How Trump Could Actually Make the US Air Force Great Again

In the absence of a more specific official policy, Motherboard asked US air power experts what they think the president-elect should do to improve the military's flying branch.

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Dec 1 2016, 1:00pm

Donald Trump speaks at a rally on the eve of the CNN Republican Presidential Debate. Photo: Joseph Sohm

Donald Trump has vowed to make America's military great again—ignoring, of course, that the US armed forces are already the best in the world by many measures.

The former reality TV star and controversial and unpopular president-elect has vowed to expand the Army by tens of thousands of soldiers and grow the Navy from today's 282 front-line ships to 350. Exactly how Trump would pay for these extra forces and exactly what he'd with them remains something of a mystery.

His plan for the Air Force is equally vague.

"It's really difficult for me to know what the new administration really wants to do/is going to be able to do," Brian Laslie, an historian and author of The Air Force Way of War, told Motherboard in an email.

President-elect Trump's platform included precisely one metric for making the Air Force great again. His administration would "provide the U.S. Air Force with the 1,200 fighter aircraft they [sic] need," according to Trump's campaign website.

Read more: The F-35 Stealth Fighter Is Politically Unstoppable—Even Under President Trump

In the absence of a more specific official policy, Motherboard asked Laslie and two other experts on US air power what they think Trump should do to make the Air Force "greater" than it already is.

Weirdly, by most reckonings, the Air Force already has more than 1,200 fighter aircraft. In March 2016 there were 1,971 total fighters—including F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, F-22s and F-35s—in the flying branch's inventory, according to the most recent edition of the Pentagon's annual report on its aircraft inventory.

Perhaps Trump meant "mission" aircraft—the Pentagon's designation for planes that aren't in deep maintenance or in use for basic flight training, and thus are immediately available for war. As of March 2016, just 1,141 of the 1,971 fighters were mission aircraft.

If Trump's big plan to make the Air Force great again involves adding just 59 new fighters, he's really just proposing a modest adjustment to the existing force structure. By contrast, Dave Deptula, who oversaw all Air Force intelligence aircraft before retiring as a lieutenant general in 2010, told Motherboard via email that he wants Trump to add many more fighters than that and boost other plane types, as well.

Deptula said the Air Force needs around 2,500 total fighters, including 1,680 mission aircraft "to ensure a survivable, sustainable fighter force structure at a level necessary to support our national security strategy."

To grow fighter squadrons quickly, the Air Force should buy new F-35 stealth fighters much faster than it currently plans to do, Deptula advised. The Air Force wants to buy 43 F-35s in 2017 and, under current thinking, slowly ramp up the production rate to 60 planes a year by 2021.

Deptula said the Air Force should boost the build-rate to 60 F-35s annually by 2018 and expand to 100 per year starting in 2020. At the same time, the former general said, the flying branch should nearly double—to 184—the number of new B-21 stealth bombers it buys.

An F-35A Lightning II sits on the flightline at RAF Fairford, United Kingdom, June 2016. Photo: Tech. Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/USAF/USAF

Deptula's ambitious proposal requires the Air Force to go all-in on the F-35, despite that jet's long history of design flaws and quality-control problems. It's also potentially very, very expensive. A single F-35 costs no less than $100 million. A B-21 costs more than $500 million.

The added expense for the "great again" Air Force, according to Deptula's definition, could exceed $60 billion over the four years of Trump's first term. And that's not counting the cost of crewing, fueling, and arming the additional planes.

In a September 2016 speech, Trump promised to pay for new military spending "through common sense reforms that eliminate government waste and budget gimmicks."

But that might not be enough. Independent experts have predicted that federal revenues could fall by potentially hundreds of billions of dollars a year as a result of the deep tax cuts for the wealthy that Trump is also advocating.

Soaring military budgets amid collapsing revenues could force Trump to temper his own proposed military expansion, to say nothing of the even bigger expansion Deptula espoused.

Laslie, for his part, doesn't include new fighters in his less pricey list of things the Air Force most needs. And he has a point. The Pentagon already owns roughly as many fighters as Russia and China combined, according to the 2016 edition of Flight magazine's annual report on the world's air forces.

Trump should focus on three problems, Laslie advised. First, buy more new aerial refueling aircraft to extend the range of fighters and bombers, and also speed up the acquisition of new training aircraft.

Laslie said the Air Force could use more B-21s, as well as fresh attack planes. The flying branch has been trying to retire its old but rugged A-10 ground-attack aircraft for years now, only to be overruled by air-power advocates in Congress who are worried about a warplane shortfall. If the Air Force committed to a new attack plane, it could help to shift Congress' thinking.

Next up on Laslie's list? Training. Specifically, "more flying hours [and] more realistic training opportunities in the form of the Flag exercises."

The Air Force's Red Flag and Green Flag war games are widely considered the world's most realistic and intensive air-combat exercises. But they're expensive, and in recent years the Air Force has canceled several of them for the short-term cash-savings. By investing in training, Trump could help make America's combat pilots great[er] again than their Chinese and Russian rivals.

5GAT concept. Image: USAF

Dan Ward, a former Air Force weapons-developer and author of The Simplicity Cycle, said via email that, rather than thinking big when it comes to improving the Air Force, the Trump administration should think, well, small.

"The new president should watch the Star Wars films and note that the good guys' relatively simple tech like droids and snow speeders consistently beat the evil Empire's larger, more complicated weapons like Death Stars and AT-AT walkers," Ward told Motherboard.

"This same thing happens with real-world military technology," Ward continued. "In terms of combat effectiveness, simple beats complicated— and the most effective systems are never the most expensive. I would therefore encourage the Air Force to focus on quickly building and fielding small, nimble weapon systems rather than projects that are physically and financially the size of a moon."

One project Ward has championed is a new, stealthy drone called the Fifth Generation Aerial Target. Developed by cadets at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, the 5GAT is supposed to be a kind of inexpensive "clay pigeon" for fighter pilots to shoot down during exercises.

But with minor software tweaks, 5GAT could become the Air Force's next strike drone, accompanying manned warplanes into battle. "Since it exhibits most of the flight characteristics and stealth capabilities of advanced fighter jets, the 5GAT might actually represent a low-cost entry into this elite field," Ward wrote about the new drone.

The Trump administration could launch more inexpensive but innovative projects like 5GAT. "I would ... encourage the Air Force to focus on quickly building and fielding small, nimble weapon systems rather than projects that are physically and financially the size of a moon," Ward told Motherboard.

Ward's advice, however, flies in the face of Trump's well-known penchant for huge new projects and plans. Skyscrapers. Golf resorts. Border walls. And, quite possibly, a much bigger and more expensive US military.

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