On the other hand, there is a strong case for reducing the total F-35A procurement. The Air Force should consider cutting its planned buy to free up resources for other higher-priority requirements. Reducing the Air Force plan to buy 1,763 F-35As through 2034 by just over half, to 858 F-35As, and increasing the procurement rate to end in 2020 would be a prudent alternative. This would provide 540 combat-coded F-35As on the ramp, or thirty squadrons of F-35s by 2021 in time to allow the Air Force budget to absorb other program ramp-ups like NGB.
Beyond programmatics, much more attention must be given to basing, which has been allowed to atrophy in two ways. First, the Air Force has excess CONUS base capacity for its planned force structure. Another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round in the 2012 timeframe would better enable the Air Force to achieve the recommendations outlined in this report. Second, the emergence of Asia as the new center of geostrategic gravity suggests a draw-down of European bases and an expansion of Asian base access. The expanding Chinese long-range strike and ISR capacity will likely place some US forward bases at risk, forcing a pullback from those bases during a crisis. This could overwhelm available capacity at the major US power-projection bases in Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam. Accordingly, just as they did in the Cold War, US strategists must once again rethink the military’s forward-basing posture, incorporating the four most important posture considerations: (1) base dispersal (physically and operationally); (2) base hardening; (3) active defenses; and (4) survivable warning systems.
The proposals contained in this report represent an alternative to the current Air Force program that reflects realistic future budget constraints. Their implementation would result in a 2028 Air Force that is better prepared to address both today’s threats and the challenges of the future security environment, and that is much more capable of flying and fighting from long range or against irregular foes. Under current Air Force plans, only 6 percent of its 2028 Air Force air arm will consist of long-range surveillance-strike systems. The plan presented here would see that percentage almost triple, to 17 percent of the strike arm, fielding one hundred additional bombers and eighty additional long-range ISR platforms, most of them of low-observable designs.
This plan also provides for a much more stealthy and survivable force across its total range of capabilities. From a force that in 2009 has low-observable or stealthy platforms in only 5 percent of its fighter force, 20 percent of its bomber force, and none of its ISR force, this plan results in a 2028 Air Force with low-observable platforms in 80 percent of its fighter force, over 60 percent of its bomber force, and over 50 percent of its ISR force. Substantial force structure additions in the form of light aircraft and UAVs make this Air Force much more useful and sustainable in protracted, distributed irregular warfare environments.
This plan would also transform the Service’s space forces, which are coming under greater threat. The future space force, with better space situation awareness and satellite attack warning, improved passive and active defenses for satellites operating up to geosynchronous orbits, and comprising new operationally responsive tactical replacement satellites, would be far more suited to a future in which opposed space operations seem virtually guaranteed.
In summary, the Air Force needs to undertake a comprehensive, long-term approach to adapting its force posture to meet strategic needs and fiscal realities. By taking bold steps such as those suggested in this report, the Air Force can better align itself with the future security environment, and become a driving force in shaping it as well.