The Air Force should alter its planned force structure, the new assets in development and the proposed mix of legacy aircraft it plans to keep if it is to maintain readiness levels and meet future capability needs, according to a new think tank report released Oct. 29.

The report, “The Air Force of the Future: A Comparison of Alternative Forces Structures” by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, suggests that a smaller, more balanced force that focuses on long-range, long-loiter and increasingly autonomous and remotely operated capabilities would better counter future threats.

However, that rebalancing will require “difficult tradeoffs” as higher operation and maintenance costs have put the service in the tricky spot of having one of its largest budgets ever but smallest inventories of aircraft as well as personnel.

“For the U.S. Air Force to maintain its supremacy in the skies, it must stay focused on the future and not cling to the traditions, aircraft and operational concepts of the past,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow and director of the Aerospace Security Project and defense budget analysis at CSIS in the “The Air Force of the Future: A Comparison of Alternative Forces Structures.”

The service’s requested fiscal year 2020 budget, if enacted, would be the second-highest level in inflation-adjusted dollars ever, Harrison said. “We are at a budget now that is near record levels,” he said at a Tuesday event at the think tank marking the release of the report.

However, it has fewer platforms and personnel, suffers from a declining mission-capable rate and must counter rising aircraft operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, he said.

To pull out of this situation, the service should combine its small fleets of specialized platforms into larger fleets of multi-mission platforms, and take stock of the way remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) have a higher utilization rate, higher mission capable rate and lower flying hour costs than crewed aircraft working intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.

“This experience should be factored into decisions about which future platforms should be crewed versus remotely or autonomously operated,” Harrison said in the report.

He warned that the service’s current plan to quickly field small numbers of new fighter jets in a rapid timeframe – as acquisition officials have laid out in their Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) plan – could exacerbate the current issues associated with the rise in O&M costs.

He uses the example that five fleets of 72 aircraft – 360 aircraft total – would cost about $6.8 billion per year in O&M costs, about the same as one fleet with 1,800 platforms. On the other hand, a fleet with 360 aircraft of the same type would only cost about $3 billion annually in O&M.

“While small fleets may be desirable for rapid integration of new technologies into the force and maintaining competition in the industrial base, this approach would likely lead to higher operation and sustainment costs and a smaller force than the Air Force could otherwise afford,” he said.

The CSIS report compared and contrasted three recently released studies on the Air Force’s current and future force structure, that were mandated by Section 1064 of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Those studies were conducted by the service itself as well as the federally funded MITRE Corp. and the independent bipartisan think tank the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA).

Future analysis should reconsider the Air Force’s roles and missions and how they relate to other services, the CSIS report said. There are “opportunities where the Air Force’s latest capabilities and force structure can efficiently and effectively take on additional responsibilities,” such as providing greater assistance in traditional Navy roles including maritime surveillance, anti-surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare. There are existing Air Force platforms that could assist with laying sonobuoys or providing maritime ISR with some modifications, Harrison noted.

“The time is ripe for a new Key West Agreement that reallocates roles and missions across the service,” especially if plans to stand up a new sixth branch of the services dedicated to space – the proposed U.S. Space Force – are confirmed by Congress, he said. The Key West Agreement, drafted by first Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and approved by the Harry S. Truman administration in 1948, included an outline of the division of air platforms and responsibilities among the Navy, the Army and the newly established Air Force that is still largely followed today, he noted.