Air Force 2030

David C Isby provides some details of the US Air Force in 2030 based on plans being made by today’s chief of staff, General David Goldfein

A striking image of a laser beam firing in to the night sky. This image depicts a sodium guide star laser, built by Boeing and the Air Force Research Laboratory, operating on a telescope at the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. This is not a laser weapon system, but one used by AFRL scientists to acquire detailed images of objects in Earth orbit.
David Vergun

Speaking at an Air Force Association breakfast at the Mitchell Institute in Washington DC on July 26, US Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, said: “I am fighting today with a force built incrementally over many decades,” and that the time is now for the Air Force to make decisions on force modernisation, based on answering the question: “Who do we need to be in 2030 and what is standing in our way?”

This question will not be answered by the Air Force or even the Department of Defense alone. Goldfein is committed to including Congress in the dialogue about where the Air Force is going: “General [Robin] Rand [Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command] has been in a very aggressive dialogue with Congress.”

Fighting together

General Goldfein does have some preliminary answers to this question. The future of airpower will be multinational and networked. He said: “Our allies are a source of exciting technologies with military applications. We need to strengthen our alliances. We have them; our adversaries do not. Looking at our allies, as airmen, takes on special meaning as we look at our history and the future of sustaining coalitions. As a former air component commander [in US Central Command], I would not turn down any capability, American or coalition, that can contribute to my mission.”

Many US friends and allies participate in coalition operations through airpower, as Goldfein outlined: “Most countries have an air component that can be offered as part of a coalition to project power without vulnerability. Together the aircraft of the 16 air forces participating in Operation Inherent Resolve [against ISIS insurgents] constitute the 12th largest air force on the planet.”

Goldfein’s emphasis on being ready for future coalition air operations bears directly on his emphasis on networked capabilities. He said: “We will fight together in an age where information sharing is vital to success, and it will be fast.” However, in looking at the aircraft, manned and unmanned, that will be called upon to carry out these operations, Goldfein is less interested in what these will be and more in how they will be linked and integrated: “If we get this right, we are not going to have as many conversations about a particular system, but rather about a family of systems. It is going to be the connective tissue that is important.” In looking at the future of airpower, Goldfein would, “focus on the highway rather than the truck”, which, when the ‘trucks’ are actually aircraft that need to be replaced or modernised to create the force he wants to exist in 2030, suggests the Air Force may look different from that of today in ways other than a one-on-one replacement of aircraft types.

Fighting networked

Brigadier General Alex Grynkewich, speaking at a forum on US Air Force air superiority and air combat technology held at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Washington on July 10, said: “I eschew the word ‘fighter’.” As the leader of the Air Force’s Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan study, he was responsible for looking at what is needed for the 2030 air force that Goldfein is aiming to build, and it is not necessarily a sixth-generation fighter.

Explaining the concept, Grynkewich said not to think about fighter jet combat: “… but a network of capabilities that come together to achieve the condition of air superiority. This will require the integration of so many different pieces, but if we just think of air superiority as fighter combat, we will not get where we need to go in the future, when, by the late 2020s, highly contested environments will become untenable for our future force structure no matter how much we modernise.”

As part of its research on a nextgeneration air superiority fighter, the US Air Force has coined another new phrase: penetrating counter air (PCA). To enable the Air Force to conduct the PCA mission in 2030 the methodology will be all about networks and how to accomplish an effects change.

Grynkewich believes the most efficient way is to disaggregate capabilities rather than have them in one place. For the future, Grynkewich wants to, “think of PCA as a node in a network, not an F-22-like capability or its direct replacement, that can find,fix and, some of the time, complete the kill chain.”

The Air Force is already taking action to create a future air superiority capability. Its FY2018 budget request submitted earlier this year included $4.5 billion over five years – some $300 million in FY2018, ramping up to $500 million in FY2019 and $1.5 billion in FY2020 – to fund the Next Generation Air Dominance research and development effort. Building on the Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan study, carrying out additional studies and analyses to guide what the Air Force needs to invest in for a future capability against near-peer threats.

By 2030, the F-22 Raptor will be one of the oldest fighter types in US Air Force service.
MSgt Benjamin Wilson/US Air Force

Also speaking at the forum on July 10, Colonel Tom Coglitore, concept development lead for Air Superiority 2030, said: “The 18-month analysis of alternatives study [for the PCA capability] will be completed in about 12 months.”

The Air Force Science Advisory Board is studying technologies that could enable a PCA capability.

Coglitore thinks a PCA capability fills a future gap that the Air Force perceives will exist in the operational environment normally at the high end where gaps show up, in traditional counter air missions, air-to-air, escort, sweep, suppression of enemy air defence, defensive counter air – the type of missions the Air Force needs a capability for.

However, Colonel Coglitore is concerned about survivability of a PCA capability in a 2030 world, one that may be dominated by long range, potentially highly lethal, air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles: “The right mix of capabilities are what will make something survivable. There are lots of ways to survive. Historically, it was speed. Now it is a lot more complex. It can be speed, altitude or stealth, and EW [electronic warfare] which is a form of stealth.”

An airman assigned to the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron, monitors a frequency instrument prior to running a test to determine a fighter squadron’s GPS capability during Exercise Red Flag. US Air Force space aggressors instruct units on how to identify threats and mitigate their effects.
TSgt David Salanitri/US Air Force

What Kind of Air War in 2030?

What kind of wars will the 2030 Air Force – fighting as part of a collation and using families of capabilities networked together – have to fight? They will be different wars from the ones the US armed services’ air power have been asked to fight since the end of the Cold War.

Speaking at an Air Force Association seminar in Washington DC on July 11, Commander, Air Combat Command General Mike Holmes said US airpower has been fighting, “a tightly controlled war, where every bomb is controlled and judged at a higher level, which has led to an environment where airmen learn to wait and do as they are told.”

Holmes stressed how the current approach is not going to be feasible against the near-peer enemies that may be encountered in 2030: “We now face adversaries that are doing things quickly … our qualitative military advantage is fading against peer adversaries. The battlespace has changed in Europe [a reference to Russia’s increasing capabilities]. In this new battlespace, the Army and Marines are working on a multi-domain battle and the Air Force is working on multidomain command and control. Future conflicts may be multiregional, hard to constrain in one region, as well as multidomain, including space and cyber.”

An F-16 avionics specialist attempts to determine if the aircraft’s systems are failing while under space warfare attack by simulated enemy forces.
TSgt David Salanitri/US Air Force

Who Will Build 2030 Airpower?

Changes in airpower projected for 2030 mean a new set of private sector partners may become very important quickly. Worldwide, the aerospace industry contracted and consolidated in 1991 after the end of the Cold War, leaving a relatively few large companies at the top of what amount to complex food chains. However, since then, what had been niche players have become vitally important when they can provide a capability that is needed that no one else has available. Few had heard of General Atomics in the 1990s until the conflicts in the Balkans brought home the need for medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). Today their Predator and Reaper UAVs are a major part of US and international airpower.

Other private sector outsiders may become vital enablers of airpower through the Air Force’s goal of including them in its revitalised experimentation process. None of the four aircraft types flying in the OA-X experiment (observation-attack experimental) at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, in July and August 2017, was from the biggest aerospace companies. The Air Force has already said that its next steps in experimentation will turn to the world of high technology, to make use of the innovations that have enabled the massive increase in civil sector communications and connectivity – of which the smartphone is the most visible of a vast number of technologies – to the networked capabilities that are widely seen as being an integral part of 2030 airpower. Other services are also looking at experimentation to leverage enhanced private sector expertise.

However, looking to the private sector to help enable the networked airpower of 2030 comes up against industry’s preference for selling proprietary systems and solutions to assure them a stream of income into the future. While good for the balance sheet, such a goal is hard to reconcile with the warfighter’s need for connectivity.

Speaking at the Association of the United States Army’s seminar on networks in Washington DC on July 20, Lieutenant General Paul Ostrowski, military deputy to the service’s acquisition executive, said: “If you’re going to bring proprietary solutions to the table, don’t come. Besides being intuitive – smartphones do not come with bulky instruction manuals – and expeditionary, these networks must be secure and must be able to be integrated with each of the services, as well as with coalition partners.” Aligning his vision with General Goldfein’s multinational networked and multidomain future for US airpower.

Directed energy

Like the other services, the Air Force of 2030 will likely be making extensive used of directed energy weapons (DEW). According to General Holmes, there will be a directed energy summit attended by the service vice chiefs of staff at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, during the summer.

Holmes, though, sees his priority for DEW not as deploying offensive weapons on fighter or special operations aircraft, but rather for airbase defence against increasing missile threats: “I desperately need help protecting my airfields.”

Gen Holmes sees DEW as an answer to two increasingly vital questions: “How do we support the bases required to sustain forward deployed airpower, and what can I do to defend my bases at a lower cost per shot?”

However, DEWs are coming to US Air Force aircraft. Holmes said: “The challenge is getting the size, weight, cooling and power needed on an airborne platform, but we are making progress. Clouds blocking the wavelength of DEW weapons are also a challenge. We have to figure out how to do it through the atmosphere.”

Colonel Coglitore reminded his audience at the July 10 forum that the bottom line is the required capability rather than the technology that produces it: “There is no requirement for directed energy. There are requirements for survivability and lethality. We need to see if directed energy can fit into one of those lanes. We are examining that. We are comparing it with other alternatives, costs, logistics and integration.”

The Air Force already has some DEW programmes in progress. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) still has an AC-130J ready to receive a directed energy weapon in place of one of its side-mounted 30mm cannons. This is the first airborne directed energy weapon that can operate in both offensive and defensive roles – a low-kilowatt (kW) design intended for proof of concept – and should start testing before the end of 2018.

Elsewhere, the Self-protect High-energy Laser Demonstrator (SHIELD) programme seeks to integrate a laser pod on a fighter aircraft in the post-2020 timeframe. Air Mobility Command and AFSOC, are interested in potential application of DEW to defend their aircraft against missile threats. In a bid to bring together its DEW efforts, the Air Force has prepared a directed energy plan.

Other services are also integrating DEW with aircraft; indeed, at the request of Congress earlier this year, the Department of Defense is in the process of preparing a DEW road map study to avoid duplication of effort to coordinate developments. On June 26, the US Army, teamed with Raytheon as prime contractor, announced some details of flight tests involving a high-energy laser system, on an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter at White Sands Missile Range New Mexico, which included engaging and firing against a target.

While most lasers previously tested for US Army weapon applications require power in the 5-10kW range, terrestrial weapons in the 50-100kW range are already scheduled for testing in the next few years. Still short of the 300kW considered necessary for destroying targets such as cruise missiles, this selection of weapons already has the potential to produce non-lethal effects.

Hypersonic weapons

Lasers are not the only revolutionary weapons that will require investment now to be ready to fight in 2030. Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson said the Air Force is looking at a lot of technologies to make sure it can win the high-end fight in the long term. She said: “A number of long-term technologies are being funded, including hypersonic weapons.”

Joint Air Force – Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hypersonic weapon programmes currently set for flight demonstration include the Lockheed Martin-Raytheon Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept and the Lockheed Martin Tactical Boost Glide, which are both expected to result in flight demonstrations by 2020.

On July 21, the Air Force announced that in 2018 it would award a contract for a hypersonic air-to-surface weapon capable of attacking both fixed and mobile targets and carried by current bombers and fighters. The limited timeframe between announcement and contract award shows the Air Force considers hypersonic weapons are ready to transition to operational service. It’s worth noting that hypersonic weapons have been in research and development for decades. The Air Force announcement stressed the need for rapid fielding of the winning bid.

A crew chief, marshals an F-35A Lightning II on the Nellis flight line. The fifth-generation fighter will still be in production in 2030 when it will be the backbone of the US Air Force fighter force.
SSgt Peter Thompson/US Air Force
Research and development funding is contained in the Air Force FY2018 budget request for the Next Generation Air Dominance programme. This is a concept shot of Boeing’s F-X which could be a possible contender.

In addition to using hypersonic weapons, airpower will need to defend against them. Progress in hypersonic weapon technology is also being made by potential adversaries of the United States, a fact underlined on June 22, when the House Armed Service Committee boosted funding in the FY2018 Defense Authorization Bill for three defensive programmes to counter hypersonic threats.


Using directed energy and hypersonic weapons means the Air Force of 2030 will also need autonomous systems that integrate with both manned and unmanned aircraft, to prevent their pilots, whether on board or remote, being overwhelmed with data. Brigadier General Grynkewich said “Autonomy could drastically reduce human workload when executing complex tasks in future operations. For example, autonomy will allow a network to reconfigure on its own, in real time, in response to adversary jamming.”

Grynkewich thinks the often-repeated accusation that the Air Force, run by fighter pilots, is hostile to autonomy, undercutting the authority of whoever is sitting in the cockpit, is inaccurate: “The Air Force has been using autonomy for years. When I was flying F-16s, autonomy was at the point when, two miles away from the enemy, I could fire a heatseeking missile at an autonomous wingman on a kamikaze mission. Rather, in a networked future, autonomy will mean the ability for an element – manned or unmanned – to operate on its own without connection to the rest of the network.”

Using autonomy to adapt the response of automatic systems on board an aircraft – based on the intent and capabilities of the pilot on a moment-to-moment basis – is the goal of James Christenson, portfolio manager for the 711th Performance Wing, with the Air Force Research Laboratory. Speaking in Washington on July 13, Christenson said he foresees the application of autonomy as being an essential part of manned-unmanned teaming: “It sits at the intersection between safety and the ability to enhance performance and interact with the highly complex platforms they are working with.”

This Lockheed Martin image shows operators using a communications and battle management system to detect, track and identify drone threats, before calling upon a laser weapon system to defeat the threat. Another scenario showing the application of directed energy weapons.
Lockheed Martin

At the individual aircraft level, autonomy works with, rather than replaces, a pilot, allowing concentration on whatever task is most important at any moment. To do this, the aircraft needs to know the state of the individual pilot, requiring continuous monitoring. Are there things the aircraft can do if the pilot is at less than maximum performance?”

According to Christenson: “An autonomous system has an objective set by a higher authority. It is by definition a system in which there is a human component.”

Speaking at the Tech summit in Washington DC on July 13, DARPA’S Tactical Technology Office Program Manager, Jean Charles Lede, said: “Autonomy is going to be pushed forward rapidly with the use of AI [artificial intelligence] software, also by improving flying capabilities and basic safety.

“By allowing the pilot to hand off tasks to autonomous onboard systems, both manned and unmanned aircraft will have more communications capability, including air vehicle to air vehicle capabilities we are not currently seeing. At DARPA, we are trying to figure out what technology is needed to apply the human where it is needed and leave the rest to the machine.”

Future systems

Other emerging technologies may make US airpower in 2030 look increasingly like that of today. The applications of AI technology are potentially that extensive as to alter how almost every aircraft and weapon is flown and maintained. Cyber warfare has already demonstrated its offensive capability. Today, it also represents a powerful threat to airpower, not only to aircraft in flight, but also the bases and logistics – many of which rely on unclassified communications systems and messaging – that will sustain air operations in any future conflict. Among the future operational applications of emerging technologies are swarming UAVs, which can use AI and autonomy to work up optimal target acquisition and attack flight patterns.

However, competing for the resources to realise this future airpower is the need to meet near-term readiness requirements. Even with an increased emphasis on looking to new sources – international and private sector – for emerging technologies, making them applicable to airpower and not sitting ducks to ever capable cyber threats is going to be challenging indeed.

The X-51A WaveRider hypersonic flight test vehicle loaded on a B-52H assigned to the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base prior to the first of three flights, one captive, one dress rehearsal and the final live release, in 2009. Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, and Boeing, the objective of the X-51A programme was to demonstrate the ability to use air-breathing, hydro-carbon propulsion in the hypersonic flight regime, which is flight more than five times the speed of sound.
Chad Bellay/US Air Force