fact that during the end of the Cold War, the U.S. spent 30 years in the Middle East destroying Iraq in the Gulf War and pursuing 20 years of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. This shift, during which the U.S. Air Force enjoyed unparalleled or uncontested air superiority, focus on major near-peer adversaries was pushed aside or overshadowed.
Without changing, Kelley frankly warned, the U.S. force could first become irrelevant and then face what he called “kinetic defeat” against a superior enemy. The Roadmap is intended to build upon the often discuss Air Force shift from 7 fighter platforms to 4 plus 1, meaning legacy, Cold War era aircraft have dropped from 4,000 aircraft down to 2,000 or fewer aircraft while new fighter jets such as the F-35 and nascent Next Generation Air Dominance 6th-Gen fighter explode onto the scene in larger numbers. Four plus one, Air Force reports explain, amounts to a massive prioritization upon NGAD, F-35, F-15EX Strike Eagle, F-16 (massively upgraded) and “right sizing the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
“The continued use of legacy aircraft has become costly to both fly and repair. Streamlining the current fighter fleet by transitioning to NGAD, F-35 Lightning II, F-15EX Strike Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and right-sizing the A-10 Thunderbolt II will ensure the capability, capacity and affordability required to meet the peer threat,” an Air Force report on the Fighter Roadmap writes.
Despite the urgency of this needed transition, it won’t happen overnight, meaning it will take a decade or even two to fully flush out and replace the legacy force, and the 4th-generation aircraft which remain will be almost completely overhauled or revamped to meet a new threat environment. However, even a massively upgraded or reworked 4th-generation aircraft, such as the F-15EX will eventually hit a wall of capability, given that a non-stealthy airframe will be severely limited in any kind of major engagement against enemy 5th-generation fighters. So don’t be surprised if we wind up seeing the Air Force make a massive 6th-generation buy or even plus up F-35 numbers.
“We need to pivot a force that has spent 30 years in the Middle East,” Kelley said.
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There is a specific circumstance driving the intensity of the U.S. Air Force’s move to embrace a future Fighter Force Roadmap calling for more 5th and 6th-generation aircraft, retirement of legacy platforms and massive push to prepare for major airwar against an advanced enemy … and it is China.
Air Combat Commander Gen. Mark Kelley was extremely clear about this, explaining that during the last three decades wherein the U.S. Air Force was engaged, if not preoccupied in the Middle East, China was focused intensely on the singular purpose of mirroring, copying and ultimately exceeding U.S. Air Force warfighting superiority.
“China has been singularly focused on and invested in fighting us,” Kelley said, explaining that China studied the U.S. military with intense closeness following the Gulf War in which America stunned the world with its technological military sophistication and superiority.
Kelley added some interesting specifics regarding China’s strategic effort to match and pass the U.S. Air Force in terms of air dominance and warfighting sophistication.
“They know our fighter force was designed for a Soviet force and then utilized for COIN (Counterinsurgency). They know our fighter force has gotten older and smaller. They know there is more water and distance in the Pacific with less communications possibility and of course fewer railroads,” Kelley said.
China, he continued, seeks to exploit a U.S. force structure, design and strategy primarily focused upon Europe and essentially “force NATO to operate outside of its airspace.”
The vast expanse that is the Pacific is of course fundamental to China’s anti-access-area-denial strategy wherein anti-ship missiles, mobile launchers, long-range ballistic weapons, ships and drones are all intended to prevent the U.S. military from functioning effectively or even accessing areas close to its borders.
China, it would be safe to say, is relying upon being able to fight from its own sovereign territory and therefore leverage every possible advantage. This is why China has more actual air power presence in the Pacific, a circumstance Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown said needs to change. This means the U.S. will continue to seek more basing opportunities for its growing force of 5th and 6rh-gen aircraft as well as stealthy drones.
Kelley did say the existence of several essential platforms intended to operate successfully over sovereign territory, such as the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone and emerging B-21 stealth bomber.
“It is significantly harder to compete against an adversary in its sovereign space. This is likely why China wants more parts of the South China Sea, so they can turn global common areas into sovereign national territory,” Kelley said.
Kris Osborn is 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