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Inside the US Air Force’s race to fund future fighters, bombers and autonomous drones before the next crisis

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ABOARD A C-40 OVER THE SOUTHERN UNITED STATES — The Jolly Green II combat rescue helicopter was poised to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, the Pave Hawk — a stalwart during the war in Afghanistan, time and again rescuing American troops and allies trapped in enemy territory.

But in its fiscal 2023 budget released in late March, the U.S. Air Force unveiled a surprise: It wants to scale back its total planned purchases of the Jolly Green II HH-60W by one-third, to 75 in all, citing concerns they could be shot down by an enemy with advanced air defense systems.

It’s not just the Jolly Green II the service is worried about for the next war. But the change of course on the new combat rescue helicopter is perhaps the most visible sign of how the Air Force has significantly shifted how it thinks about and prepares for the future.

Over the last two decades of fighting in the Middle East, the United States enjoyed near-complete control of the skies to fly drones, fighter jets and combat rescue helicopters. That won’t be the case should the U.S. go to war with China or another advanced adversary.

And to prepare for far more contested airspace, the Air Force is laying the groundwork for a series of radical transformations in how it approaches air combat that could cost at least tens of billions of dollars over the next two decades.

Top Air Force officials are outlining a two-stage process. In the next few years, the service says it must first divest outdated airframes to free up money to afford short-term advancements in new airframes and upgrades to existing planes that slightly modernize its aging fleet.

This, they say, will lay the groundwork for the next stage of more dramatic changes, which include the fielding of sixth-generation fighters as well as new uses of autonomous unmanned systems — perhaps even using autonomous helicopters to rescue downed personnel in dangerous combat zones.

But time is running short. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the era of great power competition is here — and Pentagon leaders fear a conflict with China could be nearer than expected.

There are technical hurdles to overcome. And it remains an open question whether Congress will even allow the requested aircraft divestments, with 150 retirements planned for 2023. All of this has led some experts to question whether the Air Force can make its ideal next-generation capabilities a reality.

John Venable, a defense policy expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the service must be cautious. As it downsizes older systems, he said, the Air Force hopes to bring new, advanced capabilities to fruition before the next crisis — but it’s unclear whether that’s feasible.

“We have swallowed the [term] ‘accept more risk’ over the last 30 years … and it’s like taking a third and fourth and fifth and sixth mortgage out on your home,” Venable said. “And at the end of the day, a creditor may call for you to pay these things off, and that would come in the form of a war.”

In a March briefing with reporters, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the service needs to make transformational, not evolutionary, changes to respond to what the United States now faces — particularly from China.

The proposed $194 billion FY23 budget aims to kick that into gear, he said, and the FY24 budget would take it further.

“Change is hard — losing is unacceptable,” Kendall said in an April event with the press. “The Air Force and Space Force are trying to move forward to the capabilities that they need.”

The path to change

In an April 18 interview with Defense News aboard an Air Force C-40, Kendall and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said one of the biggest challenges is China’s and other adversaries’ adoption of long-range precision weapons.

Kendall said that in recent decades, China realized the U.S. had concentrated on being able to deploy and use the military in a small number of high-value assets, such as forward air bases, critical satellites, aircraft carriers, as well as key logistics and command-and-control nodes.

That concentration was now a vulnerability, Kendall said. If China destroyed some of those assets with long-range weapons, he said, that would severely damage America’s ability to deploy or use military forces around the world.

The Air Force is also adjusting to the reality that the virtually uncontested air superiority it experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan won’t be the case in a war against China or Russia.

Service officials have said the FY23 budget request takes the initial steps to address these challenges. It moves to shed older aircraft and drones — such as the A-10 Warthog and the MQ-9 Reaper drone — that would be too vulnerable against an advanced enemy. It also shifts funds toward advanced technology like the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems, hypersonics research, procurement of the B-21 Raider bomber and research for an autonomous drone wingman.

Kendall said the Air Force will still need a fleet of combat search and rescue helicopters, but it has to be pragmatic about where they might operate and what specific platforms would perform the missions.

“There are some places where you’re just not going to take a helicopter,” he said. “It’s just not going to work with that reality.”

When Air Force officials considered the demand for combat rescue helicopters, he explained, they concluded it could be met with fewer platforms.

If the U.S. were defending the island nation of Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, for example, downed pilots would probably be recovered from the water or from Taiwanese territory, Kendall said. This would reduce the need for a specialized helicopter.

However, in a European conflict, the requirement for a specialized helicopter would depend on whether the downed personnel are behind enemy lines — and what enemy air defense can do, Kendall added.

Brown said the Air Force is also weighing how it could use autonomous systems to go into areas where pilots might be put in harm’s way; that unmanned system could either recover troops or resupply them.

“In a high-threat environment, we have to look at how we do combat search and rescue differently,” Brown said.

The Air Force is similarly trying to identify how it will tackle communications, command-and-control, and battlefield-management capabilities in a future war.

For decades, the service has used its fleet of E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System and E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft to track forces and give commanders the information they need to destroy the enemy.

But Air Force officials say those Cold War-era AWACS and JSTARS planes would be extremely vulnerable in battle against an advanced enemy.

Kendall pointed to $227 million in new funding in the FY23 budget request to start acquiring the E-7 Wedgetail, now flown by Australia, as an AWACS replacement — “at least as an interim solution.”

The service doesn’t have an AWACS replacement in the long term, nor does it have one for JSTARS. Without a long-term replacement that could survive a volatile battlespace, America’s ability to accurately track and target enemy forces could be in jeopardy.

The Wedgetail — a newer airframe equipped with updated electronics — could still find itself about as susceptible to enemy missiles as its predecessor. So instead, Kendall said, the Air Force is looking to the stars to keep eyes on the battlefield and track targets.

“We’d like to do those jobs from space if we could, but there’s some technical issues there that we have to resolve,” he said. Kendall previously noted it’s imperative the Air Force’s space services are resilient enough to keep operating during an attack.

“We’re trying to get the balance right and move forward as quickly as we can for the things we need for the higher-end threats,” Kendall said.

Part of striking that balance is finding a way to bring down the average age and average cost of its aircraft. The technology exists to field a slate of lower-cost, uncrewed — and possibly attritable or even expendable — combat aircraft that can team up with manned aircraft and open up a new range of tactics, Kendall said.

For example, he explained at the April event with the press, an Air Force pilot could send an expendable drone wingman ahead to purposely draw out an enemy, in a gambit he likened to moving a sacrificial pawn forward in chess.

Avoiding pitfalls

Some of the concepts the Air Force is eyeing will be complicated to pull off, or are in their early stages and are not yet programs of record, making it unclear whether they’ll ever become a reality.

And experts are concerned the clock is ticking.

“A lot of the intelligence estimates and chatter around DoD keeps talking about China possibly aiming to make a move on Taiwan, militarily, within the next four or five years,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If you don’t already have something either near the end of development or in production, you’re not likely to have it fielded as part of your force by 2026.”

And that’s why, Harrison said, the Air Force’s two-phase strategy that includes short-term improvements is wise. But, he added, the Air Force will need to keep pushing for its most advanced changes — even if they’re years away.

“You can’t let that stuff atrophy,” he said. “It will eventually be needed.”

The wild card remains Congress. The Air Force says it needs the legislature to approve its desired funding levels, allow it to retire older, outdated planes to free up funds, and loosen limits on aircraft quantities.

Last year, lawmakers allowed the Air Force to retire all of the aircraft it requested, save the A-10. But in prior years, Congress sometimes balked at allowing cuts to the fleet.

“We can’t do this without Congress’s cooperation,” Kendall said during his April event with the press. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way forward, and Congress has to be part of that path.”

In an April 28 interview, Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., chairman of the House’s Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, said Congress is open to hearing more from the Air Force on longer-term modernization plans and divestments — but that lawmakers must ensure the service won’t create capability gaps in the meantime.

“As with any oversight process in Congress, members are going to listen to the departments or agencies involved, in this case the Air Force, and see how what is being reported aligns with what we know and what history tells us,” Norcross said. “We’re still early in the process, so we will review the Air Force request and measure that against past performance and future force needs.”

The debate over divesting old assets runs the risk of creating a catch-22, Harrison said. Congress is often on board with the Air Force’s desire to develop new capabilities, he said — but it doesn’t want the service to give up old capabilities without a replacement that is at least as good or better.

The Air Force often says it can’t free up funds to develop those new capabilities if it isn’t allowed to divest old platforms. And so top Air Force officials should make a lot of trips to Capitol Hill to convince lawmakers to sign onto their vision, Harrison said.

“The whole ‘trust us, we’ve got a plan’ — it doesn’t work for issues like this, where there are a lot of constituent interests that are at stake and there are a lot of real strategic risks involved,” he said.

Kendall and Brown acknowledged to Defense News the burden is on the Air Force to sell lawmakers on the divestitures.

“It’s up to us to show people a plan that makes sense,” Kendall said. “We want to collaborate with Congress … and collaboration is the path forward.”

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.

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