While not wedded to 386 squadrons’ worth of air frames to execute the 2018 National Defense Strategy, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown said on Wednesday that 386 squadrons’ worth of capability is vital and that less than that would increase risk to national security.

“What is the capability that would give me the equivalent of 386 [squadrons]?” Brown said Oct. 21 during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation virtual discussion. “What things can I do? Some of that may not be expensive and exquisite. It could be doing things differently. I just met with some of our intel and cyber community yesterday to talk about information operations. It may just be information and moving the data that helps us increase our capability.”

Brown, who was the commander of Pacific Air Forces before becoming chief of staff in August, said that he hopes to get combatant commanders (COCOMs) “to see the future a bit better,” rather than focusing exclusively on their current needs, and to impart to them a concept of shared risk at the service headquarters level and the COCOM level.

While the Air Force is unlikely to receive congressional approval for many of the service’s proposed, gradual retirements of legacy systems in fiscal 2021, such as 29 Boeing [BA] KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, the service may propose a new set of retirements in its upcoming fiscal 2022 budget–possibly intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets; reduced flight hours; and/or new ways of distributing situational awareness data.

Congress is likely to block the proposed retirements of the KC-135s and KC-10s, in part due to the ongoing problems in resolving Category 1 deficiencies with the follow-on KC-46A Pegasus tanker. Lawmakers have also had problems with the proposed retirements of Boeing B-1 bombers, Northrop Grumman [NOC] RQ-4 Global Hawks, Lockheed Martin [LMT] U-2 spy planes, and A-10 close air support aircraft.

A Center for Strategic and International Studies’ report last November said that the Air Force could save $29 billion in sustainment costs over the next five years through the early retirement of eight aircraft: the Boeing E-3 AWACS, RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence plane, KC-10 tanker, and B-1 bomber, the Northrop Grumman B-2 bomber; the U-2; and the A-10.

John Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at The Heritage Foundation and a retired F-16 pilot, said that increasing Air Force research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) budgets have led to drop-offs in required force structure. In fiscal 2021, the Air Force requested $26.9 billion for R&D, while the U.S. Space Force asked for $10.3 billion. Those figures compare to a $22.9 billion Air Force procurement request and a $2.4 billion Space Force procurement request.

“The [Air Force] has more than enough TOA [total obligational authority] to be fielding ‘The Air Force We Need’ [386 squadrons] without eliminating any programs, but it is spending almost 50 percent more on RDT&E this year than it is on procurement,” Venable wrote in an email.

“Historically, RDT&E funding had never exceeded procurement until the previous [Air Force] Chief of Staff [Gen. David Goldfein] entered office,” he wrote.  “And, since the end of the Cold War, every time the service gives up capacity for ‘future’ acquisitions, it is unable to field (even) the same level of capacity it had before it started shedding platforms.”

“The legacy platforms the service can genuinely afford to give up without hurting warfighting capacity are the Global Hawk, [Northrop Grumman] JSTARS and the bulk of the AWACS fleets,” per Venable. “None of those platforms can provide useful data to fighters/bombers at survivable ranges. The B-1, B-52, A-10 and the entire tanker fleets need to be sustained for ongoing operations, and for the peer fight ahead, until they are replaced on a one for one basis.”

Nevertheless, the Air Force is examining possible early retirements for a range of legacy platforms, especially if digitally engineered eSeries systems can readily step in to fulfill the missions of those platforms in contested environments with potential “near peer” adversaries China and Russia (Defense Daily, Sept. 23).

“Anything that can be contested in a high end fight is on the table for consideration,” Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper told reporters last month. “We simply can’t afford to be an Air Force that can only go into one part of the world and not others, and so any of our legacy systems that weren’t  designed for a peer competitor fight are things we’re actively looking at. The question that always is on the table next to it is how do we do that mission another way, or do we just simply accept the risk of not doing that mission.”

Congress has traditionally been resistant to cutting legacy platforms, as operations and maintenance for them pumps significant funds into defense bases and sustains jobs.

“Working with constituencies that own those legacy assets to retire them is a tough thing to sell in Washington, and I think that’s because the next thing that’s going to replace it is never in the works,” Roper said last month.

“When is the successor to ‘you pick your system’ going to be built, and the answer is, ‘We don’t know,'” he said. “What I hope will be true in the ‘eSeries’ paradigm, where we can design faster, quicker, smaller lots, is that we can be building the successor system when it’s time to retire the thing it will replace, and, if that’s the case, I’m willing to hit the ‘I believe’ button that we can work that out with constituencies when you can go put your hand on the thing in the production line and say, ‘This is what’s coming.’ How long has it been since things have been that frequent? Probably the 1970s is where I trace it back to where systems still showed up every four years or so. It’s a coupled problem, and we have to be able to work this with our external board of directors, and that’s Congress.”