United States Air Force

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Contents

History

The Air Force was originally part of the Army as the Army Air Corps. After World War II the decision was made to constitute it as a separate military service as part of the National Security Act of 1947. Under the Air Force Reorganization Act of 1951, the Air Force gained control of all Army fixed wing aircraft as well as ballistic missile units. The Navy and Marines maintained their own fixed wing air resources, while the Army retained helicopters, some reconnaisance planes and a handful of small transport planes. The new U.S. Air Force saw its first action in 1948 during the Berlin Airlift, a mission that succesfully prevented Soviet forces from blockading the city of Berlin. There are currently jurisdictional issues between the Army and the Air Force over unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) with every service developing them at the current time. Critics of the current structure believe that it has encouraged the Air Force to provide insufficient attention to its roles which involve direct support for the Army such as fixed wing transport and close air support aircraft.

Force Structure

The Air Force has two main kinds of combat aircraft. Bombers deliver large bomb loads to enemy targets, often at great distances and are also the main kind of combat aircraft used to deliver nuclear weapons. Fighters carry small bomb loads, generally have shorter ranges, and generally have better air to air combat capabilities. Cargo aircraft take troops and cargo to their destinations. The smaller cargo aircraft have shorter ranges and a greater ability to handle poor airfield conditions. Tanker aircraft refuel planes, often in mid-air. They serve a role somewhat analogous to a naval aircraft carrier, allowing aircraft to deploy to locations far from airfields. VIP transports are glorified corporate jets of various sizes from Air Force One (a converted 747 for Presidential use) to smaller jets and turboprop plans that carry only a handful of personnel. They are also sometimes used for medical evacuation. The other categories are self-explanatory.

The Air Force is also responsible for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The United States currently has about 550 (500 Minuteman and 50 Peacekeeper) at bases across the country. About 10,000 people in the Air Force are devoted to guarding, maintaining, and if necessary, firing, these missiles.

There are unit hierarchies in the Air Force, but they tend to be less relevant to policy consideration than those in Army, Navy and Marines because aircraft tend to deploy in fairly small units, unlike the Brigade and Divisional deployments common in the Army and Marines, and are more mobile than Naval forces that can take weeks or months to move from one theater to another. The way the Air Force integrates the active duty force and its reserve and national guard components is currently being re-evaluated.

Aircraft inventories as of May 2002 are provided below (seperate pages show break out summaries for the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard alone):

Bomber (AF, AFR, ANG)

B-1 (68-0-16) Swing Wing, Supersonic Bomber. Entered service in 1987.

B-52 (49-8-0) Ancient Bomber; still delivered most of the payloads used in 2003. Entered service in 1955. Last of class built in 1962.

B-2 (16-0-0) Stealth Bomber. Entered service 1993.

Fighter and Attack (AF, AFR, ANG)

F-16 (638-59-452) Multi-role ground based fighter. Eventually to be replaced by the F-35A. Entered service 1979.

F-15 (514-0-98) Air superiority fighter. This is the best air-to-air combat plane in the Air Force at this time. Entered service 1972. Eventually to be replaced by the F-22.

A-10 (114-39-72) Close air support attack aircraft. Entered service 1977. This is primarily used for anti-tank and anti-infantry combat. It was originally to be replaced by the F-35A, and is now being upgraded for continued use.

F-117 (includes 2 YF-117) (47-0-0) Stealth Fighter-Bomber. Eventually to be replaced by the F-22. Entered service 1983.

AC-130 (16-0-0) Close Air Support Gunship Fixed Wing based on C-130. Entered service 1967. This is used to attack infantry and vehicles on the ground. No replacement is currently planned. The Air Force is planning to bring the total number of the AC-130 to 25, however.

F-22 (6-0-0) Advanced Tactical Fighter (stealthy). Enters service in 2005.

Cargo Aircraft (AF, AFR, ANG)

C-130 Hercules (166-100-216) A short range (1500nm), short takeoff and landing (3,000 feet), small airlift turboprop aircraft. Can hold 92 troops or a 45,000 lbs cargo payload. First deployed in 1955. (Includes 1 AF NC-130 & 8 ANG LC-130 aircraft).

For comparison purposes, a C-130 can carry about twice as many troops and/or cargo, and has a range about five times a long, as the CH-47 Chinook or CH-53 Sea Stallion military helicopters, the heaviest Army and Navy/Marine helicopters currently in service, and the C-130 has a cruising speed about three times as great as these heavy lift helicopters do.

A C-130 is too small to carry a Bradley fighting vehicle, an M1 Abrams tank, or an AH-64 Apache helicopter. The Army's proposed "Future Combat System" is being designed to be capable of deploying by C-130, as are its interim new vehicles such as a small multiple rocket launcher system based on its 5 ton truck, the Stryker armored vehicle, and the ASV armored security vehicle which is an armored car designed for military police patrols.

C-5 Galaxy (70-28-12) A long range, heavy load airlift jet aircraft. Payload 261,000. Crew 6. $168 million ea. Entered service 1970. 5,165 nm range without refueling. This can hold 1 M1 Abrams tank or two M2 Bradley fighting vehicles. It can carry Apache AH-64 Helicopters or any other heavy Army equipment including 74 ton heavy engineering vehicles.

C-17 (67-0-0) Long range, medium weight airlift, short takeoff and landing jet aircraft. Can hold 102 troops. Payload 170,000 lbs cargo. Range without refueling 5200 nautical miles. Entered service in 1993. It can land on a 3,000 foot long, 90 foot wide runway.

This can hold 1 stripped down M1 Abrams tank, or two Bradley fighting vehicles. It can carry Apache AH-64 Helicopters.

MC-130 (40-12-4) Special Operations variant of C-130 for airdrop missions.

C-141 (32-40-16) Long range, medium weight airlift. Eventually to be replaced by the C-17. It can carry Apache AH-64 Helicopters.

C-9 (22-0-0) Cargo plane based on DC-9 airliner.

Tanker Aircraft (AF, AFR, ANG)

KC-135 (226-64-204) A Boeing 707 based tanker. Entered service 1957-1965.

KC-10 (54-0-0) A DC-10 based tanker jet aircraft. Can instead transport 75 people or 170,000 lbs. Used to support planes from C-5 to fighters.

HC-130 (11-9-7) A C-130 based tanker (presumably for helicopters).

NKC-130 (3-0-0) A C-130 based tanker.

VIP Transport. (AF, AFR, ANG)

C-21 (72-0-2) Medical evacuation (Learjet).

C-12 (27-0-0) Executive turboprop small transport 6,500 lbs.

VC-20 (12-0-0) Executive jet. 12-14 passengers.

C-32 (4-0-0)VIP transport successor (Boeing 757) to C-137. 45 seats.

VC-25 (2-0-0) Boeing 747 Presidential Jet (aka Air Force One when President on board).

C-135 (2-0-0) Boeing 707. VIP Transport.

C-37 (2-0-0) Gulfstream executive jet VIP transport successor to C-137.

C-41 (2-0-0) 14-16 seat VIP transport, distant variant of DC-2

C-137 (1-0-0) Presidential Airliner Prior to VC-25. Boeing 707 base.

C-26 (0-0-11) Executive turboprop used for drug interdiction. ANG only.

C-38 (0-0-2) Executive Jet. New design. ANG only.

C-31 (NA) Transport for Golden Knights parachute display team.

Reconaissance, Intelligence and Command (AF, AFR, ANG)

OA-10 (66-6-18) A-10 Warthog adapted for Recon

U-2 (29-0-0) High altitude spy plane

E-3 (26-0-0) AWACS with the big antenna disk on top (Boeing 707 base)

EC-130 (16-2-3) Electronic warfare jamming aircraft based on C-130.

RC-135 (18-0-0) (incld. 2 OC-135) SIGINT, ELINT, COMINT, TELINT (i.e. electronic spying aircraft based on C-135 tanker aircraft).

E-8 (10-0-0) J-STAR command and control aircraft.

RQ-1 (5-0-0) Predator Drone.

E-4 (3-0-0) Boeing 747 based command center.

WC-130 (0-2-0) Weather aircraft based on C-130.

Helicopters (AF, AFR, ANG)

HH-60 (43-21-15) A modern Blackhawk utility helicopter.

UH-1 (41-0-0) The Huey utility helicopter. These are primarily tasked with moving personnel around ICBM bases in the continental U.S. and the Air Force is currently looking for a replacement from off the shelf civilian helicopter types.

MH-53 (30-0-0) Air Force special operations version of Marines' Sea Stallion heavy lift helicopter. Their primary mission is recovering pilots whose planes have been shot down or crashed in hostile territory.

See military helicopters.

Trainers (AF only)

T-37 (349) Entered service in 1954. A two engine Cessna jet. Replacement effort failed.

T-38 (297) Entered service in 1961. A supersonic trainer based on F-5 fighter with planned service until 2020.

T-1 (149) Bus. twin jet trainer for transp.& tankers. Aka the Beech Jayhawk. Entered service in 1992.

T-3 (109) Entered service in 1991. It replaces the T-41. Aka the Firefly. Single prop.

AT-38 (77) An armed version of T-38, to train for carrying weapons.

T-6 (26) Entered service in 1998. Aka the Texan II. Single Prop.

TG-4 (10) Bi-plane torpedo bomber?

T-43 (9) Trainer version of Boeing 737.

TG-7 (8)

TG-9 (4)

TU-2 (4)

T-39 (3) A small twin engine executive jet used for radar navigation training. Introduced in 1960.

T-41(3) Entered service in 1965. A Cessna 172. Single prop std. Cessna design.

TC-135 (2)

TG-3 (2)

TC-11 (2)

UV-18 (2) Duel Prop. 25 passenger, 4,500 lbs. transport.

Future Aircraft

The U.S. military always has a number of aircraft that it is developing, some public, and some secret (aka "black projects").

The F-22

The biggest budgetary development priority of the Air Force right now is the F-22 which is a replacement for the existing F-15. While the Air Force has several of these planes already, and they are in the final testing stages (and experiencing no serious testing stage failures), they are not available in large numbers for use in combat operations and the current debate hinges on how many will be purchased.

Current budget plans currently call for buying an F-22 fleet about 180 of the original planned buy of 750 planes in the next few years to replace the F-15 and F-117. The entire buy would be made by the end of 2008 under existing budgetary plans (presumably in order to prevent further cuts to the aircraft program which could occur in a more drawn out procurement schedule, particularly one that extended beyond the Presidency of George W. Bush).

The F-35

The next biggest development priority of the Air Force is the F-35 aka the "Joint Strike Fighter". The basic version, the F-35A will be used by the Air Force. This source asserts that the Air Force plans to buy 1763 of the F-35A variant. It is designed to be less capable than the F-22 and to replace the F-16 at a modest cost.

A short takeoff, vertical landing model, the F-35B, which has a powerful fan that allows it to hover, is designed to replace the AV-8B Harrier jet used by the U.S. Marines and the British Navy, with the Air Force also buying a small number of them. The primary sacrifice this model will make for its vertical landing capability is decreased range.

These two designs also have potential purchasers among U.S. allies.

The third version, the F-35C is a heavier aircraft carrier based version for use by the U.S. Navy. Surprisingly, this is anticipated to be more expensive than the F-35B, despite being less mechanically complex. The F-35C will replace the F-18 (and the F-14, which will be out of service before the F-35C enters service).

All versions of the F-35 are designed to have limited stealth capabilities and to be relatively low maintenance. Because it will replace many models of existing fighter aircraft, the number of F-35s purchased is expected to be high, with about 1763 F-35A purchases, 480 domestic F-35B purchases and 480 F-35C purchases currently planned. But, this source puts the 2006 budget plan for combined U.S. F-35 purchases at 2443 (which is 280 less than the combined number shown above). This source attributes the 2443 number to 1763 for the Air Force and 680 for the Navy and Marines combined. The total planned Air Force purchases of F-22 and F-35 combined represents a policy decision to keep the total number of fighters in the classes replaced by the F-22 and F-35 combined roughly the same, while not fully replacing Navy and Marine aircraft. The Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard currently have 2,039 fighters of the A-10, F-15, F-16, F-117 and F-22 types. The current planned buy of F-22s and F-35s for the Air Force and its two reserve components combined is 1,914, about 5% less than the existing total.

The F-35 is the only manned U.S. fighter jet other than the F-22 in the works for the foreseeable future. It was intended to replace the F-14, F-16, F-18, AV-8B and A-10 in three different versions, although there is a plan in place at this time to retain the A-10 which is very different in mission from the other planes the F-35 is to replace, in an upgraded form.

This source states that the first delivery of the F-35C will come about two years after the first delivery of the F-35A, and that the first delivery of the F-35B will come about two years after the first delivery of the F-35C, with the planes put into actual military service within a year or two of delivery.

UAVs

There are a number of efforts underway by every department of the United States military (the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy (including the Marines) to develop unmanned aircraft including combat aircraft. The RQ-1 Predator drone, designed for reconnaisance, has been mounted with anti-tank missiles designed for U.S. Army helicopters. The RQ-4 Global Hawk, is a high altitude reconnaisance UAV. The RQ-8 is a joint Navy-Army project which will be a drone helicopter for reconnaisance and light attack missions (similar to the existing Kiowa class of helicopters). A comprehensive summary of unmanned aerial vehicle programs in the U.S. military, prepared by the Department of Defense, is found here.

The Air Force and Navy are cooperating in the development of two, quite similar, small stealthy flying wing bomber designs, the X-45 and the X-47. The former is a primarily an Air Force project and have proven successful in limited testing. The later has been designed with aircraft carrier based service in mind. Both are smaller than conventional fighter aircraft and carry a small payload of bombs.

UAV development has posed a number of "cultural" problems for the military services. For example, while some UAVs fairly directly replace existing military aircraft types (such as the X-45 which is basically an unmanned successor to the F-117 in mission), many smaller UAVs bridge the line between vehicles on one side and equipment and weapons systems on the other. Should a 100 lb model airplane with a camera on it that carries a ten pound bomb be subject to the same rules (Air Force control, piloting done by officers, etc.) as an F-16?

Other

There are no publicly disclosed large manned bombers under development (although it is worth remembering that both the F-117 and B-2, two of the most recent planes with bombing missions, were black projects for extended periods of time).

There are discussions underway over whether the next generation tanker aircraft should be a Boeing 767 based design, an option which stumbled due to an usual lease arrangement that was proposed, or whether a European Airbus design will be considered, breaking the usual tradition that only American aircraft manufacturers are allowed to produce military aircraft.

The Air Force continues to purchase the C-17 medium sized long range cargo aircraft, and is considering purchasing a major new version of its C-130 aircraft called the C-130J, which represents significant modifications from the prior versions and has been plagued with technical difficulties. There are no public plans for a new large Air Force transport plane beyond the conceptual phase.

Unmanned aircraft proposals appear to be the only kind of future reconnaisance planes under consideration.

The Army has also expressed interest in designing and manufacturing a short range, fixed wing transport aircraft for itself, smaller than a C-130, to take some of the burden off its transport helicopters which are more tempermental in adverse conditions than fixed wing aircraft.

The Marines have as their first priority, production of the V-22, a tilt wing small transport craft (with about the capacity of a medium to large sized transport helicopter) that can land and take off vertically, but uses less fuel and has a longer range than helicopters. This has been repeatedly postponed by technical difficulties with the ground breaking aircraft.

More Speculative Future Combat Aircraft Prospects

There are no new combat aircraft, either bombers or fighters, other than the F-22 and F-35 in an advanced state of development. Current combat aircraft developments are focused on unmanned combat drones, of which the armed Predator drone, basically on oversized remote controlled aircraft with a missile designed for use on Army anti-tank helicopters mounted on it, is the first example. The F-35 could conceivable be the last major manned fighter jet every built.

The most plausible possible future bomber concept being discussed at this time is the "transport bomber" which would be basically a cargo plane loaded with a large number of cruise missiles.

Another bomber proposal is the FB-22, a medium range, medium weight bomber variant of the F-22.

The most plausible manned combat aircraft concept being discussed at this time would be a close air support aircraft between an A-10 and AC-130 in size called the AC(X).

Another concept which has received serious consideration is the "Homeland Defense Interceptor". This would be a fuel efficient, low maintenance, low performance fighter jet with advanced sensors but only a very small compliment of air to air missiles, designed to be a cost effective way to respond to and train to respond to errant civilian aircraft in the United States over major U.S. cities like Washington D.C. and New York City, perhaps with terrorist intents, a role now carried out by expensive F-16 fighters that don't need anything approaching their full capabilities to handle these missions. These might be assigned primarily to air national guard units. The need for a plane to fill the homeland defense interceptor role is not speculative. Since 9-11, there have been 3,400 incidents involving planes flying into restricted airspace (half in Washington D.C.) which have led to 2,000+ occassions upon which planes have been scrambled to respond.

The natural place to look for funding for an AC(X) or a Homeland Defense Interceptor would be to carve it out of the Air Force F-35 budget. A cut of 24 F-35s, for example, could permit the purchase of about 120 Homeland Defense Interceptors which could serve major U.S. cities with significant protected air space.

More Speculative Future Logistics Aircraft

Some thoughtful ideas about future military transport aircraft from an 1988 article which remain relevant can be found here, and are well within the mainstream range of what is being considered today. Basically, the author suggests that the venerable C-130 be replaced with two new models of transport aircraft.

One would be about to carry about twice the payload as a C-130 (still far less than the next bigger C-17, but large enough to carry a single Bradley fighting vehicle, for example) while landing in an airfield about half as long (1500 feet) as a C-130. The larger vehicle would be somewhat similar to the Airbus 400M military transport which will have a 37 ton capacity (v. about 19 tons for the C-130), will have roughly the same short takeoff and landing abilities of the C-130 and C-17 (a 3,000 foot long and 90 foot wide field airstrip is required), and will have a longer range by about 500 miles. The A400M is slated to enter many European militaries in 2009. Each A400M will cost about 100M Euros (ca. $120M).

The other would carry about half the load of a C-130 (comparable to a heavy lift helicopter) and would be able to land on a very rough airfield about a third as long (1000 feet) as the C-130 with a range of about 500 nautical miles (about 1.5 times that of a heavy lift helicoper). The smaller plane would provide range, fuel efficency and speed better than a heavy lift helicopter, with greater mechanical reliability, when vertical landings weren't necessary. Both proposals are "low risk" ideas in terms of technological innovation.

Observations and Analysis

In General

The U.S. Air Force is probably the largest and most capable in the world. It is also expensive. The new F-22 fighter costs roughly a quarter of a billion dollars per plane. The new F-35 fighter which is designed to replace the F-16 and the F-18 and the Marine Harrier AV-8B aircraft will cost several tens of millions of dollars each. The B-2 bomber cost $2 billion a piece. A C-17 costs more than $100 million. Critics of defense policy frequently ask if more new fighter jets in a force that is already without serious competition in the world is really a higher priority than a ground based system for troops (like armor for Humvees, or upgraded firearms for troops, or body armor for ground troops) which are relevant to current conflicts. Thus far, both the F-22 and F-35 fighter jet purchase plans have been greatly reduced in number but both programs have been retained.

New munitions have transformed the way the Air Force is used. Combat aircraft are primarily armed with guided missiles and bombs. Many of those bombs are "smart bombs" that have limited abilities to fly to their targets. These munitions are also, however, much more expensive than "dumb bombs". A single missile often costs about the same amount as a Humvee (both are about $100,000 each), but the missile is obviously a disposable item.

The Air Force currently has a shortage of airlift and electronic systems aircraft (electronic warfare, electronic intelligence and command and control), and a glut of fighter aircraft.

Many of its aircraft designs are old, although planes are regularly overhauled and upgraded. The C-130 and B-52 and T-37 have been in continuous service for about half a century. The F-15 and F-16 first came into service during Vietnam, three decades ago. Transport and fighter aircraft age quickly because they receive heavy use, bomber aircraft age slowly because they are used infrequently and generally only in the early days of a conflict in a region, and don't require as much training to operate as a fighter jet. In contrast, fighters require intense training so that their pilots are in top form, and cargo aircraft are used long after initial hostilities have commenced in a military conflict.

Unlike Navy and Army resources, Air Force planes can be rapidly shifted from one theater of operations to another. In the Iraq War some bombers based in North Dakota flew to Iraq, dropped their bombs, and returned to directly to the North Dakota base. Prior to the Iraq War, when the U.S. was enforcing a "no fly zone" over Iraq, many air craft were based in Italy.



Political Issues

The Air Force and Army continue to joust over jurisdiction. The Army is considering developing a transport plane smaller than the C-130 for short range airlif missions on its own, and it is also developing its own fleet of unmanned aircraft, mostly, but not entirely, for reconnaisance purposes. The Air Force is also irked that it reserves operating unmanned aircraft for officers, while the Army allows lower ranking non-commissioned officers to do the same thing. The Army does this because it feels that the Air Force is not reliable in providing support for its troops.

A couple of Air Force procurement programs have recently attracted negative political attention. The C-130J, a major new revision of the venerable cargo plane, was abandoned by the Pentagon because the new version didn't work well, and then restored by Congress to some extent. A 767 based tanker program hit hitches when a corrupt plan to lease them to the Air Force in a financially disadvantageous way to taxpayers was pushed through job offers by Boeing to Pentagon procurement officials. They are discussed here.

The European Union is claiming in the World Trade Organization that the United States uses military procurement to unfairly subsized the commercial operations of the only major airliner manufacturer, Boeing.

Air Force Threats

Military aircraft are more evenly distributed than military naval equipment.

At the bottom of the heap are nations with a small number of out dated fighter aircraft, mostly with a ground attack focus. Many small and third world countries have air forces of this type. Only a handful of countries lack any armed air force.

Nations with more money to spend which can't build their own fighter aircraft and either can't afford or can't get anyone to sell them advanced fighter aircraft (the Irans and Syrias of the world, for example) have pursued one or more of three main approaches to developing their air forces: (1) buying more outdated fighters, (2) upgrading outdated (and hence relatively slow and unmanuverable) fighters with advanced missiles and sensors in hope of developing a first see, first kill capability (about 80% of planes destroyed in air to air combat since it first began have not know that they were under attack until they were hit), and (3) developing capable mobile anti-aircraft missile capabilities to postpone or prevent a foreign power from controlling their low altitude air space (Iraq, for example, played a cat and mouse game with U.S. and allied planes patrolling a "no fly zone" for almost the entire period from the end of the Gulf War through the early days of the Iraq War). Many of these nations are also trying to develop shore based, mobile, anti-ship cruise missiles and small numbers of ballistic missiles.

More affluent nations, mostly in Europe and high GNP nations in Asia, have purchased or copied and built the best available fighter aircraft roughly comparable to the current batch American fighter jets in numbers that they can afford.

China, which bears special attention because it has a large air force and the U.S. military is very concerned about planning to defend Taiwan against any possible invasion from China, has primarily developed a large fleet of aircraft, most Russian knockoffs, which are more capable than outdated fighter aircraft used by many less wealthy nations, but not quite state of the art either. It is currently trying, with mixed success, to build more advanced fighter aircraft.

Only Russia has long range bomber capabilities comparable to those of the United States. No nation has stealth capability comparable to that of the United States. The quality of pilot training, which is critical in combat situations, varies greatly from nations to nation, notwithstanding air craft inventories.

It is difficult to determine how many military aircraft are necessary to deal with various threats because there is relatively little real world experience to draw upon. Most air combat in the past third of a century has involved only a handful of fighters engaging each other, or has involved mass bombardments by the U.S. aided by coalitions of allied forces. The handful of larger engagements have been studies at length, but have involved such clearly unevenly matched forces that it is hard to draw conclusions about how a more evenly matched battle might be fought.

The Air Force Academy

The Air Force's military academy is based in Colorado Springs. It has recently attracted considerable attention due to safety problems with its trainer aircraft fleet, sexual harassment and rape incidents, religious persecution of non-Evangelical Christians, subpeonas in its investigations of rape crisis counselers whose records are privileged under state law. Accountability at the Air Force Academy for these incidents has been modest at best.

The Air Force Academy has also faced problems with cheating by cadets and drug use. Several years ago most of its fleet of training planes was grounded for technical problems.

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