The US Air Force is about to undergo the largest procurement since the 1980s build up during the end of the cold war. The procurement is based on three major platforms unofficially referred to as the Air Forces big three. This includes the F-35A Lightning II, the B-21 Raider and the KC-46. These three platforms are critical to give the air force a tactical and strategic advantage for the next 30 years. The big three were designed to circumvent and adapt to the emerging threat environment and ensure air superiority in any future air war or conflict.
The first of these platforms to enter service was the F-35A Lightning II in 2016. The F-35A is to replace the US Air Forces fleet of F-16s. The F-35 being a low observable aircraft allows it to fly into contested airspace undetected and engage both air and ground targets.(seeHow the F-35 will Perform Against Todays Threat Aircraft) The F-35s internal fuel capacity without drop tanks allows for a range of up to 1200 miles allowing the F-35 to conduct deep strike missions into enemy territory. F-35s sensor fusion technology allows the aircraft’s radar, RWR and electronic warfare systems to paint a picture of the threats 360 degrees around the aircraft. The F-35s Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 AESA radar can detect and track both air and ground targets simultaneously. While the AN/AAQ 37 DAS provides accurate missiles warning from both air and land threats. Data from both sensors can be displayed on a single screen reducing the need to look at multiple displays at once. on non stealth missions the aircraft can carry up to 15,000ibs of ordinance on 6 external pylons. On these missions the AN/ASQ-239 barracuda can jam enemy radars and missiles.
The F-35A comes at a time when Russia and China have developed sophisticated air defense systems such as the S-300, S-400,HQ-9 and HQ-12. The S-300VM which Russia has deployed in Syria has an effective range of 124 miles and can track aircraft and cruise missiles at the same time and fly up to Mach 7.5. This gives the pilot of non stealth aircraft little or no time to react to a launch. The HQ-9 made by China has a speed of Mach 4.2 although not as fast as the S-300VM the HQ-9 can be integrated with a number of different radars including low band radars and advanced phased array radars that can track targets at low altitudes. With the F-35A in service the US Air Force can circumvent these SAM threats and strike targets deep into enemy territory or provide emergency support in a contested environment. (see Capabilities the F-35A brings to the Air Force) The platform is effective in the evolving threat environment and is a useful weapon system for multi domain battle.
The second most important weapon system that the United States Air Force plans on procuring is the B-21 Raider. The B-21 remains highly classified yet it will become operational by 2025, be fully stealth and have the ability to engage air targets as an interceptor along with being a long range bomber. The 100 planned B-21s are to replace the B-1B from service. The B-21 will have the ability to deploy covenantal bombs and stand off missiles such as the AGM-154 JSOW and AGM-158 JSSAM. The B-21 is projected to cost around $550,000 million per plane.
The B-21 like the F-35 is designed to operate in contested air space and circumvent aerial denial systems such as the S-300 and HQ-9. The Air Forces ability to have a large number of low observable long range bombers is a big game changer. The B-21s will complement the 20 B-2s in service already. The B-21 and F-35A together can eventually fill in the long range strike gap that might emerge when the F-15Es end their life cycles some time in the 2030s/40s.
The KC-46 Pegasus which is expected to enter service in 2018 is the latest US Air Force tanker aircraft designed to replace the aging 1950s era KC-135s. The KC-46 is based on the 767 and cost $147.7 million per plane. The KC-46 adds a critical component to the Air Force as it gives tanker squadron’s a modern advanced platform that can ensure safety during the difficult task of aerial refueling. Aerial refueling is one of the most important missions for any strategic air campaign and having up to date aircraft is critical to make that task as smooth as possible. During most missions combat aircraft must refuel between 3 to 6 times. KC-46s along with 1980s era KC-10s will make up the tanker force for the next 40 years.
These three platforms in addition to the F-22 Raptor and the UAV fleet offer the air force an edge in the 21st century era of fast emerging diverse threats. The strategy of multi domain warfare and its replacement of air land battle involves the use of low observable platforms such as the F-35A and B-21 for first shot first kill against covenantal threats.