Militaries change slowly, and technology moves fast. The “Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan,” which the Air Force released today, is an attempt to identify the battlefields of the future, and see what the Air Force needs to put in motion today to do its job right in the future. Unspoken, but alluded to throughout the document, is a move away from expensive, long-in-development aircraft.
The Air Force can “no longer afford to develop weapon systems on the linear acquisition and development timelines using traditional approaches,” reads the report. It continues later: “the Air Force must reject thinking focused on “next generation” platforms. Such focus often creates a desire to push technology limits within the confines of a formal program.” Rather than have a few planes that they upgrade over time, the Air Force is trying to make the most future-y plane all at once, and it’s often a disaster.
While not once mentioned by name in the study, these lines could both apply to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a decades-long in development program shared with the Navy, the Marine Corps, and several allied nations. The F-35 is still in testing, with a fresh batch of software problems as recently as last week. The Air Force version of the F-35, the F-35A, is the cheapest of the three at just $108 million each. The Air Force still plans to buy over 1700 of the planes, and they’re expected to serve the Air Force as long as 50 years. If there is anything that defines the Air Force in 2030, it should be the ubiquity and inadequacy of the F-35. Instead of acknowledging that in the Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan, the document dances around it.
Instead of an assessment of the F-35, and how the Air Force plans to build its force around it, we get allusions to other programs. The Air Force wants better aerial refueling in 2030, which is hard to see working in 2016 as their latest tanker hit delays because it can’t refuel planes. (Tankers are complex, sure, but the Air Force asks for lots of complex planes all the time. This one shouldn’t be hard to get right). The only airplane mentioned by name is the B-21, a new stealth bomber in development that appears to be as successful as it is secret, and we can’t really have a fair assessment of a program if all we’ve seen is a low-grade computer rendering of the design.
Nestled right at the bottom of this long list of desired abilities is “Low cost systems.” The section mentions 3D printing and autonomy, but it misses possible the most exciting part of the Air Force’s proposed cheap systems: attack drones that cost less to make than the missiles that are used to shoot them down. It’s a promising concept, and one that marks a solid break from long-in-development, expensive, next-generation aircraft.
If I had to guess what war in the sky will look like in 2030, I’d place my money on the small cheap deadly drones.