The Air Force has only begun a long-term balancing act as it tries to understand how best to predict future conflicts against what it has, and still needs, for pilots and aircraft inventory, the service's top general recently told Military.com.
At the same time, the service could bring in new turboprop aircraft -- known as OA-X light attack planes -- if it sees value.
But do the numbers add up? It's the question Military.com posed to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein: Why potentially rid the inventory of planes you already have, then pay for new, but less capable planes amid a growing pilot shortage?
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"First, you've got to look at the inventory against the missions that we have to perform," he said aboard a C-37 while traveling to the annual conference of the National Guard Association of the United States in Louisville, Ky. "And then I've got to look at the, 'What are going to be the highest-demand missions that I may have to do simultaneously against a combination of operational plans?' "
Addressing the Pilot Shortage
"When it comes to the pilot inventory, we're doing 100 different things to try to get at pilot retention. I actually don't have any problem recruiting pilots. I've got more people that want to go fly in the military than I can bring in. My problem is not actually recruiting, my biggest problem is retention," he said.
The service is in the process of increasing its pilot end-strength goal to roughly 1,400 new pilots in the mid-2020s from about 1,200 now.
It is also focusing on how to get those pilots in planes more often, properly paid -- with bonuses and flight pay -- and to give them "a rich experience," incentivizing airmen to stay in service longer, Goldfein said.
"I've got to [get them] experience in the cockpit," he said. "I actually need more cockpits" to make that happen.
Filling a Need with OA-X?
In future, Goldfein wants the Air Force to train more often with coalition partners -- who may not have high-end fighter aircraft.
He knows he also must meet combatant commanders' needs to do their missions.
"Maybe that older airplane [F-15] is what that combatant commander needs," Goldfein said. But pit that against the fact the Air Force needs to build its network.
"One of our asymmetric advantages is allies and partners. I hear from my fellow air chiefs [around the world] all the time, 'Hey, I can't afford an F-16 [Fighting Falcon], and you're not selling them to me. I'm not going to get the F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter]. Violent extremism is coming my way … and I want to join the coalition,' " Goldfein said.
Enter the OA-X light attack airplane experiment.
He says he asked himself, "Is this a way to get more coalition partners into a network to counter violence?"
The Air Force in August conducted a "light attack experiment" at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, where four aircraft -- AirTractor and L3's AT-802L Longsword; Sierra Nevada and Embraer's A-29 Super Tucano; and Textron and AirLand LLC's Scorpion, as well as their AT-6B Wolverine -- conducted live-fly exercises, combat maneuver scenarios and, on some occasions, weapons drops.
The point was to see what's out there commercially, ready to go, for Air Force pilots to use.
The Air Force has been training Afghan pilots, for example, on the A-29 -- a plane U.S. leaders are now evaluating for the service's own use.
The Afghans have been using A-29s for close-air attack, air interdiction, escort and armed reconnaissance. A U.S.-funded $427 million contract calls for a total of 20 A-29s to be delivered to Afghanistan by 2018.
For the U.S., Goldfein noted, "It's an experiment. We haven't made any decision yet" as leaders for months have reiterated it is not an acquisition program of record for the Air Force.
Goldfein said he expects to review the experiment results within roughly two months' time.
OA-X "is actually not about the hardware -- it's about the network," said Goldfein, who served as the U.S. Air Forces Central Command commander between 2011 and 2013.
"Can I at the same that we're looking at a relatively inexpensive aircraft and sensor package, can I connect that into a network of sharable information that allows us to better accomplish the strategy as its been laid out?" he said.
'New Ways of Doing Business'
The goal remains the same: Drive terrorist organizations such as the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria down to a level where local security forces can eventually manage it themselves, he said.
Should the Air Force build up its own light attack aircraft, Goldfein didn't specify if it might eventually sell them to partners. But he stressed that expanding the coalition is vital to countering extremism.
This "isn't an incentive for us not to lead" in the Middle East, he said. "It's the incentive for us to grow … to have more partners in this fight."
Goldfein said Congress gave the service more leeway to hold the OA-X demo at Holloman, with backing from lawmakers such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain.
It could be a new way of showing defense companies how the Air Force wants to do business from now on, he said.
"I'm always going to be looking at new ways of doing business in the future so we don't get stagnant. One of the things I try to avoid is buying new things to be used in the old way," Goldfein said, referring to the current daunting acquisition process, which can take decades to develop a single program.
"It needs to last and remain viable … over the lifetime we're going to be fighting," he said.
So the Air Force is preparing to shift its priorities in the next few years as it weighs what's on the chopping block, what's on the menu of options, and what pilots want in order to keep flying.
"If we can stem the tide [of pilot attrition], it actually gives me an opportunity to grow the force," Goldfein said.