The U.S. Air Force’s fiscal 2022 budget requested the buy of 91 manned aircraft, yet a new Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report suggests that the service will need to ramp up its buy of inexpensive drones and realize significant cost savings in existing and future manned systems, such as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) family of fighters, to avoid a drop in the inventory of platforms needed for future conflicts.

“Fundamentally, to sustain its current inventory without excessive aging, the Air Force will have to buy many more aircraft or less expensive aircraft,” the study said. “Alternatively, the Air Force will need to greatly reduce its aircraft inventory and sharply cut its force structure.”

As the Air Force has permitted the average age of aircraft to increase to an average of nearly 31 years over the last decade, the Air Force inventory of nearly 5,500 aircraft has been relatively stable since 2011 after a sharp drop between 2002 and 2009.

To sustain the current inventory, assuming an average aircraft lifespan of 30 years, would require doubling the Air Force aircraft procurement buy to 182 planes per year.

Air Force Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones said on Nov. 30 that autonomous systems were high on the service priority list (Defense Daily, Nov. 30). “In a high attrition fight, there is certainly value in having a lot of attritable targets,” she said. “This is also in the interest of making sure that we are being good stewards of the American taxpayers’ dollars”

In fiscal 2022, the Air Force wants to buy 48 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35A fighters, 12 Boeing [BA] F-15EX fighters, 14 Boeing KC-46A tankers, 14 Lockheed Martin HH-60W combat rescue helicopters, and three Lockheed Martin MC-130J transports.

While the House defense funding bill proposes adding funding to buy four more C/KC/MC-130J tankers and six more General Atomics‘ MQ-9 Reaper drones than requested, the Senate bill would add 16 C-130Js and eight Boeing and Leonardo MH-139 helicopters for the nuclear support mission.

“In 2018, then-secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson proposed an almost 25 percent expansion of force structure, describing it as ‘the Air Force we need,'” CSIS said. “This would have increased the number of operational squadrons from 312 to 386. However, the Air Force, unlike the Navy, never made any concrete moves to implement its proposed expansion. Now, that discussion has become a historical curiosity.”

While the Air Force has proposed the retirement of 201 older aircraft in fiscal 2022 to free up funds for modernization, the service “has stalled in its effort” to field more remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), CSIS said.

“The RPA proportion of the force has leveled off at 5 to 7 percent for 10 years, and current procurement plans show no change in the future,” the CSIS report said. “The FY 2022 budget procures no RPAs and retires the block 30 RQ-4 Global Hawk fleet in favor of the manned E-11.”