USAF Turning to Flexible Multirole Aircraft
As the U.S. Air Force shrinks, multirole aircraft are going to play an ever larger role in the service’s inventory, the air arm’s top civilian official said.
The service’s strategy “favors retaining multirole capabilities going forward,” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said Feb. 2. “The tactical air forces are going to get smaller and still be required to address a broad spectrum of threats.”
Donley, who was speaking at an Air Force Association-sponsored breakfast, cited the ubiquitous Lockheed Martin-built F-16 Fighting Falcon as an aircraft that will be protected. Conversely, the Air Force is divesting itself of five squadrons of single-role A-10 Warthog close air support planes — about a third of its fleet.
Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va., said the Air Force was forced into the decision by “the tyranny of sustainment costs.”
The service can’t afford the cost of maintaining fleets of specialized aircraft, he said. But not having specialized aircraft might mean the service ends up with planes capable of performing many missions but not doing any particularly well, Goure said.
“That’s what the F-35 is relative to the F-22,” he said. The F-35 is a multirole stealth fighter jet, while the Raptor is a purpose-built air-to-air killer par excellence.
Moreover, new aircraft, such as the Air Force’s new bomber, are going to be built to do many missions, but they might not be well optimized for any particular mission, Goure said. But investment in advanced subsystems and weapons may overcome many shortcomings.
“The enablers and weapons need to be even better to make up for the loss of capability in the platform,” he said.
Given the delays on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the Air Force will modernize the F-16, Donley said. About 350 F-16s will be given added capabilities and have their airframe lives extended.
Extending the service life of the F-16 is cheaper than buying new versions of the Fighting Falcon, Donley said. When asked if he could consider buying new versions of the venerable jet, Donley flatly replied: “No.”
Nor will the Air Force or Defense Department budge from the overall number of tri-service F-35 aircraft they want to buy from the current total of 2,443. While the Defense Department might make short-term adjustments, Donley reiterated the Pentagon’s full commitment to the program.
“I’d like to put this to bed as well as I can today,” he said. “The decisions about the size of the F-35 fleet, we’ve made no changes in that. Those are decisions for the 2020s.”
Making any such changes now would have no bearing on forthcoming budget cuts because the bulk of those buys falls outside the next five-year defense plan or even the next 10 years, Donley said.
But shifting to aircraft that can do more than one mission is not limited to the tactical fighter fleet. Donley said the reason the C-27 light turboprop transport will not only be canceled but existing aircraft retired is because the C-130 is more versatile.
“C-27 is another prominent program where we think we have good alternatives,” Donley said. “We have demonstrated the ability of the C-130 to support the direct-support mission.”
With a smaller fleet, the Air Force needs to maintain common aircraft configurations. Donley cited efforts to bring the service’s F-22 Raptors to a common configuration as one example. Others include the remaining fleet of upgraded C-5M Galaxy strategic airlifters, the extended-range C-17 strategic airlifters, Boeing’s F-15C fighter and the F-16, he said.
“Common configurations will give us operational flexibility,” Donley said.
Source: By DAVE MAJUMDAR, 02 February 2012 - Gannett Government Media / DefenceNews (www.defensenews.com)
Photo: U.S. Air Force F-35 vs F-22: The Hot Rod Comparison. (Photo by aviationintel.com)