According to acquisition officials, the U.S. Air Force will be looking at cutting-edge capabilities in airframe design in the near future along with proven technologies that come from F-35s, above, and F-22s. (Lockheed Martin)
The U.S. Air Force will return to its roots in the coming years, tailoring its acquisition needs to meet the Pentagon’s Pacific-focused military strategy by buying stealthy aircraft and systems.
That means the service will look to purchase systems and aircraft — particularly a new bomber — that can fly without being noticed in denied airspace, a reversal of Air Force operations over the past decade.
“I think right now what we’re trying to do is remind everybody that we’ve got to start planning to build systems and to field capabilities to fight in a contested environment again,” Lt. Gen. Charles “CR” Davis, the Air Force military deputy for acquisition, said during his first interview since becoming the service’s top uniformed weapons buyer.
Several Air Force systems, from unmanned aircraft to sensors, have played a major role in counterinsurgency operations over Iraq and Afghanistan. However, many of them are easily detected on radar, meaning they are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles.
“We’ve become very good at fielding the conventional, non-hardened, non-threatened type of systems,” Davis said. “Now, we’ve got to take a look at a different kind of mindset when we start planning for how we’re going to tailor acquisition for that.”
This new frame of thinking will be taken into account as the Air Force develops a new bomber, data links, secure communications for intelligence systems and other systems.
“Right now, it’s kind of like a different mindset of things we have thought about that we haven’t paid an awful lot of attention to in the last few years, when we start debating requirements and looking at capabilities and things like that,” Davis said.
Systems that can survive in contested — or anti-access or access-denied, as it’s called in Pentagon speak — airspace are “going to be played very heavily” in the Air Force’s 2014 budget and internal six-year spending plan, known as the program objective memorandum, he said.
In January, the Pentagon announced a new military strategy that emphasizes the Pacific region. Since then, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top Pentagon officials have traveled to the region and announced new partnerships with countries there.
The Pentagon’s 2013 budget proposal, which is still being reviewed by Congress, begins making investments in equipment tailored for the strategy. An even greater focus could be coming in future defense budgets.
One aircraft being built with the Pacific in mind is the Air Force’s Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). The Air Force has said this aircraft will be built primarily from existing technologies, a departure from the original plans to field a state-of-the-art, advanced aircraft with cutting-edge systems.
Still, the Air Force could push the envelope in some areas for the new bomber, which is expected to enter service in the mid-2020s and cost about $550 million each.
Defense Department and Air Force officials have disclosed few details about the bomber program. The stealthy aircraft will be optionally manned and built using many proven systems, but it will still have advanced features, including some developed for the F-22A Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
“We’ll probably look at some pretty cutting-edge capabilities in airframe design and things like that, but we’ll also probably look at some very proven technologies that come from [the] F-22, F-35 ... [and] other programs out there so you reduce the risk,” Davis said.
The Air Force has still not decided what type of engine will power the aircraft, he said.
Some of those airframe changes in the new bomber could include a blended-wing body or use of advanced materials that allow the plane to fly higher and faster, according to Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group.
“I would assume it would primarily be in the materials world, but also some kind of shape that also allowed the divergent requirements of a strategic bomber to be reconciled,” he said.
The B-2 Spirit bomber was designed primarily for stealth and range, and speed was traded off. The B-1 Lancer design focused on speed and range. A blended wing — a mix of a standard plane and a flying wing — would not be conducive for a supersonic aircraft, Aboulafia said.
“You want something that has speed, range, stealth, high altitude [and is] optionally manned,” he said.
Research and development (R&D) and science and technology (S&T) funding will be key to technology development for the bomber.
With a $487 billion reduction eyed to planned military spending over the next decade, and double that should Congress not strike a deal to lower the U.S. deficit, defense contractors are already planning to reduce their internally funded R&D projects. But the Pentagon might operate differently.
“I think it’s going to be just the opposite if you look at what the services have planned,” Davis said. “I can only speak for the Air Force, [but] our R&D, our S&T budget has been relatively stable as our modernization budget has declined.”
The Pentagon’s investment budget historically has been stable, while procurement declined during downturns, said Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Congressional earmarks usually help the R&D budget, Harrison said.
“Over the past decade, they’ve averaged getting like 4 to 5 percent plus-up in RDT&E [research, development, test and evaluation] funding,” he said.
But those numbers have fallen in 2011 and 2012 with the congressional ban on earmarks, Harrison noted.
“There is some reason to think that if we return to historical norms that Congress will tend to plus up RDT&E more than other parts of the budget,” he said.
The Air Force’s R&D and S&T budgets are likely to be “very stable” over the next year, but beyond that, “all bets are off,” Davis said.
“[W]e have to continue, while all this painful stuff is going on, we have to spend a requisite, appropriate and an equal amount to our needs for innovation and R&D,” he said.