The ongoing tactical aircraft (TACAIR) study by the U.S. Air Force, the Joint Staff, and the Pentagon office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) may offer a range of future fighter options for the U.S. Air Force to replace its F-16 fighters and neck down from the service’s seven current fighter types–the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-16, F-35A, and F-22 and the Boeing [BA] F-15C, F-15D, F-15E and A-10.

“I’m really looking for a window of options because the facts and assumptions based on threat will change over time, but I want to get us shaped in a direction because right now we have seven fighter fleets,” Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Q. Brown told the McAleese and Associates’ FY2022 Defense Programs conference on May 12.

“My intent is to get down to about four,” he said. “With that four, what is the right mix? Really, a four plus one because we’re going to have the A-10 for a while, as we re-wing the A-10. I look at NGAD [Next Generation Air Dominance], F-35, which will be the cornerstone [of the future fighter fleet]; F-15EX; we will have F-16s for a while as well. It will be something that will replace the F-16, whether it’s additional F-35s or something else into the future. But I don’t need to make that decision today. That’s probably six, seven, eight years away. What we need to do is shaping the thought process and realize I can’t do this in one budget year. This is why the collaboration with Congress is so important. I’ve got to lay this out with some analysis and have a conversation of where we’re headed and then at the same time work with industry and internal to the building.”

The Air Force is to use the TACAIR study to help build its fiscal 2023 budget.

Brown has said that an F-16 replacement could be a clean sheet design and that open mission systems is one desired attribute for an F-16 replacement, as it will likely be for all future Air Force fighters (Defense Daily, Feb. 17).

The service faces budget challenges for a number of platforms, including its fighters, and how many legacy F-16s, F-15Cs and Ds it can afford to sustain, while moving out on NGAD, the Boeing F-15EX, and reducing the cost per flying hour of the Lockheed Martin F-35A. It appears likely that the service will end up proposing to buy fewer than the 1,763 F-35As it had planned, especially if the cost per flying hour and sustainment costs do not come down significantly.

During the conference, Brown also discussed the need for the Air Force to modernize intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) so that service ISR assets are able to survive in contested environments.

Section 142 of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) called on the Air Force to deliver an airborne ISR plan to Congress by March 30 (Defense Daily, March 17).

That study was to analyze all current airborne ISR missions and those future ones deemed necessary to support the 2018 National Defense Strategy; the “platforms, capabilities, and capacities” to execute such missions; the anticipated life-cycle cost for each platform, capability and capacity requirement; and the operational, budget and schedule trade-offs among sustainment of current systems, modernization of the latter, and research and development/fielding of new capabilities.

“Unfortunately, our ISR 2030 Plan is very well classified,” Brown said on May 12. “This is the conversation I’ve had with our staff. I’ve got to be able to be able to articulate a little bit better what it is besides that it’s ‘connected, persistent, and survivable’ because I have to communicate that with members of Congress, with industry as well. That’s the part we’re working on. So it’s going to be a transition. Some of the capabilities we have today we’ll still have for a while, but we won’t have as many of them, as I transition to something that has that survivable aspect and can see some denied areas.”

“That’s the challenge we have right now,” he said. “If I’m off the coast line, I can only see so deep.”

U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond told the McAleese conference earlier on May 12 that USSF is moving into a new mission area of providing tactical ISR.

“We have to focus on how we use greater space capability in the future as well to get that ISR capability,” Brown said. “The question I ask is not what platform does the combatant commander want, but how many terabytes of data do they want or can they bring into their headquarters to help them make decisions. Do you really care where it came from? Probably not. What you really want is the information.”

“The Air Force ISR modernization is in its final stages of review and will be delivered to Congress as mandated by the 2021 NDAA,” the service said on March 17.

While the fiscal 2021 NDAA allowed the Air Force to retire four Northrop Grumman [NOC] Block 20 RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drones, the law sustains the 20 Block 30 RQ-4s, which the service also wants to retire. The service has said that the Block 30s are not suited for contested environments.

Section 136 of the fiscal 2018 NDAA stipulated that, before retiring RQ-4s or Lockheed Martin [LMT] U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, the Pentagon must certify that the forecast operations and sustainment costs for  replacements for the RQ-4 and U-2 will be less than the comparable costs for those platforms. In addition, the Pentagon has to certify that it will replace the aircraft with equal or greater capabilities and that RQ-4 and U-2 retirements will not diminish ISR capacity available to combatant commanders.

DoD may seek a waiver from the certification requirements, if the secretary of defense “determines, after analyzing sufficient and relevant data, that a greater capability is worth increased operating and sustainment costs” and provides that analysis to Congress, per Section 136 of the fiscal 2018 NDAA.