The Air Force of the Future

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Section 1064 of the fiscal year (FY) 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) mandated three separate studies of the Air Force’s current and future force structure. The law specified that the studies consider future threats to air and space forces, traditional and alternative roles and missions for the Air Force, the role of new technology and remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), and operation and sustainment costs, among other factors. It further mandated that each study include a force-sizing construct for the Air Force and recommended inventories by aircraft type in the 2030 timeframe. The statutory deadline for the studies was March 1, 2019, although the studies were not publicly released until after this date. The three studies were conducted by the Air Force, in conjunction with the Office of Net Assessment; the MITRE Corporation, a federally-funded research and development center (FFRDC); and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), an independent 501(c)(3) think tank.

The requirement for three independent force structure studies began in the Senate version of the FY 2018 NDAA. The report accompanying the Senate’s version of the bill notes that “the Air Force currently lacks an understandable and sufficient aircraft inventory force-sizing rationale.” It goes on to state that the intended purpose of the three studies is to “provide competing visions and alternatives for a future set of choices regarding Air Force aircraft capabilities and capacities.”2 While the House version of the FY 2018 NDAA did not contain a similar provision, the conference committee elected to keep the Senate provision in the final version of the bill, which was signed into law on December 12, 2017.

The purpose of this report is to compare, contrast, and critique the three studies of the Air Force’s future force structure. While each study had the option of producing a classified annex with additional material, this analysis only considers the unclassified material released from the three studies. It provides an independent assessment of the current state of the Air Force, areas where the studies agree, areas where they disagree, and areas where additional research and analysis is needed.

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