U.S. Air Force Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, the commander of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), on March 14 suggested that the Air Force will need many more drones in future years and that such numbers may surpass the number of manned aircraft.
Last March, U.S. Navy officials suggested that the Navy will move to a 40-60 unmanned/manned carrier air wing and that such a percentage of unmanned/manned could reach 60-40 (Defense Daily, March 30, 2021). At the time, Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, the Navy’s director of air warfare, said that the future unmanned/manned mix depended upon the success of the Boeing [BA] MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based tanker aircraft “and our ability to truly learn to operate around an aircraft carrier and safely execute that both on the flight deck and then airborne.”
Department of the Air Force officials have yet to establish unmanned/manned requirements percentages for the Air Force’s future fleet.
“I would contend that a 50-50 split wouldn’t be enough,” Wilsbach told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies virtual forum on March 14 when asked whether he believed the Navy percentages were appropriate for the Air Force. “For every manned platform that we have, especially inside of the anti-area, access-denial region that China has put up, I’d like to have multiple unmanned platforms that can do a variety of different missions for that manned platform.”
“The Air Force has not put down a percentage just yet on what that might look like, but that’s certainly a study that we’ll be doing,” he said. “I’m sure, in the near future, but just from what I know from air warfare and creating airpower effects for the joint and combined force, I think we’re gonna need a lot more unmanned, many of them attritable, so that you can create effects that you’re gonna be looking for.”
Given the expense of manned aircraft programs, including the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider, the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35, and the Boeing F-15EX, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said that drones will be a much larger part of the service’s force mix (Defense Daily, Feb. 7).
The service is undertaking a classified program to field combat drones by 2030, if not earlier. NGAD, or another manned fighter, such as the F-35 or the Lockheed Martin F-22, would serve as the “play caller” for such drones.
On March 14, Wilsbach suggested that an unmanned airlifter, smaller than the Lockheed Martin C-130, could also be a part of the future force mix, as that unmanned platform could contribute to Air Force Agile Combat Employment (ACE) in supplying isolated locations with specialist maintenance personnel and parts, such as engines and line replaceable units.
The Air Force’s upcoming fiscal 2023 budget request will devote significant funding to pre-positioning parts and other supplies to reduce the demand on Boeing C-17s and give a larger role to C-130s for intertheater airlift. PACAF already has a C-130 squadron at Yokota Air Base Japan that is involved with ACE, Wilsbach said.
A force of many C-130s and drone airlifters would be akin to the C-47 Skytrains employed across the Pacific during World War II for intertheater airlift, he said.
Wilsbach said last year that fielding NGAD and associated systems and replacing the Boeing E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) with the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail are among PACAF’s urgent operational needs (Defense Daily, Feb. 24, 2021).
Designed for the Royal Australian Air Force, the Wedgetail is a Boeing 737-700 modified for airborne early warning and control. The aircraft has advanced Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar, and 10 mission crew consoles to track airborne and maritime targets simultaneously.
PACAF’s AWACS fleet “really struggles from a maintenance/reliability standpoint,” Wilsbach said on March 14. “We have four of them in PACAF, and often times all four of them are not able to fly because of maintenance issues. Mainly they’re basic issues. They don’t have anything to do with the sensors onboard the aircraft. It’s electrics, hydraulics, and engines. It’s just an old platform that is very difficult to maintain.”
In addition, when AWACS “gets airborne, those sensors…aren’t really capable of a 21st century fight, especially against a platform, like the [Chinese] J-20 [fighter] or something similar,” he said. “It [the AWAC] just can’t see those platforms far enough out to provide an advantage to the shooters.”
Wilsbach cautioned against a “slow leak” of advanced systems to the field, including the Boeing F-15EX, E-7 Wedgetail, the Lockheed Martin AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM) replacement for the AIM-120, and the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM), if the Air Force and Congress decide to pursue them.
Congress recently dealt a setback to the program that was to field the first Air Force hypersonic missile. The conference report on the fiscal 2022 omnibus spending bill zeroed the Air Force request for the buy of the first 12 Lockheed Martin AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapons (ARRWs) and redirected $80 million of that funding to the Air Force research and development account to remedy an ARRW “testing shortfall” after booster test failures (Defense Daily, March 10).
The F-15EX, the E-7, JATM and HACM “would all be in the category of things that I would want,” Wilsbach said. “Don’t ‘slow leak’ it to the point where, by the time you get them, it may be too late. You’ve got to acquire those assets very quickly, maybe even to the maximum extent that industry can produce them. We’ve got to get them quickly and not waste time on a slow buy schedule.”