The US Air Force has outlined a surprising list of next-gen capabilities it is keeping a close eye on as part of its “unfunded priorities list” for future acquisition, ranging from more F-35s and advanced F-15s, through to autonomous loyal wingman type platforms, ahead of planning for the FY2022 budget.
Throughout history, military operations have favoured those who occupy the high ground. Command of the skies empowers both offensive and defensive operations while also providing powerful deterrence options as part of the broader implementation of power projection and national security doctrines.
Air dominance reflects the pinnacle of the high ground, where both a qualitative and quantitative edge in doctrine, equipment and personnel support the unrivalled conduct of offensive or defensive air combat operations.
Specialised aircraft designed to achieve air dominance proved influential as a tactical and strategic operating concept, with the use of tactical fighters providing air dominance, close air support and escort essential to the Allied triumph in the Second World War.
Further supporting the air dominance side of the air power equation, long-range strike, namely, combining heavy, strike-oriented aircraft with aerial refuelling platforms; complex airborne and ground-based sensors; and command and control capabilities, provides an integrated force structure capable of responding to a range of tactical and strategic imperatives.
A bit of a mixed bag – some wins, some losses
The 2020 National Defense Autorization Act will see a number of major acquisitions, organisational restructures and modernisation programs to support America's shift away from decades of conflict in Afghanistan and the Middle East towards the great power competition focus of the Indo-Pacific.
A core focus of the US pivot towards the Indo-Pacific and countering the economic, political and strategic assertiveness of China is modernising and expanding the capability of the US Air Force and its Indo-Pacific-based Air Force assets.
Supporting this is a US$15 billion ($22.3 billion) increase to the US acquisition budget, bringing the Pentagon's total acquisition budget to US$146 billion ($217.3 billion) – despite this, it isn't all good news for the US Air Force.
Much like the Army and Navy, the US Air Force's budget is dominated by large, big ticket, expensive research and development and acquisition programs, like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and Northrop Grumman's B-21 Raider long-range strategic bomber and Ground Based Strategic Deterrence (GBSD) Minuteman III recapitalisation programs.
This focus on large-scale programs has long hampered the USAF's ability to meet its global commitments, as increasingly expensive, complex weapons systems hinder the ability to deploy based on available numbers and manpower resourcing further complicating tactical and strategic capability.
In response, the US Air Force's ageing platforms, namely Cold War-era strategic enablers, such as the aerial refuelling platforms including the KC-135 and KC-10, alongside the long-range strike B-1 Lancer fleet and the venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft, will account for modernisation and expansion programs.
As part of this, the Pentagon has asked for US$56.9 billion ($84.7 billion) for a number of major capability investments, including: US$11.4 billion ($16.9 billion) for 79 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, US$1.6 billion ($2.3 billion) for new-build Boeing F-15EX Advanced Eagle fighter aircraft and US$3 billion ($4.46 billion) for the troubled, but next-generation KC-46 aerial refuelling tankers.
US Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein said in January, "We didn’t get everything we put on the table. Some was walked back. But we got a lot of what we put on the table."
The real wish list – the USAF's unfunded priority lists
Despite big-ticket items like the F-35, B-21 and GBSD programs locked in for the foreseeable future, the US Air Force has its eyes on the future, with the unfunded priority lists (UPL) often serving as the basis for the next year's budget acquisition plans.
The US Air Force was able to secure US$115 million ($174 million) for investing in advanced technology as part of the FY2020 budget with the planned protoyping of the XQ-58A Valkyrie drone – akin to the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (BATS) currently under joint development with the RAAF and Boeing Defence Australia – a key component of this future focus.
It is anticipated that the Valkyrie platform will serve in a similar capacity to the BATS platform and will enable more costly manned platforms to operate with a greater degree of separation between themselves and adversary effectors in a contested environment.
Building on this, the USAF is focused on developing and prototyping an AI-equipped variant of the small diameter bomb (SDB) designed to introduce a variant "that autonomously optimises co-ordinated attacks" on radar-emitting or GPS targets, following rules of engagement that are predetermined by the user.
However, by far the largest item on the wish list, with a total of US$1.3 billion ($1.96 billion) is the as yet unfunded requirement for additional F-35A Joint Strike Fighters and the associated costs – this would provide the USAF with an additional 12 of the F-35s for US$1.2 billion ($1.81 billion) with the remainder earmarked for the advanced procurement of additional 12 aircraft in FY22.
Australia’s air force modernisation, exemplified by the multibillion-dollar acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is not being done in isolation, with lessons to learn by both the RAAF and USAF.
Many throughout Indo-Pacific Asia are embarking on their own air power modernisation and recapitalisation efforts, incorporating advanced fighter aircraft, long-range strike aircraft and advanced command and control and aerial refuelling capabilities.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce also issued a challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders, saying:
"If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.