David C Isby provides an overview of United States airpower, a big, but demanding defence requirement


Lightning strikes behind a B-52H Stratofortress at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. Senior
Airman Armstrong/US Air Force

At the end of 2017, US combat airpower remained, as it has been since the end of the Cold War, unquestionably the strongest and most capable in the world. No other country can come close to matching it in terms of strength, numbers or capabilities, but it’s also facing a broad range of challenges.

Some of these are the same problems shared with many of its coalition partners, such as resource constraints in an international security environment changed by events following the occupation of the Crimea and the rise of ISIS. Others reflect US-specific issues, such as repeated failures to pass the budgets that include defence spending.

All of US airpower has been challenged by an ageing force structure. The average age of a US Air Force aircraft is 27 years. The other services have similar, if less severe, problems. Older airplanes cost more money to operate and require expensive upgrades to remain operationally survivable, especially in the face of rising near-peer adversaries.

Readiness overall has also declined since the Cold War, reflecting funding limitations and the priority given to the need to expend resources – in terms of money and flying hours – on conflicts and deployments worldwide. In a few areas, such as the Air Force’s fighter pilot shortage and the Navy’s availability of non-deployed combat aircraft, it has the potential to be crippling. Because of these issues, US airpower, which has gone unchallenged for decades, could prove to be transient. Decisions are being made today, that will determine what US airpower will look like in 2030 and decades beyond.

Airpower in context

US airpower is as diverse as it is capable. The Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army each maintains large fleets of aircraft. Each service develops its own aircraft as set out under US law, reflecting the different types required to provide each service with the requirements for its distinct set of missions and capabilities. In addition, US Special Operations Command is, operationally, in effect a standalone joint air arm, with the Air Force, Army and Navy contributing fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Each service has its own reserve units, equipped with the same types of aircraft and its aircrew and technicians trained to the same standards as the active-duty force. The Air National Guard and Army National Guard are both powerful forces.

US airpower is not limited to the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard, while not under the Department of Defense in peace time, is an armed service. Also contributing to US airpower are aircraft operated by the CIA, the Customs and Border Protection agency and many commercially registered aircraft that are flown by civilians, under contract or charter, in support of US military forces and operations.

Impact of political dysfunction

All areas of US national security, including airpower, have been undercut by political dysfunction. The repeated inability of Congress to pass the budget request into law, instead relying on continuing resolutions, has made effective planning difficult. Early in 2017, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, General David Goldfein said: “There is no enemy on the planet that can do more damage to the US Air Force than us not getting a budget.”

The threat of sequestration under the Budget Control Act has continued to affect readiness. In 2016, outgoing Secretary of Defense Dr Ashton Carter said that unless sequestration is addressed, there would be, “$100 billion in cuts from 2018 to 2021, which would introduce unacceptable risks”.

A bitterly polarised and divided US electorate increases the potential risk for airpower becoming collateral damage in future political battles. The desire to overturn everything, whether from discontented majorities on the right or the left, is a threat. US airpower needs political stability. It relies on aircraft that take decades to develop and are planned to remain in service for up to a century. Changes of direction at each election can ruin it.

An A-10C Thunderbolt II departs from a KC-135 Stratotanker in a stylish manoeuvre during a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
SSgt Trevor McBride/US Air Force
An AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter takes off from the flight deck of amphibious dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52) during flight operations to enhance interoperability between Navy ships and Marine aircraft as part of a Composite Training Unit Exercise.
Cpl Cordoba/US Marine Corps

Impact of the international security environment

US airpower has to deal with the return of great power competition. After the Russian occupation of the Crimea in 2014, the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw unanimously changed its policy from one of assurance to one of deterrence. China continues to make moves to secure its control of international trade routes in East Asia and has publicly declared its policies of increasing its power and influence on a worldwide basis.

Previous challenges for US airpower have by no means gone away. Other regional tensions, such as that with North Korea (escalating its testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles) and Iran have also put increasing reliance on US airpower to deter and, if necessary, retaliate. For US Forces Korea, their guidance is: “Be ready to fight tonight.” Maintaining this readiness for even a part of the force is tremendously costly and stressing in terms of resources and personnel.

Conflicts against violent extremist organisations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, sub- Saharan Africa and elsewhere continue to require extensive efforts from US airpower. In 2016, then Chief of Staff of the US Air Force General Mark Welch described the Air Force as: “heavily engaged around the world. The average age of our aircraft is at an all-time high and the size of our force and state of our full-spectrum readiness are at or near all-time lows.” Since the campaign against ISIS extremists in Syria and Iraq started in 2014, coalition air arms have delivered over 80,000 weapons in some 26,000 airstrikes. Over 70% of those strikes have been conducted by the US Air Force.

US Air Force

In 2017, the US Air Force marked the 70th anniversary of its organisation as an independent service and the centennial of its first operational setback, the unsuccessful deployment of the 1st Aero Squadron to fight guerrillas in Mexico in 1917. The Air Force remains, by law, America’s primary provider of airpower, with some 5,500 manned and unmanned aircraft in its inventory. Other services have large numbers of aircraft that are used to support the legally defined mission objectives for each service, on the land or sea. The Air Force has primary responsibility to control and use the air (and space) to defeat threats to the United States’ use of them.

The Air Force buys and operates aircraft, manned and unmanned, to enable it to carry out its core missions: air and space superiority; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); mobility and lift; global strike; and command and control.

To do this, the Air Force still relies primarily on manned aircraft, although its core ISR mission is now predominantly being carried out by unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), and space missions require space vehicles, boosters and satellites, as well as the terrestrial infrastructure that launches and operates them. The Air Force’s strategic bombers – its main combat strength in the opening decades of the Cold War – are now limited to 20 B-2 Spirits, 76 B-52H Stratofortresses, and 61 B-1B Lancers. Its main combat strength relies on 1,700 fighters, about 1,100 of which are combat-coded, meaning they are equipped and intended for operations.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Air Force has repeatedly cut force structure to make resources available to maintain readiness for operations and the quality of its force, even when other services expanded their combat forces after 2001. The Air Force currently has 55 combat-coded fighter squadrons, down from 134 in 1991. The Congress has acted to prevent further force structure cuts involving aircraft such as the A-10 Thunderbolt II and U-2S Dragon Lady in recent years.

The Air Force is currently facing an aircraft procurement bow wave, having to bring into service and pay for the production of multiple types between now and the mid-2020s. The highest priority Air Force procurement programme is the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. The first squadron was declared operational in 2016, the second is in transition, and production is now starting to ramp up. The Air Force currently plans to replace all its A-10s and F-16 Fighting Falcons with the F-35A. The Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber, selected for production in 2015, will be operational in the 2020s. Boeing’s KC- 46A Pegasus tanker will enter service soon, probably in early 2018. It will eventually replace a third of the current KC-135R and KC-135T Stratotankers, many of which were built in the 1950s.

A KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing based at RAF Mildenhall, England, prepares to transfer fuel to a B-2 Spirit from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, off the coast of Spain. The B-2 was one of two deployed to RAF Fairford, England to participate in theatre bomber assurance and deterrence operations. SSgt.
Micaiah Anthony/US Air Force

US Army

Aviation is the US Army’s major investment area, absorbing some 21% of its current funding. For the US Army, it is used to support its ground manoeuvre forces; its divisions and brigades. Earlier this year, Chief of Staff of the US Army, General Mark Milley said its highest priority mission is: “sustained ground combat in a full spectrum environment against a highly lethal threat or near-peer adversary”.

Army aviation makes a powerful contribution to the ability of the United States to fight throughout the spectrum of conflict. Attack helicopters provide ground units with responsive, accurate and lethal firepower. Helicopters enable ground units’ ability to deploy, manoeuvre and be sustained, carrying troops and supplies. UAVs, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft provide ISR for units at all levels, from squad up to theatre.

As with the other services, the Army is starting to re-orientate its tactical and operational thinking towards defeating nearpeer opponents, which has meant looking again at how it operated in the closing decade of the Cold War. At the same time, the Army must meet its extensive commitments to today’s conflicts. It has had to disband units to afford to keep the remainder deployed or sustained. By the end of 2018, there will only be 11 Combat Aviation Brigades in the active force structure, a reduction of two from 2015.

A B-1B Lancer at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam on August 17, 2016 prior to the first mission in history in which all three of Air Force Global Strike Command’s strategic bomber aircraft (B-1B, B-2 and B-52H) conducted integrated operations in the US Pacific Command area of operations in support of the continuous bomber presence mission.
TSgt Richard Ebensberger/US Air Force
All four system demonstration test article CH-53K King Stallions at Sikorsky Aircraft’s facility in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Lockheed Martin-Sikorksy

US Navy

The US Navy’s airpower supports sea power, its primary maritime mission, ensuring that US national security can make use of international waters for any task required of it. Unlike the Air Force’s bow wave problem, naval aviation is generally procuring mature programmes producing aircraft with few major issues. The Navy’s aviation fleet is younger than the Air Force’s (16 years on average compared to 27 years) but it has been facing inventory and readiness problems. The Navy sees faster procurement of new aircraft as the long-term solution, but their high cost, especially for F-35C Lightning IIs, makes this difficult.

The US Navy’s aircraft carriers have unparalleled versatility and warfighting capabilities. The fleet is, by law, required to have 11 carriers, but has ten at the present time, with only nine carrier air wings, one having recently disbanded. The first ship of a new class, the USS Gerald R Ford (CVN 78), the second is under construction, has introduced new technologies such as electromagnetic-powered aircraft catapults and expanded bandwidth to accommodate the high demand for real-time ISR data. These advances are designed to increase the carrier’s sortie generation capability by a third, to 160 (sustained) or 270 (surge) per day.

However, these are not the only ships that enable US Navy airpower. Amphibious warfare ships carry rotary-wing aircraft, including the highly capable Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor, and will operate F-35B Lightning IIs. All surface warships are increasingly capable of using UAVs for ISR missions. The Navy has invested heavily in shore-based airpower for ISR, such as the P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft and the MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance UAV.

In 2016, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson said: “The challenges are increasing and the funding is decreasing”. As with the other services, the Navy is having to reconfigure its airpower to be able to deal with conflict with a great power while still having to carry out its current high operating tempo. In 2016, for example, the Navy had two carriers in the Mediterranean concurrently conducting combat missions over Syria. This represented a return to carriers operating in mutual support, once a feature of Cold War operations, but one that had been allowed to lapse as the Navy’s force structure became stretched by resource and personnel limitations in recent years.

US Marine Corps

The US Marine Corps is the Navy’s expeditionary and contingency force, and Marine Corps aviation’s primary mission is supporting forces on the ground or afloat as part of these operations. For this reason, Marine Corps airpower aims to maintain a high level of readiness, even though only 43% of its aircraft were considered flyable in 2016, when 80% of Marine units did not have the minimum number of aircraft for training and basic operations, and flight hour averages were below minimum standards. Grounded aircraft were either awaiting repairs or had been triaged to make sure other aircraft were ready to go if required. While other services use tiered readiness, the Marine Corps prioritises deployed and pre-deployed units. Consequently, in recent years, non-deployed forces often lack resources for training and maintaining readiness.

The Marine Corps has invested heavily in a planned procurement of 260 F-35Bs and 80 F-35Cs to replace its aging fighter force of F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harrier IIs. The F-35B is the short take-off and vertical landing variant and the F-35C is the carrier variant. The Marine Corps operates a large rotarywing force, and is currently completing its modernisation with MV-22B Ospreys and AH-1Z attack helicopters. A new heavy-lift helicopter, the CH-53K King Stallion, is entering production.

US Coast Guard

The smallest of the US armed services, the Coast Guard contributes to US airpower by carrying out maritime security and safety as its core missions. Its fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft specialise in surveillance and search and rescue. As with the Navy, UAVs offer the Coast Guard the potential to embark an air capability even on its smaller ships. The Coast Guard’s close integration with civil authorities, however, makes extensive UAV operations in controlled US airspace problematic.


A-10C Thunderbolt II

The distinctive twin-engine A-10 is the only US Air Force combat aircraft designed primarily for close air support, using its internal 30mm GAU-8 cannon, a wide range of precisionguided munitions (PGMs) and the tactical skills of its mission-specialist pilots. The US Air Force proposed retiring the A-10 for budget reasons. After encountering congressional and popular opposition, the Air Force is now extending the life of the A-10 fleet through to at least 2022. This includes re-winging aircraft beyond the initial 173 completed in 2016 and adding new capabilities include Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System 2.75-inch laser-guided rockets. The A-10 will eventually be replaced by the F-35A Lightning II.

An EA-18G Growler from Electronic Attack Squadron 132 (VAQ-132) ‘Scorpions’ air refuelling with a Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A tanker during Exercise Talisman Saber 2017. Sgt
Peter Borys/Royal Australian Air Force
F-35A Lightning IIs from the 34th Fighter Squadron based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, over the Utah Test and Training Range.
Nial Bradshaw/US Air Force

B-52H Stratofortress

The eight-engine B-52H is the oldest US Air Force bomber. Its production stopped in 1962, but its global strike capabilities, delivering PGMs, have been extensively used in combat in recent years. Some 50 of the 76 B-52Hs remain capable of carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles. No replacement is currently planned. The US Air Force is interested in procuring new engines for its B-52Hs, because the remaining service life makes it possible for the aircraft to continue in service until 2060. Among the options being considered are either a refurbished (the lowest cost option) or an upgraded new-production version of the current Pratt & Whitney TF33 or the Rolls- Royce BR725, with the B-52H retaining its current eight-engine configuration.

B-1B Lancer

The B-1B entered service in 1986 and completed production in 1988. Originally designed to carry nuclear weapons, it was reconfigured for conventional weapons in the early 1990s and modified to deliver PGMs. After extensive combat over Afghanistan and Iraq, where B-1Bs flew many close air support missions using standoff weapons and onboard sensors, the B-1B now deploys to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam in support of Pacific Command’s continuous bomber presence operations, and remains able to carry out conventional global strike missions. The B-1B will remain in service until 2040. It is likely to be replaced by the B-21 Raider.

B-2 Spirit

A stealth bomber with a unique flying-wing design, the B-2 bomber provides the US Air Force with its penetrating global strike capabilities to deliver either nuclear or conventional weapons. Among its missions is to deliver large conventional weapons, intended to destroy hardened and/or deeply buried targets. Its stealth characteristics allow it to evade radar detection and safely penetrate hostile airspace. Only 20 B-2s are currently operational. Initially deployed in 1997, it is expected to remain in service until 2058. No replacement is currently planned.

C-5M Super Galaxy

The C-5M, an upgraded and re-engined version of the original 1960s design, is the US Air Force’s largest airlifter. It moves outsized cargo as part of the Air Force’s global mobility mission. According to Lockheed Martin, each of the C-5M’s new General Electric CF6-80C2 (F138-GE-100) turbofans produces more than 50,000lb of thrust – a 22% increase over the C-5’s original TF39 engines – and is Stage IV noise compliant. The C-5M also has a 58% greater climb rate to an initial cruise altitude that is 38% higher than the original C-5. The C-5M upgrade included improved avionics and structural reinforcement. The last of 52 C-5Ms was completed in 2017. The C-5M will remain in service to the 2030s and no replacement is currently planned.

C-17A Globemaster III

Currently the workhorse of US global mobility capability, C-17 production has been completed (with no replacement under development). While the aircraft was designed to have a 30-year service life (which older C-17s will reach starting in 2025), high utilisation rates mean the 223-aircraft fleet might have to be upgraded to meet operational commitments. Fleet upgrades are planned to sustain the C-17 in service through to 2040. C-17 Block 20 retrofits include some 60 items to create a common fleet-wide configuration that includes the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures system, cockpit and structural upgrades. The C-17 Advanced Technology Demonstration is testing higheffciency engines and drag-reduction devices.

America’s silver bullet, the F-22 Raptor, this example from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.
Airman Cody Miller/US Air Force
F-35A test aircraft AF-01 loaded with four 2,000lb GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions on a September 27, 2016 loads-flutter test flight from Edwards Air Force Base, California. This was the first flight with externally loaded GBU-31s.
Darin Russell/Lockheed Martin

C-130J Super Hercules

The latest version of the classic C-130 design provides the Air Force with upgraded medium-lift global mobility capability and is replacing earlier C-130E and C-130H versions. C-130Js are being produced under a multi-year procurement programme that makes American C-130 series aircraft among the youngest types in service. The Air Force will retain a fleet of 300-320 C-130 aircraft and continue procurement of a tanker for refuelling rescue helicopters (HC-130J) that is now completing a replacement programme of earlier HC-130N and HC-130P aircraft. Modified variants of the C-130J are used by Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and include the heavily armed AC-130J gunship; deliveries of 37 AC-130Js are to be completed by FY2025. SOCOM also flies the MC-130J, a special operations aircraft capable of safely penetrating hostile airspace; 42 will be delivered by 2022. The US Marine Corps is replacing its older C-130 tankers with 79 KC-130J tankers equipped with a roll-on/ roll-off set of sensors and weapons known as the Harvest Hawk attack capability. The Coast Guard flies an earlier version (also designated HC-130J but distinct from those flown by the Air Force) for surveillance and search and rescue missions.

KC-135 Stratotanker

The KC-135 was initially deployed in 1956 and completed production in 1965. It comprises 87% of the Air Force’s tanker fleet, with an average aircraft age of some 55 years. The KC-135 supports the Air Force’s mobility and lift mission by providing the aerial refuelling capability that has enabled every joint and coalition air operation for decades. Helped by further upgrades to keep the fleet viable until replacements are procured, the KC-135 is expected to be in service until the 2060s.

Upgrades include a glass cockpit display and the replacement of obsolescent systems. The KC-135 force is to be replaced by aircraft procured under three programmes: the first third by the KC-46A Pegasus, the second and third by yet-to-be determined types under programmes dubbed KC-Y and KC-Z.

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye

The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye twin-turboprop, the US Navy’s battle management and airborne early warning aircraft, is in production at a rate of five aircraft per year. Seventy-five E-2Ds are included in the US Navy’s programme of record that will replace the earlier E-2C. The last of the US Navy’s ten Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadrons is due to re-equip with the E-2D by 2025.

Identifiable by its large rotodome housing the radar and signals intelligence antenna, the E-2D features an improved APY-9 radar and cooperative engagement capability using the Naval Integrated Fire Control System – Counter Air architecture fed by multiple off board datalinks. The E-2D can be refuelled in flight.

E-3G Sentry

One of the US Air Force’s small, but highvalue force of large manned ISR aircraft, the Boeing-developed E-3 Sentry fleet is currently being upgraded to Block 40/45 standard, the upgrade package at the heart of the changes that transform E-3B and E-3C models to E-3G standard.

Designed to increase capabilities and reliability and reduce sustainment costs, the upgrade package includes improvements to communication systems, computerprocessing, electronic support measures, threat tracking and the next-generation identification friend-or-foe identification system. The baseline Boeing 707-based airframe and its Northrop Grumman APY-2 radar remain unchanged.

The US Air Force plans to keep E-3G Sentries in service through 2035-2040, but is already starting to consider an AWACS replacement.


The E-8C aircraft is the airborne component of the Joint Standoff Target Attack Radar System or JSTARS. The aircraft integrates battle management capabilities with a ground moving target indicator radar and a high bandwidth datalink used to transfer data to the system’s ground stations. Mission crews comprise US Air Force and US Army personnel.

All E-8C aircraft were originally built as Boeing 707 airliners, the age of which has contributed to the requirement for lengthy and costly overhauls to meet the demands of combatant commanders and a high operational tempo. Replacement is planned for 2024–2030.

EA-18G Growler

The carrier-based EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft replaced the US Navy’s legacy EA-6B Prowlers.

Growlers have seen extensive combat use, starting with the initial US-led Operation Odyssey Dawn and NATO’s Operation Unified Protector over Libya in 2011.

The EA-18G Growler is due to receive the ALQ-249 Next-Generation Jammer Mid- Band (NGJ-MB) external jamming pod, which is currently in development. The NGJ-MB pod uses the latest digital, software-based and active electronically scanned array technologies to provide enhanced airborne electronic attack capabilities to disrupt and degrade enemy air defence and ground communication systems.

NGJ-MB is part of the NGJ system, which comprises three stand-alone systems: NGJ Mid-Band, NGJ Low-Band and a future NGJ High-Band. Each covers a different frequency band and addresses a variety of adversary systems.

NGJ will augment and eventually replace the ALQ-99 Tactical Jamming System currently integrated on the EA-18G Growler. The NGJ will address advanced and emerging threats and provide the Growler with advanced jamming, electronic attack capabilities (which will allow it to switch off enemy air defence networks and disable radars without kinetic action) and enhanced network connectivity.

The current US Navy programme of record is for 160 EA-18G Growler aircraft, which is scheduled to be completed in the near future; the number of aircraft may increase to meet emerging threats. Many of the upgrades planned for the Super Hornet Block 3 configuration will be integrated on the EA- 18G Growler.

F-35C test aircraft CF-02 fires an AIM-9X while inverted in a test flight from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland on June 8, 2017.
Dane Wiedmann/Lockheed Martin

F-15C Eagle

The twin-engine F-15C Eagle (and the twoseat F-15D), along with the F-22 Raptor, are the US Air Force’s primary off ensive and defensive counter air combat aircraft. F-15s have been responsible for the vast majority of US Air Force air-to-air victories in recent decades.

There are about 250 active US Air Force F-15 Eagles with, in the case of the F-15C, an average age of 32 years. The active-duty Air Force has just three combat-coded fighter squadrons equipped with the F-15C: the 493rd Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath, England, and the 44th and 67th Fighter Squadrons based at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa Japan. The majority of the 250-aircraft fleet is operated by the Air National Guard, which specialises in homeland defence.

Recent F-15 upgrades include a new active electronically scanned array radar and self-defence systems. A decision on whether the F-15 force will be upgraded and retained through the 2030s or retired in the 2020s will be made in 2024.

F-15E Strike Eagle

The US Air Force’s current first-line, allweather, air-to-ground fighter, the two-seat F-15E, has seen extensive combat since 1991, including close air support in Iraq and Afghanistan, delivering a range of PGMs. Most weapons in the US inventory are integrated on the F-15E, which is projected to remain in service through 2040.

Ongoing upgrades include the new APG-82(V)1 AESA radar, the Eagle Passive/ Active Warning Survivability System, a new mission computer, improved cockpit display and infrared search and track sensors. No replacement for the F-15E has been decided upon.

F-16C Fighting Falcon

The single-engine F-16C (and two-seat F-16D) is the most numerous type of fighter in the US Air Force inventory. Different F-16 units specialise in a range of missions, including suppression of enemy air defence or, for some Air National Guard units, homeland air defence.

F-16s are primarily used for air-to-ground missions delivering precision-guided munitions (that now includes the long-range JASSM-ER missile), but retain a strong air-toair capability.

The F-16 force has an average age of 25 years. Under an ongoing service-life extension programme, the US Air Force is extending the aircraft’s current structural service life from 8,000 equivalent flight hours to 13,856 using modification kits and repairing life-limiting fractural-critical and safety-of-flight critical structure.

On November 20, the US Air Force released a request for proposal for the supply of structural modification kits for F-16s valued at $403 million. The contract is part of the ongoing F-16 service life extension programme (SLEP) to keep up to 300 Block 40/42 and Block 50/52 F-16s flying beyond 2048 and includes an option to increase the number of aircraft to 489; the Air Force operates a fleet of over 1,000 Block 40/42 and Block 50/52 aircraft.

The first two active-duty US Air Force F-16 squadrons have transitioned to the F-35A Lightning II, the type’s replacement.

Upgrade of 72 Air National Guard F-16s with Northrop Grumman’s APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar active electronically scanned array radars (capable of detecting small targets amongst surface clutter) for cruise missile defence is starting.

F/A-18 Hornet

Legacy F/A-18 Hornets (single-seat A and C and two-seat B and D versions), some of which have been in service since the 1980s, are currently used in combat for air-to-ground missions, especially by the US Marine Corps. Legacy Hornets will remain in Marine Corps service until replaced by F-35B and F-35C Lightning IIs.

Many F/A-18C and F/A-18Ds have undergone a SLEP from 6,000 to 10,000 flight hours.

F-35B Lightning II BuNo 169028/VM28 lands on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). Mass Communication
Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis/US Navy


An F/A-18C Hornet assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 (VMFA-115) ‘Silver Eagles’ conducts an arrested landing during an Integrated Training Exercise at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California. SSgt Kowshon Ye/US Marine Corps

Hornets continue to suffer from the ongoing high operational tempo caused by combat deployments in the Middle East. In recent years, low availability of Hornet aircraft in non-deployed squadrons is reflected in long queues for overhaul and insuffcient flight hours for training and proficiency flying. The Marine Corps reduced the number of Hornets in its squadrons to keep the remaining aircraft available for flight operations, and have brought 30 Hornets out of retirement, overhauled them, and returned them to service

F/A-18 Super Hornet Block 1, 2 and 3

Single-seat F/A-18E and two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornets currently equip most strike fighter squadrons assigned to each US Navy carrier air wing, and will continue to do so until 2040. The US Navy is currently studying potential sixth-generation designs as a replacement for its Super Hornet fleet. Meantime, Super Hornets will remain the fleet’s primary air defence fighter even after the F-35C Lightning II enters service. Onboard sensors, network connectivity and compatibility with a wide range of precisionguided munitions provide the Super Hornet with a powerful anti-surface capability. The Super Hornet has the potential to carry longer range weapons and conduct over-the-horizon air-to-surface or air-to-air engagements using the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye’s cooperative engagement capability and Naval Integrated Fire Control System – Counter Air architecture. Currently operated in Block 1 and Block 2 configurations, the US Navy’s fleet may migrate to an all Block 3 force through upgrades and new production. Airframe life of Super Hornet aircraft is being extended under the Service Life Assessment Programme.

A likely shortfall of 138 strike fighter aircraft by the 2020s led to further Super Hornet production moving forward this year, with a total of 80 new advanced Super Hornet Block 3 aircraft planned up to 2022. US Navy operational requirements may keep production going for longer.

Current F/A-18 Super Hornet Block 2 (but not Block 1s) will be upgraded to Block 3 configuration with unspecified enhancements to improve the type’s radar signature. The Block 3 is designed for networked combat operations using the Naval Integrated Fire Control Counter Air network, enabled by an onboard Distributed Targeting Processor- Networked mission computer and a Tactical Targeting Network Technology multichannel datalink system. Other elements of the upgrade include an advanced cockpit display system and improved crew interface.

Conformal fuel tanks mounted atop the fuselage at the wing roots will increase the Block 3’s range from 630 to 750 nautical miles (1,390km).

F-22 Raptor

The F-22 Raptor is the US Air Force’s primary air-to-air fighter. Originally a 750-aircraft programme, only 195 F-22s were built, 159 of which are currently combat coded. The F-22 has suffered from low availability rates (recently, just 62%), reflecting the high maintenance requirements of its low observable stealth technology. Raptors continue to fly combat missions over Syria. With new software and communications capabilities, the F-22 is being upgraded to enable it to meet air-to-air threats into the 2040s. It has a secondary air-to-surface capability, delivering precision-guided munitions from its internal weapons bays, especially the 250lb GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb. A US Air Force programme dubbed Penetrating Counter Air is considering a possible F-22 replacement for the 2040 timeframe.

F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 Lightning II is the largest and most expensive single defence programme in history. While a US programme, F-35 international partners are integral to its development, production and sustainment.

It was intended to be affordable – high costs have driven more combat aircraft from the skies than enemy action – through economies of scale in production and sustainment by having a single design replace many older types. The F-35 remains controversial because of its lengthy and expensive development process, but is now in operational service and demonstrating its capabilities, including ISR.

Its stealth technology has reduced operational and maintenance costs from those associated with previous generations of stealth aircraft, primarily the F-22 Raptor. Additional challenges remain, including operating its global sustainment network and upgrading the onboard systems and software.

The Conventional Take-off and Landing version, the F-35A, first became operational in 2016 with the 388th Fighter Wing based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing version, the F-35B, became operational with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) at MCAS Yuma, Arizona in 2015, now based at MCAS Iwakuni, Japan.

The F-35C Carrier Variant is due to become operational with Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147) based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California in 2019.

F/A-18F Super Hornet BuNo 166969/SD123 assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) flies over USS Gerald R Ford (CVN 78) during ship integration testing.
Erik Hildebrandt/US Navy
Strike Fighter Squadron 213’s CAGbird, F/A-18F Super Hornet BuNo 166663/AJ200, launches from the aircraft carrier USS George H W Bush (CVN 77).
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher Gaines/US Navy

The US Air Force requested 46 F-35As in its budget sent to Congress in 2017. The service had hoped to procure 60 F-35As per year, but affordability and retrofit costs are keeping annual production limited. The programme of record is 1,763 F-35As for the US Air Force, 311 F-35Bs for the US Marine Corps and 280 F-35Cs for the US Navy and 80 for the Marines. The F-35 is planned to remain in service into the 2060s.

Delays in the F-35 System Development and Demonstration phase are only now being overcome as more aircraft are produced and become operational. The F-35 Joint Program Office’s priority is now shifting to upgrading those F-35s built in Low Rate Initial Production Lots 1 to 8, at the same time as developing new capabilities incorporated in new-build aircraft under the Joint Program Office’s follow-on modernisation strategy, more recently changed and dubbed Continuous Capability Development and Delivery, the most significant aspect of which is new software to enable a range of designed-in capabilities. Other upgrades will include improved infrared search and track capability and integration of a broad range of precision-guided munitions.

P-8A Poseidon

Using the airframe of the Boeing 737-800 twin-engine airliner, the P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft is replacing the US Navy’s Lockheed P-3C Orions. The P-8A is currently in production and operational with both US Navy active-duty Patrol and Reconnaissance Wings based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington (CPRW- 10) and Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida (CPRW-11). P-8A Patrol Squadrons maintain detachments from forward operating bases in the US Navy’s Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Fleets’ areas of responsibility. Two Naval Reserve squadrons still operate P-3C Orion. The P-8A features an open architecture sensor and communications suite built to facilitate the insertion of sensors and network-ready technologies. Designed as an ISR aircraft for maritime and joint operations, the P-8A will acquire advanced antisubmarine warfare capabilities. Increment 3 is expected to be fielded in 2023 with networkenabled connectivity, sensor and targeting enhancements and improved communications.

RC-135 Rivet Joint

The RC-135 Rivet Joint is a highly modified KC-135 airframe and a heavyweight of US Air Force ISR for decades used primarily as a national intelligence asset. This was the prime Rivet Joint mission throughout the Cold War, one that repeatedly took it to the boundaries of hostile airspace escorted by crowds of admiring MiGs. However, the aircraft and its systems have also been used to support joint and coalition air operations, tasked by a combatant commander to fly missions to detect, identify and geolocate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. The Rivet Joint fleet is configured to standards dubbed Baselines; the current Baseline 11 upgrades include, enhanced sensors, network connectivity, data fusion, digital cockpit instruments and modernised operator interfaces. Air Combat Command’s Rivet Joint force assigned to the 55th Reconnaissance Wing based at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska has increased cooperation with the Rivet Joint-equipped Royal Air Force No.51 Squadron in recent years, and RAF aircrew fly on US Air Force Rivet Joints.

Sailors prepare to launch an F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 213 (VFA-213) ‘Black Lions’ from the aircraft carrier USS George H W Bush (CVN 77).
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matt Matlage/US Navy
Lockheed Martin- Sikorsky’s forthcoming HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter.

U-2S Dragon Lady

The Lockheed Martin U-2S Dragon Lady ISR aircraft is the primary US high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft used to acquire critical imagery and signals intelligence during peacetime, lowintensity conflict, and large-scale hostilities.

The Air Force had planned to replace its U-2s with upgraded Block 40 RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, but has now committed to retaining the U-2S in service for the next five years. The type could potentially remain in service until 2045 before reaching the end of its current airframe life. Its eventual replacement is uncertain and may be an unmanned system or an optionally piloted high-altitude type currently under development.


AH-1Z Viper

Production of Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters for the US Marine Corps will end in 2019 completing a modernisation programme that included the Bell UH-1Y light transport and utility helicopter; the AH-1Z and the UH- 1Y replace the AH-1W and UH-1N that had been in US Marine Corps service for decades. Both types enhance speed, manoeuvrability and payload, and share 85% commonality featuring a common tail boom, engine, rotor system, drive train, avionics architecture, software, controls and displays

Originally, the AH-1Z programme started out with the objective of remanufacturing AH-1W Cobras, but this was later changed to build new airframes.

The AH-1Z design reflects the Marines’ approach to the attack helicopter mission. While the AH-64 Apache is primarily an antitank weapon system, the AH-1Z is an escort helicopter and infantry support platform.

An MQ-9 Reaper configured with the two sensor turrets of the Gorgon Stare II wide area airborne surveillance system at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.
US Air Force

AH-64E Apache

The AH-64E Apache is the latest version of the US Army’s attack helicopter, currently replacing older AH-64Ds in a remanufacture programme that will run into the 2020s. The AH-64E provides substantial upgrades in avionics, communications and weapon capabilities. Almost all of the US Army’s objective Apache fleet of 690 AH-64Es will be remanufactured from AH-64Ds.

In a subsequent programme, the Army intends to re-engine the AH-64E with a yetto- be-selected engine developed under the Improved Turbine Engine Program. After proposing to disband all Army National Guard Apache battalions, four will be retained, each equipped with 18 aircraft.

V-22 Osprey

Despite a lengthy and troubled development, the V-22 Osprey has become a valuable asset to the US Marine Corps and Air Force Special Operations Command, however it is still a costly aircraft to maintain and operate. Production of the MV-22B medium lift transport version for the US Marine Corps is approaching completion of the current programme of record for 360 aircraft. The Marine Corps may order an additional 20 MV-22Bs and is currently adding capabilities including weapons, air-to-surface sensors, electronic warfare and an aerial refuelling capability, the latter to enable sustained F-35B operations from amphibious assault ships. The Marine Corps is carrying out a number of fleetwide upgrades to create a common baseline MV-22C version from the three Blocks, 70 different hardware configurations and seven different software configurations currently operational in its Osprey fleet. The current production schedule includes 48 CMV-22s for the US Navy, the type selected to replace the C-2A Greyhound in the carrier onboard delivery mission and attrition replacements for Air Force Special Operations Command to maintain its fleet of CV-22s at 50 aircraft.

CH-47F and MH-47G Chinook

Currently moving towards the end of production, the US Army’s fleet-wide CH- 47F upgrade programme includes both new-build airframes and remanufactured CH-47Ds. The CH-47F configuration includes a new digital cockpit, airframe modifications to reduce vibration and cargo handling and survivability capabilities. As the Army moves to an all CH-47F fleet, Block II upgrades will start. This is intended to keep the helicopters operationally viable until they are replaced by a new type selected under the Future Vertical Lift programme in the 2040-2060s timeframe. The Block II upgrade will include a new-design rotor blade and components to enable a future up-engine programme to be integrated.

US Army Special Operations Command has a fleet of 67 MH-47Gs, a helicopter with a similar baseline configuration as a CH-47F, but fitted with specialised systems that include long-range fuel tanks and radar for lowaltitude penetration missions. The MH-47G RENEW programme will replace the 67 MH- 47Gs by 2027.

UH-60M and HH-60M Black Hawk

The Black Hawk is the most numerous helicopter in the US Army inventory. Digitalinstrumented UH-60M Black Hawks make up over two-thirds of the Black Hawk fleet. The remaining analogue UH-60Ls are being upgraded to digital standard through the UH-60V upgrade programme, fitting a new all-digital cockpit incorporating multifunction displays and advanced avionics. The UH-60V will have a high level of standardisation and commonality in terms of training, components and capabilities with the UH-60M, and is planned to remain in service beyond 2050. The Improved Turbine Engine, with increased power, fuel efficiency and reliability, will be installed in UH-60s from 2026.

MH-60R and MH-60S Seahawk

MH-60R and MH-60S models of the Seahawk are the US Navy’s standard shipboard helicopters, sharing 85% commonality. The MH-60S conducts anti-surface warfare, combat search and rescue, mine countermeasures and logistics support; the MH-60R is a specialist anti-submarine warfare helicopter. Of the 275 MH-60S helicopters ordered by the US Navy, the final aircraft was delivered in 2015 and the last of 280 new MH-60Rs will be delivered in 2018.

Retrofitting the Seahawk fleet with improved mission computers with open architecture is scheduled to start in 2019 as part of the US Navy’s long-term preplanned product improvement programme designed to keep the MH-60R current throughout its life. Both types are scheduled to have mid-life upgrades in the mid-2020s to modernise onboard systems and avionics. Before that they will undergo a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) to address issues identified by Service Life Assessment Programs now taking place.


MQ-1 Predator

The propeller-driven MQ-1 Predator mediumaltitude long-endurance unmanned air vehicle (UAV) first entered service in the 1990s, flying ISR missions over Bosnia. It later became the first UAV to be armed – with Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missiles – for air-to-ground missions on a regular basis. The Predator revolutionised tactics by making streaming video available to aircraft or ground and naval units. It was the first true remotely piloted aircraft with combat missions flown by pilots not at the home base, but at remote locations, initially at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. Used operationally by the Air Force and the CIA, as well as international users, the Predator is being replaced by the MQ-9 Reaper in Air Force service.

MQ-1C Gray Eagle

The US Army’s Gray Eagle medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV, the largest in use by and a new capability for the Army, is used to conduct ISR missions. The Gray Eagle, which shares a common airframe and engine with the Predator, is operated in a different way to the Air Force NQ-1 in that its operators deploy with the system. Gray Eagle production will end in 2018 when the last of 167 air vehicles called for by the programme of record is delivered.

RQ-4 Global Hawk

Global Hawk is the standard high-altitude, long-endurance UAV primarily used as a deep look ISR system. The Block 30 RQ-4 uses electro-optical/infrared, synthetic aperture radar and signal intelligence sensor payloads.

The upgraded Block 40 version, capable of using a greater selection of sensor payloads, is in production. Its ground moving target indication radar detects and tracks moving vehicles and transmits this via datalink to a distributed common ground system. The developmental universal payload adapter allows it to use the MS-177 electro-optical sensor and optical bar camera.

Planned upgrades include: weatheravoidance radar, anti-icing systems, and the Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload, Northrop Grumman’s multi-intelligence advanced collection sensor.

US Air Force Global Hawks are currently flying ISR missions lasting 30 hours or more to watch many of the world’s combat zones from 65,000ft. Three Block 20 Global Hawks are operated by the Air Force as EQ-4B communication relays using the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node.

MQ-4C Triton

Based on the Global Hawk airframe but designed for the maritime surveillance mission, the US Navy’s MQ-4C Triton has successfully completed its developmental testing, and low-rate initial production continues. Initial operational test and evaluation will start in FY2021; it will include systems for a multi-intelligence payload within the forthcoming configuration dubbed Integrated Functional Capability 4. The multiintelligence payload includes additional signal intelligence capabilities and systems that will be used by Triton to conduct the mission set currently undertaken by the EP-3E signals intelligence reconnaissance aircraft, known as ARIES II (Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System II).

The first operational Triton detachment outside the continental United States will be to Andersen Air Base on Guam in 2018, where the air vehicles will be co-located with Air Force Global Hawks. The air vehicles deployed to Guam will be in the baseline configuration dubbed Early Operational Capability.

A US Army MH-47G Chinook with the 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment at the Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center, Mississippi, during a multiservice training exercise called Southern Strike.
Airman Sean Carnes/US Air Force
Sailors assigned to USS Stethem (DDG 63) conduct in-flight refuelling operations with an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter, assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 77 (HSM-77) ‘Saberhawks’.
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeremy Graham/US Nav

RQ-7B Shadow

The AAI RQ-7B Shadow is equipped with electro-optical/infrared sensors and laser designator, plus a datalink to provide full motion video to ground terminals. Used by brigade-level Army units for ISR, the upgraded RQ-7Bv2 version, like the Gray Eagle, has become the focus of the Army’s mannedunmanned teaming tactics, working with AH-64Es to replace the Army’s withdrawn OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters. The US Marine Corps plans to replace its existing RQ-7B Shadows with a UAV designed to its service requirements.

MQ-8C Fire Scout

Based on the airframe of the Bell 407 helicopter and powered by the same Rolls- Royce 250-C47B engine, the Fire Scout was developed to meet an operational requirement for a UAV that could operate from smaller surface warships deployed in the Middle East. While primarily a surveillance platform, it is capable of being armed with 2.75-inch rockets fitted with the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System guidance kit. Procurement was completed in 2017 with 60 units ordered (of a planned 177). Upgrades planned to be completed by 2020, include a maritime surveillance radar to provide cueing for turretmounted electro-optical/infrared sensors and its rangefinder/target designation capabilities.

MQ-9 Reaper

The Reaper is a medium to high-altitude, longendurance UAV, developed from the MQ-1 Predator, optimised for weapons delivery while retaining an ISR role utilising Raytheon’s Multispectral Targeting System-B with electrooptical/ infrared sensors. The Reaper is able to provide fused full-motion video streams, a laser designator/illuminator and synthetic aperture radar. Introduced to combat in 2007, current Reaper production is the long-range extended-wing Block 5 version, offering significantly extended endurance and payload. Production is due to run through 2022. Planned upgrades include an automatic takeoff and landing system and an enhanced radar.

Since 2014, US Air Force MQ-9 Reapers have operated in US Central Command’s area of responsibility equipped with the Gorgon Stare II wide area persistent surveillance system housing the Air Force’s only daynight persistent wide-area motion imagery capability.

Gorgon Stare II features two sensor turrets fitted with multiple multi-spectral sensors, an electro-optical sensor derived from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s ARGUS technology manufactured by BAE Systems, and an infrared sensor integrating the largest IR arrays manufactured by Exelis. Gorgon Stare is used, amongst other things, to detect improvised explosive devices. The Reaper’s kinetic payload capability has allowed it to employ the 500lb GBU-38 JDAM in combat. Air Force Reapers are also operated as part of Special Operations Command.


KC-46A Pegasus

Based on the Boeing 767 airliner, the current programme of record for the 179-aircraft KC- 46A procurement is intended to replace a third of the ageing KC-135 Stratotanker fleet by 2027.

The Air Force currently expects to take delivery of its first KC-46As by early 2018 and to sustain steady-state production of 15 KC-46s a year. In addition to being capable of refuelling both receptacle and probe-equipped receivers on the same sortie, the KC-46 can also receive fuel from other tankers in flight.

CH-53K King Stallion

The CH-53K King Stallion programme is transitioning into production, with a programme of record for 200 new-build helicopters to replace the CH-53E Super Stallion, the US Marine Corps’ heavy-lift helicopter. Heavy lift is a critical Marine Corps capability for moving equipment inland during amphibious operations. The CH-53K will provide greater reliability and decreased maintenance, as well as increased range, survivability and payload.


Carrier Air Wing 2030

The US Navy’s Carrier Air Wing of 2030 will comprise four Strike Fighter Squadrons (VFAs), two equipped with ten F-35C Lightning IIs each and two more with 12 F/A-18 Super Hornets each. These will be supported by squadrons operating EA-18G Growlers, MQ-25 Stingrays, E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes and MH- 60R/MH-60S Seahawks. With the increasing emphasis on networked air operations, the US Navy has taken the lead in developing a number of emerging capabilities – the near- term example being the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) architecture – to enable the future Carrier Air Wing to fight both as an integral unit and as part of a joint and coalition force.

JSTARS recapitalisation

Recapitalisation of the Air Force’s 16 E-8C JSTARS (Joint Standoff Target Attack Radar System) aircraft was previously identified as one of the top five Air Force modernisation priorities. This programme is currently in the source selection process between three competing teams: a version of the Boeing Business Jet (a 737-700 derivative) from Boeing; the Bombardier Global 6000 (the same type currently in US Air Force service as the E-11 communications relay aircraft) offered by a team comprising Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Sierra Nevada; and the Gulfstream Aerospace G550 from Northrop Grumman and L3 Technologies.

However, the Air Force may replace its E-8Cs with a network linking multiple manned and unmanned sensor and battle management nodes and platforms, rather than a new aeroplane. The future of the programme might be announced in early 2018.

HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter

The $8 billion programme for the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter to replace the Air Force’s HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters started with contract award in 2014 and includes the procurement of 112 new-build HH-60Ws, training systems and operations support. The HH-60W will have improved hot-high performance, an enlarged cabin and longer range. Nine HH-60Ws will begin developmental testing in 2018, with first deliveries in 2019. Replacement of the HH- 60G is planned to be complete by 2029. h3@High-altitude, high-speed ISR

The Northrop Grumman RQ-180 is a previously classified high-altitude stealth UAV that entered low-rate initial production in 2013. Developmental aircraft may have been flying operational missions since 2012. The Lockheed Martin SR-72 design, an optionally manned hypersonic aircraft capable of both ISR and strike missions with speed in the Mach 4-6 range, could fly as soon as 2023.

An MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerial system, belonging to Company D, 10th Aviation Regiment, armed with two AGM-114 Hellfire air-tosurface missiles at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq. SSgt Isolda Reyes/US Army

MQ-25 Unmanned Carrier Aviation Air System

After Northrop Grumman’s X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrated the ability of an unmanned air vehicle to operate from a US Navy aircraft carrier, Naval Air Systems Command launched a competition for the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned tanker and the potential to also serve as an ISR and communications relay platform using podded sensors and datalinks, and possibly even for weapons delivery. Four companies were competing – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Atomics and Northrop Grumman – but the latter dropped out when the request for proposals was issued in October. The winner will be decided in 2018 and the air vehicle could be in service as soon as 2020. Total MQ-25 development costs are budgeted at some $5 billion.

Observation Attack – eXperimental (OA-X)

Four different commercially available aircraft types participated in the US Air Force light attack experiment at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico last August (see ‘Souped-up trainers, a crop duster and an experimental jet’, p64-71, AIR International, December 2017): the L3-Air Tractor AT-802L Longsword turboprop, Textron’s Scorpion jet and AT-6 Wolverine turboprop; and the A-29 Super Tucano from Embraer-Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The light attack experiment was the latest phase of the overarching Observation Attack – Experimental or OA-X programme. The next phase will be a combat experiment dubbed Combat Dragon III, possibly involving the deployment of two AT-6s and two A-29s to conduct combat missions in Iraq or Syria. The OA-X is not a procurement programme and has no programme of record.

Trainer – eXperimental (T-X)

Previously identified as one of the top five US Air Force modernisation priorities, the T-X programme is currently the subject of a major competition between teams comprising Boeing and Saab offering the brand-new T-X aircraft, Lockheed Martin and Korean Aerospace Industries’ T-50, and Leonardo with its T-100, a modified version of the M-346 Master. The winner will be announced in spring 2018. Initial operating capability for the US Air Force’s new trainer is planned for FY2024, with a total procurement of 350 aircraft through the mid-2030s.


Airborne Battle Management System

The Air Force will need to replace its current fleet of E-3 AWACS aircraft by 2045 and is studying a range of alternatives, from a new aircraft (Boeing has offered a 737-based design similar to the Royal Australian Air Force’s E-7 Wedgetail) to a network of manned and unmanned terrestrial and airborne sensor and battle management capabilities.

Air National Guardsmen watch an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle during Combat Hammer at Duke Field, Florida. Combat Hammer is Air Combat Command’s Weapon System Evaluation Program for air-to-ground weapons. The evaluation staged in February 2017 was the first air-to-ground weapons evaluation of the Air National Guard’s MQ-9 Reaper mission set. SMSgt Robert Shepherd/Iowa Air National Guard
MV-22B Osprey BuNo 168348/ YR14 assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 161 (Reinforced) takes off from the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6).
Lance Cpl Dusty Kilcrease/US Marine Corps

B-21 Raider

Selected in October 2015 to meet the Long Range Strike-Bomber requirement, the B-21 is being developed by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, rather than the normal procurement organisations. The B-21 programme remains under a cloak of security to limit threat responses to its next-generation stealth technology. The design is based on extensive classified development undertaken in previous decades, likely including flying technology demonstration aircraft.

Under current plans, at least 100 B-21s are to be procured, with the per-aircraft cost held to $550 million in then-year dollars. It will have the capability to penetrate hostile airspace and deliver conventional or nuclear gravity bombs as well as stand-off weapons, including the planned Long-Range Stand-Off missile.


Air Combat Command’s EC-X requirement is a replacement for its aging Lockheed EC-130H Compass Call, a modified Hercules turboprop transport airframe equipped with electronic attack systems designed to disrupt enemy command, control, and communications.

Headquartered at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, ACC selected the Gulfstream G550 as the baseline airframe for the EC-X programme, which will enable ACC to use development that had already been carried out for G550s modified for electronic warfare missions, ordered by Italy and Israel.

On September 14, the US Air Force announced that mission systems for the highly-modified G550s, designated EC-37Bs in US Air Force service, will be cross-decked from EC-130Hs, with L3 Communications as the prime contractor. The first EC-37B is expected to be completed in FY2021.

F/A-XX sixth-generation fighter

The US Navy is looking at a range of options and technologies to replace the Block 3 F/A-18 Super Hornet in the 2040 timeframe.

This includes the potential roles of stealth, improved engine and weapons (including directed energy) technology. The Navy is thinking more in terms of a specific manned aircraft than a network of manned and unmanned capabilities.

Future Vertical Lift

The joint-service Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme is developing tiltrotor and rigidrotor helicopter technology – two different technology demonstrator aircraft will be flying in 2018 – that together can potentially revolutionise rotary-wing flight. The US Army has asked the companies working on the technology demonstrators if, with access to funding, they would accelerate the transition of their designs to the FVL so that production would start in the 2020s rather than 2030s as currently planned.

The FVL programme is not being presented as a family of rotorcraft – helicopters or tiltrotors – but rather five capability sets of vertical lift. Capability one is for scout and light attack missions. Capability two is, in effect, the eventual replacement for both the H-60 family and the AH-64 Apache. Capability three replaces the CH-47 Chinook. Capability four is a large heavy lift helicopter and capability five envisages what amounts to a C-130 Hercules capable of vertical take-off and landing.

KC-Y and KC-Z tankers

The gap between the KC-46A (KC-X) and the KC-Z will be filled by procurement of an interim type, designated KC-Y, but is likely to be an improved KC-46 design with survivability enhancements. The US Air Force is considering emphasising survivability in its next new cleansheet design tanker, the KC-Z, projected to enter service around 2035. The KC-Z might use a stealthy blended wing design and have extensive electronic warfare capabilities to give it greater range, survivability and penetrating capabilities.

Marine UAV experimental

The US Marine Corps is looking for a design, available for production in the near-term, that will offer medium altitude and long-endurance UAV capabilities similar to the MQ-1 Predator, but that is capable of operating either from unprepared airstrips or amphibious warfare ships. This effectively mandates a vertical, short take-off and landing capable design.

MH-XX shipboard helicopter

The MH-XX is the replacement for the current MH-60R/MH-60S Seahawk fleets. MH-XX is scheduled to enter service in the 2030s, and is expected to make use of designs developed for the FVL programme.

Penetrating Counter Air

The US Air Force is studying this as a potential F-22 Raptor replacement in the 2030s timeframe, with consideration of a range options from a sixth-generation manned fighter design using emerging technologies to use of a network of manned and unmanned airborne technologies to create an integrated solution to the mission of establishing air superiority in hostile airspace.

Future combat airpower

Earlier in 2017, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said it was unlikely that the need for aerospace power would decrease over the next decade.

Sustained investment in the future of US airpower has been difficult in recent years, reflecting budgetary uncertainty (imposed by dysfunctional US politics) and high operational and readiness costs (imposed by ongoing conflicts and the real threat of more intense ones). This put a premium on deciding how best to invest in future airpower. Chief of Staff of the US Air Force General David Goldfein has said: “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?”

Water plumes arch across an RC-12X Guardrail aircraft marking the pilot’s final flight from Bagram airfield, Afghanistan.
Bob Harrison/US Forces Afghanistan

US airpower has to meet emerging nearpeer threats. Potential adversary aircraft are being armed with lethal long-range air-toair missiles, and prototypes described as fifth-generation stealth fighters are flying.

The United States has given less emphasise to electronic warfare since the end of the Cold War; this now appears a likely area of threat advantage of potential near-peer foes. Cyberwarfare threats are increasingly powerful and seek to disable computerised logistics systems. Cruise and ballistic missiles threaten forward operating bases and aircraft carriers.

Long-range surface-to-air missiles might make it impossible to operate large ISR and tanker aircraft close to the threat zone and may prevent transport aircraft from entering combat zones.

Investment in US airpower could develop improved technologies such as artificial intelligence and autonomous operations, many of them emerging from the private sector.

UAVs that can swarm, organise themselves and attack a target offer a potential replacement for some strike aircraft. Some combat aircraft can be supplemented by loyal wingmen, UAVs that can operate as part of a flight.

While unmanned systems have taken over much of the ISR mission, the constraints of bandwidth and likely electronic and cyberwarfare attacks from near-peer adversaries in a future conflict may limit their tasking in other mission areas. Some air-to-surface tasks, such as suppression of enemy air defences, are likely to be the first for unmanned systems to assume within an expanded mission set. Some tanker and combat support missions – such as communications relay or standoff jamming – are also likely candidate mission sets.

A huge task faces the leaders of America’s armed services: combining emerging technologies and conventional aircraft using networked capabilities to link multiple systems – manned and unmanned, flying and terrestrial – to enable them to share data and fight as an integrated force.

Discussing networked capabilities at an Air Force Association meeting in July, General Goldfein said: “Focus on the highway before we focus on the truck. Our first question in any acquisition programme of the future is not going to be what it can do. Our question will be, how does it connect?” The other US armed services are making similar decisions.

Transitioning from the type of conflicts US airpower has had to fight since the end of the Cold War to preparing for a possible fight against a near-peer adversary is challenging. US airpower has been used to setting the tempo, not being surprised by challenges.

It has become dependent on detailed standard operating procedures and, faced with limited opposition, has gone beyond the need to minimise risk and losses of aircraft and personnel, to become, in many ways, centralised in tactical thinking and risk averse in decision-making. Serious threat systems exist and require serious decisions to be made that will make no one happy, mandating actions that are going to be costly in political, budgetary and resource terms.

In the future, the United States is unlikely to fight wars completely on its own. The future of airpower will be multinational and networked. General Goldfein 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.”

Other changes are harder to predict. Attitudes towards airpower, especially when applied by the only current superpower, are becoming critical. The use of unguided munitions has become limited through fear of collateral damage and the resultant political and diplomatic impact. As any future conflict with a near-peer adversary is likely to see widespread jamming of the GPS guidance on which most US precision-guided munitions rely, and possibly direct attacks on US satellites, this may prove problematic to future war fighters.

A century ago, US airpower, fresh from its failure in Mexico in 1917, was plunged into combat in Europe. The US Army, US Navy and US Marine Corps alike relied on their British, French and Italian allies to provide aircraft, weapons, tactics and training. By the end of the war in 1918, US airpower was in position to become world class. A century on from this remarkable transformation a similar one must be achieved; perhaps less dramatic, but no less necessary.

A U-2S Dragon Lady at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates following a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
TSgt Anthony Nelson Jr/US Air Force