Another 2,000 aircraft are projected to exit the US military’s inventory over the next decade. For the fleets of many countries, this would be an existential crisis. But this is the American fleet, so it is only a 15% cut.
If the world looked any safer now than a decade ago, a planned cull would be welcomed. And as aircraft grow in capability and longevity, it should be possible to field a smaller force packing a similar punch.
But these fleet reductions – outlined in the US military’s annual 30-year aviation plan – flow out of broader considerations that have more to do with rising operating costs and tightening budgets.
Thirty-year forecasts are not to be taken at face value, but visibility over the next 10 years is reasonably clear. And it looks like a dreary decade for aircraft power.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 is expected to begin its long-delayed ramp up to full-rate production, although not fast enough to replace the number of fighters reaching retirement age. The first of a new generation of long-range strategic bombers will arrive under LRS-B. And the number of tankers and airlifters will actually grow as the Boeing KC-46A enters the fleet.
Those three programmes will replenish the US military’s capability versus the most advanced threats over the next 10 years, following a decade of intense focus on low-threat conflicts.
Survivability, appropriately, is the key to surviving the cull. The Fairchild Republic A-10 may yet duck the US Air Force’s second attempt to usher it into retirement, but it faces a long-term struggle against the service’s priorities. The army, meanwhile, has already begun pensioning off its Bell Helicopter OH-58D Kiowa Warriors with virtually no resistance.
Almost missing from the 10-year inventory plan is the introduction of a clean-sheet aircraft. The only new designs to arrive will be the navy’s carrier-based unmanned air vehicle, an advanced fighter trainer to replace the aged Northrop T-38 Talon, and the LRS-B.
It will be at least another decade before the next wave of innovation sweeps in, with the potential arrival of sixth-generation fighters, high-speed rotorcraft and perhaps even blended-wing body transports in the 2030s or shortly thereafter.
As each new system enters the fleet, it seems inevitable that each advanced design will be more capable, cost more to buy and operate and be procured in lower quantities. The nifty trick of the consumer electronics revolution – more performance at less cost – will continue to elude the aerospace industry.
Source: Flight International