ORLANDO, Fla. — As the Air Force looks to bring on next-generation fighter and bomber platforms, commanders are grappling with what this future technology means for the service's legacy fleets.
The Air Force has tried unsuccessfully to decommission the A-10 attack plane to make way for the F-35 joint strike fighter. Now, one top general says the service will need to retire one of its three existing bomber fleets in order to support the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), officially designated the B-21.
It's not just the Air Force's limited resource pool, both in cash and in manpower, that's driving this decision, commanders emphasized here during the Air Force Association's air warfare symposium. At some point, legacy airplanes just can't keep up with new capabilities and new threats.
"For lots of reasons, not just for the fact that we don't have the capacity, but the capabilities — how long do you fly airplanes?" Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Global Strike Command, said. "There will a time when these planes age out, and we've got to do that very, very prudently so that we are able to meet combatant commander requirements."
When B-21 comes online next decade, the Air Force will have to make some tough choices on what to do with its legacy bomber fleet, Rand said Feb. 25 during a media roundtable. The newest bomber, the B-2, is already 25 years old; meanwhile the service is still flying 1980s B-1s and 1950s B-52s.
When the Air Force begins to phase in the B-21, it will be "very, very difficult" to maintain all four bomber fleets due to shortfalls in money and manpower, Rand said.
"What we need to do with the discussion of LRS-B now is modify and refine where do we want to be in 2025 and out, and what — based on capacity, capability again — what are we going to be able to afford and maintain?" Rand said.
Rand will present a roadmap to the Air Force major commands and the chief of staff toward the end of March that lays out his strategy for bringing the bomber force into the future. The plan will include the B-21, upgrades for legacy platforms, and a recommendation on whether to retire older airplanes, he said.
"It's not that we can't" maintain four bomber fleets, Rand said. "It's a part of why — why would we want to necessarily want to?"
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said the Air Force will look at potentially retiring one of the legacy bomber fleets as part of an update to its bomber roadmap.
"As we bring on a new bomber, due diligence would require we look at, what does the fleet look like going forward?" Welsh said during a Feb. 26 media roundtable.
One possibility is to use one of the older bomber fleets as the basis for the so-called "arsenal plane," a concept the Pentagon rolled out this year. It is not clear what exactly such an arsenal plane would look like, but it will likely be a modified legacy platform crammed with munitions to support fifth-generation fighters.
Combatant commanders have stressed the need for the arsenal plane as soon as possible to better operate in anti-access, aerial-denied (A2/AD) environments, Rand said.
"It's based on the ever increasing A2/AD environment that we're going to be working with, and long range strike and standoff capability is very, very important, so we're going to look at all options," Rand said.
Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, likened the conversation about retiring a bomber fleet to the debate over shelving the A-10 to make way for the F-35.
The Air Force had hoped to decommission the A-10s in part to move maintenance crews over to the F-35, which is slated to eventually replace all of the Air Force's fighter fleets. But the proposal sparked outrage on Capitol Hill, and the Air Force shelved immediate plans to retire the A-10 in its fiscal year 2017 budget request. The service now plans to begin decommissioning the Warthog starting in FY22.
But the decision to delay A-10 retirement has an impact on modernization, Carlisle said. In other words, every dollar the Air Force puts into maintaining the A-10 is one less the service can invest in F-35.
As a result, the Air Force has been forced to contract F-35 maintenance work to industry to keep up with the added workload. However, this is not a long-term solution to the maintainer shortfall, said Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command.
"That will continue to be a challenge for us as we look to grow weapon systems, the new weapon systems coming on, if we still maintain these older ones," Pawlikowski said Feb. 25.
Cultivating the skills necessary to maintain a fifth-generation aircraft without help from industry could take several years, she said.
At the end of the day, decommissioning a legacy fleet to make way for new capabilities is a better way to use the Air Force's limited resources, Carlisle said.
"The best way to use the resources if you are going to take airplanes down is to take an entire fleet down, because then all that training, infrastructure, logistics support, depot — all that comes out at the same time," Carlisle said. "So as you have more and more fleets, the bill and the Air Force resourcing problem becomes bigger."