Eglin Air Force Base accepted its sixth F-15EX Eagle II fighter aircraft on Jan. 26, 2024.

Eglin Air Force Base accepted its sixth F-15EX Eagle II fighter aircraft on Jan. 26, 2024. U.S. Air Force / 2nd. Lt. Rebecca Abordo

The State of the Air Force 2024

A strategic reorientation is unfolding against changes in the conduct of air warfare.

The great strategic reorientation of the past decade—from counterterrorism to great power competition—is now unfolding against changes in the conduct of war itself. Air Force leaders are working to meet the challenges through a dramatic reorganization, rethinking how to deploy forces, and a renewed focus on uncrewed systems and next-gen technologies. 

“We certainly look to optimize for the pacing challenge, but we do it the nation asks us to do, and I would say that the great power competition [effort], it is focused on China, but actually we're optimizing for the environment that we're in, so whatever that turns out to be,” Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin said March 28 during Defense One’s State of Defense series. “The changing character of war demands us to think about things differently, so I would say that this optimization is really as much as optimizing for the environment within which there's great power competition [instead of] just focusing on China.”

For the past 20 years, the U.S. Air Force has been deploying forces one squadron at a time to the Middle East, and taking people and aircraft from units across the service. But that’s not going to be good enough in a bigger fight against China, officials say. 

The service is restructuring the way it deploys forces, which has been tailored to sending aircraft and forces to fight counterinsurgency in the Middle East, with an eye towards China. To deploy large forces quickly, Air Force officials say their wings need to train and deploy together. This shift is part of a massive overhaul to the service rolled out in February, which marked the most significant change to the service’s current structure in decades. 

Meeting up in theater isn’t going to work “if you have to be ready to engage in combat in very, very short order, so we are reorienting our wings to be able to train together as units in the environment,” Allvin said.

A looming threat in the Indo-Pacific is driving this effort, called “Reoptimizing for Great Power Competition,” and a slew of other modernization efforts the service is hoping to make progress on this year, including a new stealth fighter jet, called NGAD, and drones that will fly alongside manned fighters, known as CCAs. 

But many of the service’s modernization efforts won’t come online until the 2030s, and senior Pentagon officials have said that China’s military will be prepared to invade Taiwan by 2027, leaving a potential gap if Xi Jinping follows through with this alleged goal.

Allvin said he “always” worries about the threat from China, but that it’s “unhelpful” to pick a date and fixate on it because the service can’t spend all its capital preparing for a specific timeline. 

“It really is a constant management of the readiness today versus the readiness tomorrow and so that's how I view it. We have to constantly look at taking the force that we have today, ensuring we're doing whatever we can with the resources to make it as ready as possible, at the same time metering that with the modernization efforts that we have, because we never want to get to that fight. But we need to have enough readiness today to deter, and then continue the modernization to where they never go to that military toolkit when they're looking for great power competition with our country,” Allvin said. 

The Defense Department is dealing with other threats around the world: Russia is two years into its invasion of Ukraine and the Middle East has been destabilized after the start of the Israel-Hamas war. 

Daily operations have led the Air Force to be stretched thin, the chief said, and it’s starting to show in the readiness of their aircraft. The service constructed its 2025 budget request, which was rolled out March 11, to tackle this readiness problem and further multiple modernization efforts—even if that meant they had to take a hit in their purchasing plans. 

“We had noticed that in the past couple years, we've had a decline in readiness, we're always trying to fight that, so this year, the Department of Defense really focused on arresting any sort of erosion in readiness, and while staying under the fiscal restraints of Fiscal Responsibility Act, look to take whatever else we could harvest and keep our modernization efforts going,” Allvin said. 

The Air Force’s 2025 budget request of $188.1 billion was $3 billion more than last year’s budget request, but less than what they wanted because of Congress’s defense-spending cap. To accommodate for FRA, the service proposed buying fewer fighters than expected and retiring 250 aircraft to boost research and development.

In the 2025 budget rollout, the service announced it plans to buy 42 F-35A fighter jets, a drop from the 48 jets they originally planned to buy this year, and 18 F-15EX jets, instead of the planned 24. While the total envisioned F-35 fleet remains 1,763 aircraft, the service wants to truncate its buy of F-15EXs to a fleet of 98 aircraft instead of 104. 

Asked about the cut’s effect on the service’s fighter force structure, Allvin said, “With any reduction in procurement profile, we have to look at how we move forward with our modernization program, and try to have an elegant handoff from the legacy force structure that we divest to the modern force structure that we're investing in.”

A part of this “modern force” includes more drones—specifically, at least a thousand new “robot wingmen” that will accompany fighter pilots into combat. The service formally announced this program, called “Collaborative Combat Aircraft,” or CCA, last year to provide “affordable mass” and a slew of different capabilities. 

Service officials have not detailed how these drones will change the service’s force structure, nor whether they will be able to buy fewer manned fighters once CCAs come online. But Allvin said that for now, the service still believes it’s “optimal” to have 72 fighters per year, even though they only requested to buy 60 this year. Pending “budget restrictions and other priorities,” they plan to get back up to that number, he said. 

While officials have dodged questions on preliminary cost estimates for CCAs, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said he wants a CCA to cost no more than a third of an F-35—about $27 million. 

But with new development programs, costs can easily rise. Allvin said the service is going to stay disciplined about cost with industry by writing it into the requirements. 

“Remember we talked about, the CCA provides affordable mass, and if we don't have discipline in the way that we work with industry, and that affordable goes away, then we've lost the value proposition,” Allvin said. 

Within the next few months, the Air Force said it will pick two or three companies from the five currently on contract—Anduril, Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman—to design the first tranche of drones. “Increment one” of the CCA program is focused on building simpler drones and fielding them quickly. Drones in “increment two” will have more advanced technology and allow companies that didn’t make it in the first competition to try again.  

But it won’t be easy to find the money for the CCA program and other modernization programs on top of everything else the service wants, such as the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile and the new stealth bomber. Allvin said drawing up the 2026 budget proposal will make 2025 “look easy by comparison.”

The service will likely need to change its purchasing plans to account for its programs that will recapitalize its two parts of the nuclear triad: land-based ICBMs and strategic bombers. The Sentinel program, which is projected to cost almost $132 billion, has already triggered a Nunn-McCurdy breach, which means that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will have to certify the program to stop it from being canceled. Air Force officials maintain they will make the necessary cuts to fund Sentinel, but admit that they don’t know the full magnitude of the trade until the Nunn-McCurdy process is over. 

“As we look into 2026 and beyond, the hard choices get even harder and so we are looking very heavily at force design. Our analytic engine is cranking up as fast as it can to understand what actually moves the needle and trying to really [solve] for agility. What gives us the most options in the future, depending on how it plays out?” Allvin said. 

Allvin, who was sworn into the job in November, has a difficult job ahead as he leads the service through rising threats around the world and an uncertain budgetary landscape at home. In his first year as chief, Allvin’s priorities are “really to follow through on the good ideas that we've already had to take some of these concepts and bring them to execution, and to focus on this reoptimization as fast as we possibly can,” he said. 

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