The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a panel about the Air Force of the future on Tuesday, 29 October. The panel was moderated by Valerie Insinna, Reporter at Defense News, with Mark Gunzinger, Director of Future Aerospace Concepts and Capabilities Assessments at the Mitchell Institute; Heather Penney, Senior Fellow at the Mitchell Institute; Jeremiah Gertler, Specialist in Military Aviation at the Congressional Research Service; Dave Gerber, Senior Principle Systems Engineer at MITRE Corporation; and Todd Harrison, Director of CSIS Aerospace Security Project.
The panel started with Todd Harrison breaking down the current state of the U.S. Air Force and its force structure. While the current Air Force has the biggest budget its had since the mid-1980s, its force structure is at an all-time low. Harrison then made the case that the reason force structure was so low because of operation and maintenance costs were high for all of the small squadrons of specialized aircraft, therefore money for procurement of new aircraft was low.
Harrison moved on to breaking down the three responses— U.S. Air Force, MITRE Corporation, and Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments— to Congress’s request for what the Air Force’s force structure should look like in 2030. Among the three studies, there were some similarities in that the force needs more multi-mission aircraft, more survivable platforms, more long-range bombers, that B-21 and F-35A production should remain the same or be accelerated, and that the amount of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) should remain the same.
The studies did, however, disagree about the force sizing constructs, the inclusion of new technologies, and if they should replace older model F-15Cs and F-15Ds with F-15Es. There were some areas of ambiguity depending on the scopes of the responses to Congress’s question which included if there should be the addition of light attack fighters and intercontinental ballistic missiles modernization.
The panel moved to an open discussion after the summarization of the reports, which included questions about was the Air Force’s scope too limited, why Congress asked for the reports, how this will aid the introductions of multidomain command control (MDC2), and the role of the “game-changer.” Voices on the panel were fractured in their approach to every answer most of the time approaching the questions in two ways. In regards to the scope of the Air Force’s report, half the panel felt the scope was too narrow and that they should have included more new technology in it while the other half of the panel felt that the Air Force stayed very much so in the realm of possibility to begin to achieve by 2030. In response to Congress’s motives, some believed that Congress desired a blueprint so they could get as close to the force structure the Air Force needed by 2030 even if budgets are allocated yearly. While the other half of the panel felt that it would lead to Congress eventually creating a smaller force structure as they continued to try to divest the current structure with no new resources. The Manichaean split remained a theme through most of the answers but especially so in the response to MDC2. Many believed that the new technology needed to support the system had simply not been introduced into the force structure and the remaining panelist believed there was not a suitable existing system of communication between the different aspects of the services to support it. Finally, the panelists seemed to agree that game-changers importance came in the form of integrating better and newer technology into the force structure.