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The Air Force of 2030

Experts look and guess

In his speech to the graduating Air Force Academy class of 2012 in May, President Barack Obama told the men and women who will be the Air Force’s generals in the year 2030 that the U.S. military of the future will be leaner but will be “fast, and flexible, and versatile.”

The future top brass will need “to be ready for the full range of threats. From the conventional to the unconventional, from nations seeking weapons of mass destruction to the cell of terrorists planning the next attack, from the old danger of piracy to the new threat of cyber …”

Obama’s speech in May to the newly commissioned second lieutenants in the Air Force did not include a lot of detail about the size, shape, and disposition of the nation’s air arm in the years ahead. But both within the Pentagon and in the outside world of thinkers, advisers, and analysts, plenty of thought is being given to how the United States will wield air power in a future that is fraught with short- and long-term uncertainties.

 

Finding the Future

To get a handle on the flying force of the future, Defense interviewed half a dozen experts with different backgrounds and points of view. All agreed on a handful of common themes. The aircraft in inventory in 2030 won’t look much different on the outside than the aircraft we’re using today, but there will be plenty of differences beneath the skin. A bigger proportion of the aircraft fleet will consist of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Communication and connectivity will be more important than ever. The Air Force will exploit the cyber domain. Hypersonic propulsion and directed energy weapons are among the technologies that will be maturing. As it has done since World War II, the United States will rely on innovation and technology rather than on sheer numbers in its efforts to remain a world power, able to hold at risk any potential military target on the planet.

Boeing KC-46A

In this artist’s rendering, a KC-46A refuels a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III airlifter. Boeing image

There is general agreement that if the Air Force is to be effective, the nation must have a clear policy. “To get our force right, we need to know what our plan is,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a pioneer in intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR). “What is our national security strategy? That needs to be clear. This is the first order of principles.” He added: “We need to get rid of attrition-based force-on-force theories. Instead, we need a set of strategies based on outcome. Figure out what you want to do, and do it.”

Deptula said that a new long-range ISR/strike aircraft – a bomber – and the new Boeing KC-46A air refueling tanker will be standouts on the parking aprons at some airfields. Elsewhere on the ramp, Deptula said, “You’ll see some of the same systems as today. We’ll be retiring the 50-year-old F-15C/D Eagle and most of our F-16C/D Fighting Falcons, with a few of the later-block F-16s hanging on to serve a little longer. Airlift will look very much as it does today. There won’t be dramatic changes in platforms except the long-range ISR/strike aircraft.”

Strategic airlift, the long-range hauling of supplies and materiel across oceans, doesn’t require much of a crystal ball because the Air Force has only recently taken delivery of its 223rd and last C-17A Globemaster III, and will surely retain the C-17A as the backbone of this mission. It’s likely that modernized C-5M Galaxy airlifters will still be flying in small numbers, perhaps 40 or so, but that many aging C-5A and C-5B models, which are plagued by reliability problems, will have gone to the boneyard. The United States will continue to rely on strategic airlift to haul things while using chartered airliners to transport people.

F-22 Raptor

U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., fly in formation behind a KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling aircraft from Altus Air Force Base, Okla., after an air refueling Aug. 21, 2012. While the F-22 has been experiencing problems with its on-board oxygen system, it remains the primary air-dominance fighter in the U.S. arsenal. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kenneth W. Norman

Will the ramps be bristling with F-22s and F-35s? The Air Force’s F-22 Raptor superfighter, if it’s able to overcome a long-standing problem with its on-board oxygen system, will remain the “silver bullet” of the nation’s air arsenal, available in small numbers to achieve air dominance where U.S. forces are committed. While the future of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) appears less than fully assured in 2012, most prognosticators say the F-35 will overcome teething troubles to become the most numerous U.S. warplane. Deptula says that F-22s and F-35s will have been upgraded to become “flying sensor nodes” and that their stealth features are not a barrier to a role in broadening and expanding connectivity. Rebecca Grant, Ph.D., president of IRIS, an independent Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told Defense that F-22s and F-35s may be carrying directed-energy weapons in their weapons bays – perhaps an optimistic view of where this technology will be in just a couple of decades.

 

Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), to use the official U.S. government term for what most people call drones, are certain to survive and to have expanded roles in the Air Force of 2030. Perhaps less likely to survive is the term remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), which is used only by the Air Force and is not widely accepted even in the ranks today. The RPA term is a cultural thing, aimed at making the pilot and sensor operator of a UAS, who control their aircraft from many miles away inside a control booth, equal in stature to pilots and crew members who operate manned aircraft.

RQ-4 Global Hawk

A jet-powered armed UAS will be a likely companion to the RQ-4 Global Hawk ISR aircraft in the future. Northrop Grumman photo by Bobbi Zapka

Today’s MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper – both with straight wings, and the former driven through the sky by a modified snowmobile motor – will give way to jet-propelled UAS that will perform the same ISR and bombing missions but may take on other duties as well. The supersecret RQ-170 Sentinel and its close relatives from the “black” world will continue to perform hush-hush spy duties. Some version of a jet-powered UAS such as the V-tailed Global Atomics Avenger (formerly Predator C) as well as the RQ-4B Global Hawk will be taking on expanding missions, and a new family of UAS will be taking on additional missions.

Grant believes that “a big task in this era will be countering adversary unmanned aerial vehicles, large and small, because they’ll be used against us and they’ll range in size from a hummingbird to a pteradactyl.” Virtually every aircraft in inventory, manned or unmanned, will fit snugly into a vast, inter-connected digital domain, said Deptula, but unmanned systems “are here to stay and will take on new duties as we develop new concepts of operations.”

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...