As the fleet shrinks, the Air Force stakes its future on a few prize programs.
Recognizing an era of unprecedented defense spending might be winding down, Air Force officials are keeping their eye on their pocketbooks as they purchase hundreds of new fighters, tankers, unmanned aerial vehicles and other planes over the next five years.
"We know that in no single year can we afford to buy a lot of extra airplanes," says Brig. Gen. Charles W. Lyon, deputy director of Air Force programs.
Indeed, the service intends to buy only 585 new planes by 2011 to replace more than 1,000 legacy aircraft officials hope to send to the service's boneyard. The plan hinges on the blessing of a skeptical Congress, which has been the biggest obstacle to Air Force attempts to retire aging airframes.
With that approval, the Air Force expects sharp reductions in the size of the fighter, bomber and reconnaissance forces over the next several years, leaving a smaller fleet of what service leaders say will be far more effective planes.
The move will save the service money across the board, allowing the Air Force to trim its personnel roster by 40,000 and reduce operations and maintenance budgets by flying fewer aircraft, a necessary move, officials say, to pay for its prized programs.
Among the Air Force's priorities is the F-22 Raptor fighter jet; the service plans to buy 20 annually over the next three years. The Air Force also plans to invest heavily in the Joint Strike Fighter, a $250 billion international program, over the next decade, despite congressional concerns that it cannot meet its schedule goals.
Developing a long-range strike platform by 2018 to replace B-52 bombers also is on the table, though service leaders have not yet resolved what the exact capability will be.
Meanwhile, the service hopes to replace its fleet of decades-old KC-135 refueling tankers. "We see that as the next thing that we need to do in mobility to be able to project the force," Lyon says.
And the service plans record multibillion-dollar investments in unmanned aerial vehicles over the next several years, which will allow the Air Force to stand down its U-2 surveillance platforms. Without having to swap pilots every few hours, the unmanned vehicles can provide 24-hour surveillance.
It is a tall order, but necessary to keep the Air Force a well-balanced force capable of completing its broad spectrum of missions, from intelligence and surveillance to rapid strike to global mobility, Lyon says.
"We have to be very careful that we don't get too healthy in one area and present too much risk to the nation in another area," he says, adding that the service has been "balancing across our portfolios for the future."
Faced with a smaller fleet, Air Force leaders also recognize that planes will have to pull double duty, essentially completing missions in addition to their primary tasks. The next-generation tanker, for instance, will have an expanded cargo role in addition to its aerial refueling mission, according to Lyon.
Ultimately, Lyon says, the goal is to prepare to respond to threats now and adversaries well into the future. "In broad strokes, we have to keep our airmen organized, trained and equipped to fight the very real war of today," he says. "At the same time, we have to be prepared for what will happen for the defense of the nation in five, 10, 15 years."