Space Force, F-15X, Light Attack: What Will the Air Force Seek in Latest Budget?

A Beechcraft AT-6B Wolverine experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The AT-6 is participating in the U.S. Air Force Light Attack Experiment (OA-X), a series of trials to determine the feasibility of using light aircraft in attack roles. (US Air Force photo by Ethan D. Wagner)
A Beechcraft AT-6B Wolverine experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The AT-6 is participating in the U.S. Air Force Light Attack Experiment (OA-X), a series of trials to determine the feasibility of using light aircraft in attack roles. (US Air Force photo by Ethan D. Wagner)

The U.S. Air Force is currently coordinating its budget for fiscal 2020 as the Defense Department has solidified a top-line figure.

Acting Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist said Wednesday that the Pentagon has negotiated its figure but did not disclose the amount, according to Defense News.

Estimates have fluctuated in recent months on how much the DoD needs in its total budget -- from $700 billion to $750 billion -- to cover future defense spending.

A year after the National Defense Strategy trickled down through the ranks, the services each have had the opportunity to flesh out their most important priorities for the pending budget cycle, experts tell Military.com. The Air Force's outline shows how the service sees its mission going forward.

"The balance in different airframes are going to reveal a little something about what missions and capabilities the Air Force is prioritizing," said Susanna Blume, a senior fellow in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. She served previously as deputy chief of staff for programs and plans for Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.

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"I think the announcement to pursue 386 squadrons was interesting, but [their initial] analysis didn't tell you where the rubber meets the road -- which of these mission sets, which of these capabilities, are more important -- so I think that the budget may be very revealing there," Blume said, referring to the service's goal of increasing its capabilities with 74 additional squadrons over the next decade.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said existing programs need to be seen through, which calls for more spending.

"Accordingly, Air Force priorities should be long-range stealthy sensor-shooters (B-21); stealthy air dominance (F-35); modern tankers to sustain multiple operations in multiple locations (KC-46); Space Force enhancement of all types; and improving readiness to conduct major regional conflict against peer adversaries," Deptula said in an email.

"Bureaucratic politics always comes into play in the Pentagon, and there are those always in search of ways to gain budget efficiencies regardless of warfighting effectiveness," said Deptula, who served as the Air Force's first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

He said Congress also needs to back these critical programs so they don't fall by the wayside.

"Hopefully, informed wisdom from Congress will shift monies for those false efficiencies into systems that will actually make a difference in future conflicts," Deptula said.

But it may not go smoothly, especially in the era of Space Force, Blume added, saying, "Everything that's going on in terms of Space Force, it's a fairly tough environment."

In December, news surfaced that the Pentagon is weighing inserting the Trump administration's proposed Space Force under the Department of the Air Force. Whether that could take a chunk out of the service's next budget has not been clarified.

Blume said what the Air Force puts money toward in terms of new potential programs -- such as F-15X -- will show whether the service is serious about taking on new strategies.

Speaking on background, an Air Force spokeswoman described the Air Force’s pending fiscal 2020 budget as “National Defense Strategy-driven."

"The budget will align to meet that strategy," she said.

The following is a list of ideas service officials are weighing and their progress:

Light Attack

The service was supposed to publish a final request for proposal (RFP) last month for a light attack aircraft, but it never happened.

A draft RFP was issued in August: The service began alerting defense firms hoping to compete for the light attack aircraft program that it would start soliciting bids in December.

But an Air Force spokeswoman on Wednesday said results from last year's experiment to produce more concrete findings on how a light attack airframe fit into the service's mission plan are still being analyzed.

The service held a series of light attack experimental fly-offs and maneuvers at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. The Air Force in 2016 announced plans to hold the flight demonstrations with a handful of aircraft to test whether lighter, inexpensive and off-the-shelf aircraft might be suitable in ongoing wars such as Afghanistan.

In November 2017, key lawmakers agreed to provide the Air Force $400 million to continue experimenting with the planes. The Senate Armed Services Committee, in its fiscal 2019 proposal, then added $350 million to procure a future light attack aircraft.

The second phase of the experiment was canceled in July following a fatal crash.

Air Force officials have said the most viable aircraft for the mission are the Textron Aviation AT-6 Wolverine and Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano.

F-15X

The Pentagon is considering an advanced "F-15X" fourth-plus generation fighter for its inventory.

Bloomberg Government reported last month that top leadership will ask for more than $1 billion to buy roughly a dozen aircraft. The request would mark the inclusion of a new F-15 in the Air Force inventory for the first time in more than 20 years. If purchased, the new aircraft would replace the F-15C/D models.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in September she would rather see more fifth-generation planes, such as an increased buy of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, before the service considered another fourth-generation model.

"In any of the fights that we have been asked to plan for, more fifth-gen aircraft make a huge difference, and we think that getting to 50-50 [fourth- and fifth-gen aircraft] means not buying new fourth-gen aircraft. It means continuing to increase the fifth generation," she told Defense News.

But according to Bloomberg, the Air Force isn't pushing the F-15X concept.

Before he became acting Defense Secretary, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and other top leaders floated the new F-15X proposal.

Others have touted the proposal, which would produce a fighter equipped with better avionics and radars and would carry more than two dozen air-to-air missiles.

"If I was king for a day, I would buy some of those new, fourth-gen-plus airplanes, and I think they would be great for air defense alert," retired Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle told Military.com in September.

"I think they'd be great for surge capacity to go if we had a [larger-scale operation], and they would certainly be more than capable to rotate through the current missions that we have downrange," said Carlisle, the former Air Combat Command commander.

More 'System-of-Systems'

The Air Force in recent months has switched from talking about a single platform concept -- of any kind of weapon, equipment or aircraft -- that could be a game changer in future wars.

The service's strategy speaks more broadly to how it is developing its next best weapon: In this case, a "family of systems" that link, connect and share with one another to read the battlespace in real time.

And it wants more.

In June, the service announced it would house its next-generation Advanced Battle Management System at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.

The network, which fuses the data from hundreds of sensors to provide situational awareness for combatant commanders across the globe, will function "as [a] decentralized system that draws on all domains," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said last summer.

It's one example for how the service is looking for more networked solutions. Another is incorporating automation and artificial intelligence into these types of networks.

"What all the services are heavily leveraging -- and looking at industry as well for support -- is how do I take that very human-centric methodology that we have today and use artificial intelligence that uses automation, that uses some of the tools that are available, to be able to do that kind of analysis?" Goldfein said during an Air Force Association breakfast in 2017.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen "Seve" Wilson agreed.

"How can we do things where I can take advantage of autonomous systems that can sense and report back," he said last spring. "We're now looking at how we do that, how do we rapidly experiment and prototype with capabilities using those attributes moving forward."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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