WASHINGTON — A new strategy document released last week by US Air Combat Command lays out an updated roadmap for modernizing the Air Force's legacy fleet, underlining in particular an effort to develop a future close-air support platform.
The ACC's 2015 command strategy, unveiled Aug. 10, calls for "exploring opportunities" for developing a future close-air support platform — presumably a replacement for the Air Force's primary close-in attack aircraft used to protect ground troops, the legacy A-10.
"We must also continue to develop a balanced close air support (CAS) capability across all [Global Precision Attack] platforms, explore opportunities for a future CAS platform, and enact specific initiatives to ensure we maintain a CAS culture," throughout the CAF," the document states.
The Air Force has over the past months dropped hints that a future, single-mission, close-air support platform to replace the A-10 is in the works. When asked about the notional platform at the Air Force Association Air Warfare symposium in February, ACC Commander Gen. Hawk Carlisle told reporters: "We're thinking about it."
"I think it's something that has to be in the discussion," Carlisle said. "Another weapons system program may be something we need to consider as we look at the gaps and seams in the future and what we're doing. We're looking at all of that."
The conversation about a future A-10 replacement comes as the Air Force seeks to retire the plane to save money amid an ongoing budget squeeze. The service claims that retiring the A-10 could save $4.2 billion over the next five years, and argues that faster jets and bombers can potentially fulfill the CAS mission. Meanwhile, the service also wants to shift some maintainers supporting the A-10s to training for the F-35 joint strike fighter ramp-up ahead of a deadline to declare the fighter jet operational by December 2016.
However, defenders of the program say the legacy plane is necessary to protect troops, and argue that retiring it without a focused CAS replacement endangers soldiers on the ground.
In an increasingly contested threat environment, the new document also highlights the need to modernize legacy fighter and bomber fleets, as well as to continue investing in fifth-generation fighters and bombers. Potential adversaries are continuing to develop anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities that challenge the Air Force's ability to ensure the safety of the skies, the document cautions.
"GPA must balance the capability to operate in the highly-contested environment with the capacity required to meet today's demands and support the Joint Forces' ability to hold any target at risk," the document states. "Adversary anti-access strategies will make it increasingly important in the future to operate from range, increasing the need to team with [Air Force Global Strike Command] to develop coherent long range bomber capabilities and a recapitalization plan for this portfolio."
ACC will also work to modernize air-to-air weapons, link up its new aircraft with its legacy fleet via improved data links, upgrade tactical command-and-control systems and sensors, and renew focus on realistic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance training, according to the document.