Eyes to the Sky Part II: An Air Force Built for the 21st Century

 /  Jan. 12, 2017, 3:21 p.m.


Combat forces are the most visible aspect of the United States military, but support aircraft and technologies are equally critical to accomplishing American national security objectives. Part I of this piece explicated the need for the Trump administration to modernize the combat fleet in the form of B-21 bombers as well as create a new generation of F-22 Raptors and dogfighting aircraft, and an A-10 replacement. The incoming Pentagon and White House team must also focus on rejuvenating intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets and offensive weaponry for the 21st century.

ISR and Support Aircraft

Although fighters and bombers get all of the attention, they could not accomplish their missions without a range of support aircraft. Most frequently used of this category of aircraft are tankers. Currently, the air force operates two models: the KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender. Although it has the capabilities to carry out the refueling role, the KC-135 has reached the end of its service life. With some aircraft more than fifty years old, the Stratotanker has had a long and effective career. The air force has already begun replacing the aircraft with the KC-46, a derivative of Boeing’s 767 commercial airliner, but similar to programs described previously, the Trump Administration must ensure the program is taken to completion. In addition, the KC-Y acquisition program for a follow-on tanker is in the pipeline. The Trump administration should simply request an upgraded variant of the KC-46 to fulfill the program, saving both time and money.

In addition to a large fleet of tankers, the air force possesses a significant array of command and control and reconnaissance aircraft, designed to coordinate forces and gather intelligence respectively. Although Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have taken on a larger role in recent years, manned aircraft are still vital to these missions. The E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft has become an incredibly valuable tool for the US military during the War on Terror. Using advanced sensors and targeting technologies, JSTARS aircraft locate and track potential targets, and then transmit targeting information to the appropriate combat aircraft. It can also fly over a warzone in which Army and Marine ground forces are engaged, and provide overhead analysis to battlefield commanders. Due to the immense utility of these aircraft, and the increasingly frail state of the fleet (half the fleet is unavailable on daily basis), the air force has already initiated a replacement program for them.

The request for proposal indicates that the air force desires a business-class jet capable of carrying a 13–20 foot radar array, and accomplishing the JSTARS mission. Bidding for this contract is currently open. Gulfstream has offered either the G-550 or G-650, and Bombardier has submitted the Global 6000, all of which are large business jets. In addition, Boeing has gone slightly beyond the requirements and submitted an alternative JSTARS design based on the well-known 737 commercial airliner. Boeing has had significant success with repurposing commercial aircraft designs for military means. Both P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare aircraft and KC-46 tanker were based on commercial derivatives. The air force should recognize that a larger airframe than a business class jet is necessary and that the upgradeability afforded by selecting a larger aircraft, both in terms of size and electrical power, is crucial. The Boeing proposal takes these considerations into account, where Gulfstream and Bombardier potentially fall short. Upon taking office, the Trump administration should select the Boeing 737 as the JSTARS replacement.

In a longer-term evaluation, the Trump administration should consider future plans for, in order, the iconic E-3 Sentry (AWAC) early warning and control aircraft, the RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, and the E-4B “Doomsday Plane,” which sometimes deploys internationally with the president and secretary of defense. Like the existing JSTARS aircraft, the E-3 Sentry and RC-135 are built on Boeing 707 airframes which could be over thirty years old. Both of these planes are vitally important to military operations as AWACs frequently coordinate air combat operations and RC-135s monitor foreign military activity. RC-135s have been in the news recently following aggressive Chinese intercepts during their routine surveillance missions. Fortunately, the nation’s cargo fleet, consisting of C-17s, C-5s, and C-130s, remains in great condition and requires little modernization.

Often forgotten is the air force’s role in protecting the nation's nuclear weapons. In the open fields of Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota sit 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) resting in nuclear hardened underground bunkers. Spread out over hundreds of miles, these missile sites are protected by air force tactical response forces located at Warren, Minot, and Malmstrom air force bases. These response teams utilize the Vietnam-era UH-1N Huey helicopters to respond quickly to possible security situations at any one of the 450 sites. According to Congressman Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, these aging helicopters “are not capable of doing the job of responding to an alert.” This concern has been echoed by DoD officials. It is dangerous for the nation’s nuclear security forces to be ill-equipped to respond in a security situation. For that reason, it must be a priority for the Trump administration to replace the air force’s nuclear security helicopters. Unlike combat helicopters entering war zones, these new aircraft need not be state-of-the-art. The air force must simply have the funds to acquire new Blackhawk helicopters or Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

Last but not least of the aircraft needing replacement is the flag-bearer of the United States of America, Air Force One. The aircraft typically referred to as Air Force One are actually called VC-25A aircraft; the Air Force One callsign is only affixed when the president is onboard. Based on the 747-200B, these aircraft are heavily modified for presidential travel. Equipped with advanced defensive counter measures capable of staving off surface-to-air or air-to-air missiles, hardened to withstand the effects of an electromagnetic pulse, and modified to possess aerial refueling capabilities, the VC-25A aircraft provide the president with a mobile command center capable of functioning in any possible scenario and staying aloft indefinitely. On 9/11 these aircraft carried out just that role as President George W. Bush was ferried from Florida, to Louisiana, to Nebraska, and finally back to Washington. Although communications deficiencies were discovered on that day, the aircraft were capable of providing the president with the ability to conduct a full-scale war from the plane. In addition to its defensive counter measures and military command capabilities, the VC-25 also contains an operating room, and seating for the president’s staff, Secret Service detail, and the press to travel alongside.

These aircraft have served the nation well, but they were originally purchased by President Ronald Reagan. At this point, even with the immense amount of maintenance conducted on the planes (even the specially designed engines are frequently replaced), there is only so much that can be done. With the 747-200 aircraft nearly thirty years old, and most commercial variants already retired from service (the average age of a commercial airliner is eleven years), it has become increasingly difficult to find replacement parts for the plane. As has recently become very public following President-elect Trump’s criticism of Boeing’s efforts, President Obama’s administration had selected the 747-800 as the future Air Force One. The Boeing 747-800 was the only American-made aircraft capable of fulfilling the specifications for the new Air Force One: large size, four engines, power generation capability, and immense runway presence. As a result, President-elect Trump should cease his attacks on the project. In the grand scheme of government budgets, $4 billion for such an important set of aircraft is not surprising. There are plenty of other less important projects with real financial problems for the incoming president to set his sights on. He must save our nation the embarrassment of having a potential mishap on the flag-bearing aircraft of the United States.


Possessing state-of-the art aircraft is fantastic, but they do little good without the technology to make them effective. Like the air force fleet, the air force’s technologies and weapons systems have been neglected with little to no modernization effort.

The current American strategy for employing stealth fighter aircraft rests on the premise that the jets will be able to launch missiles at enemy aircraft from great distance. The F-35 has suffered from repeated failures in dogfight testing, often times losing in aerial engagements to fourth-generation fighters. In response to these negative results, the air force claims that the F-35 will not engage in dogfights. Instead, it will use its missiles to destroy enemy aircraft before the adversary even knows the American pilot is present. The two aircraft will never approach each other and engage in a close-range engagement. This idea, which shows excessive confidence and will eventually result in a repeat of the lessons learned with the early F-4 Phantom variants in Vietnam, relies on the effectiveness of the US military’s arsenal of air-to-air missiles.

Specifically, the strategy relies squarely on the shoulders of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The AMRAAM is a medium range air-to-air missile capable of engaging targets at great distance, and as of today it is the go-to beyond-visual-range missile of the US Air Force and Navy. A venerable weapons system that has repeatedly proven itself in the past, the AMRAAM is now simply being beaten by modern technology. The US defense community has not conducted any development planning for a replacement to the AMRAAM, despite its evident necessity.

In recent years, China has developed air-to-air missiles, such as the PL-15, and a newly-tested Very Long Range Air-to-Air Missile (VLRAAM), which possibly out-range American weapons systems. Even if these missiles systems are less advanced than their American equivalents, Chinese planes can carry more missiles than American planes. This is because most Chinese aircraft do not possess stealth capabilities and can thus carry missiles on underwing hardpoints. Unlike most of their Chinese counterparts, the F-35 and F-22 must carry their armaments within the body of the aircraft in internal weapons bays. Any missiles on external hardpoints eliminate the aircraft’s stealth characteristics. Due to this lopsidedness in weapons payloads, American missiles must significantly outperform their equivalents overseas and possess a much higher probability of kill percentage. The other reason a new long-range air-to-air missile must be developed is a result of digital radio frequency memory jammers. These pieces of technology are being rapidly deployed by China and Russia, and interfere with the ability of a radar-guided weapon like the AMRAAM to lock onto its target. Without an effective long-range missile capability, the air force’s strategy in aerial engagements with its stealth aircraft will not be effective. The next administration must task defense contractors, such as Raytheon, and Defense Department agencies, such as the Strategic Capabilities Office, with the project of developing a new beyond-visual-range missile.

Hypersonic weapons systems are another area in which the United States military risks falling behind in without further investment. Hypersonic weapons are projectiles which travel at speeds of Mach 5 and above. They are incredibly lethal because the high speeds of the projectiles limit interception possibilities, and there is little time to react between the detection of the launch of a hypersonic weapon and the weapon’s impact. China has now tested a hypersonic air-to-air missile, a hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile, and a hypersonic glider. Russia has also tested its own hypersonic weapons. All of these advances pose distinct risks to US military activity around the world.

The US must react and catch up to our adversaries in the realm of hypersonic technology by increasing funding to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and providing research and development funding to qualified defense contractors. Hypersonic weaponry possesses incredibly advantageous characteristics for the US style of warfare. The weapons can be fired from great distance, even from the continental US, and travel very quickly to targets anywhere in the world. Similar to the overseas weapons systems, the US variants would be incredibly hard to intercept at such a high speed. As a result, hypersonic weaponry is the future of projectile warfare and will rapidly replace conventional systems all across the military spectrum.

The air force should also conduct further operational research on the deployment of the Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Project (CHAMP). Essentially, this project is a weapons system that mounts on the warhead of one of the air force’s joint standoff missiles, and gives the United States the ability to shut down an adversary's electronic capabilities with pinpoint accuracy. In a world where technology has become an increasingly important component of everyday life, as well as military operations, the ability to target an adversary's vast array of electronic weaponry, communications gear, and equipment without any physical damage is highly valuable. Previously, this damage could only be done by the widespread carnage caused by a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Thus, the Trump Administration should also prioritize the development of the CHAMP system.


The capabilities afforded to the United States in the operational arena by the US Air Force are unmatched around the world; but this does not come without a cost. It takes a significant amount of resources, both money and brainpower, to ensure that US air capabilities reign supreme across the globe. As General David Goldfein said, "Air superiority is not an American birthright. It's actually something you have to fight for and maintain." This fight must never be lost. What Americans must remember, and President-elect Trump must take to heart upon assuming office, is that the investment in maintaining air superiority takes place before the fight even begins. As another famous air force chief of staff, General Nathan Twining, once said, “If our air forces are never used, they have achieved their finest goal.” Deterrence is a great thing.

The image featured in this article has been taken from the US Department of Defense's website. The original image can be found here.

Will Cohen


<script type="text/javascript" src="//downloads.mailchimp.com/js/signup-forms/popup/embed.js" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"mc.us12.list-manage.com","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>