Having been observing some of the USAF aircraft replacement programmes, as well as some of the upcoming changed expected in terms of aircraft capability, I have spent some time considering how current combat support aircraft fit in, and what might/will be needed for the future. Having had some ideas, I wanted to post some of them here to get others opinions on them, as well as see what areas I might have overlooked. Also, given the mess which is known as the KC-X programme, it occured to me that getting a discussion started NOW on what will be needed in the future might avoid problems down the road.
I will avoid discussing the KC-X programme largely because it is already underway and a thread exists here discussing it.
At present, the USAF, USMC and USN operate a wide range of combat support aircraft to conduct tanking, AEW and MPA tasks, with many of the aircraft either starting to be withdrawn from service or out of production for decades. In addition, allied nations operate some of the very same aircraft, or in some cases different aircraft but from similar eras.
Examples of what I mean are aircraft like the Lockheed P-3 Orion (being replaced with the Boeing P-8 Poseidon), Dassault Atlantic 1, BAE Nimrod, and Lockheed S-3 Viking, all of which are fixed-wing ASW/MPA aircraft. For AEW aircraft, there is the venerable E-2 Hawkeye AWACS whose prototype achieved first flight nearly fifty years ago. Also, there is the E-3 Sentry which is in some ways even more venerable. The youngest E-3 is nearly two decades old, and while the E-3 design is nearing an age of forty years, it was based on the B707 airframe which is nearing sixty.
Between the ages of some of the aircraft in use, as well as the age of some of the airframe designs and subsequent changes in equipment, I have wondered whether or not it might be time to start plans to replace some of the aircraft.
For MPA aircraft replacement, the P-8 Poseidon should do quite well, covering the areas where a P-3 Orion (or Nimrod) would be used, and more besides. However, being based on a B737 variant and with a expected pricetag of ~ US$200 million each, it might be too expensive for some users to purchase in any numbers. Not to mention I have to wonder about how a P-8 would accomplish ship identification. As I understand it now, a P-3 Orion or other MPA could descend to a sufficiently low altitude so that the ships name could be read off the transom during an overflight. That would not be something which could be done easily or efficiently with an aircraft which operates at a cruising altitude of ~35,000 ft. Between that, and the cost of purchase, it would seem sensible that some smaller fixed-wing ASW/MPA be developed, either reconfigurable using palletized systems or a special variant(s) depending on the degree of capability needed.
For AEW aircraft, the needs are different, but still related. As I understand it, the F-22 Raptor cannot currently participate in a Link 11/16 network as a data harvester because the emissions required to broadcast the F-22's location. I believe that the F-35 will be in a similar position one those aircraft begin entering service. However, the F-22 (and F/A-18E/F/G , F-35 and even some B-1's I believe) can use it's AESA as a comlink in a highspeed data relay to broadcast the information to another platform equipped with an AESA. Currently the E-2 and E-3 AEW aircraft are equipped with rotodome MSAs and could neither send or receive information from an F-22 in such a method. Between that, and the age of some aircraft in service as well as the age of the underlying airframe design, makes me think it is perhaps time to start planning for the replacement of the E-2 and E-3. Now, an E-3 Sentry replacement programme could be quite easy, as the E-737 Wedgetail/Peace Eagle is nearly ready for RAAF service AFAIK
, and I imagine that the L-band MESA could be programmed to operate in ESA-based comlink system.
Now the replacement of the E-2 Hawkeye could be a bit more problematic. For one thing, the E-2 replacement would need to be able to operate from USN carriers (as well as those belonging to allies), and replacing the rotodome would effect flight performance. While I know that an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye (Hawkeye 2000?) is supposed to be developed, I am not aware of that also covering fitting an ESA to the Hawkeye. One aircraft I considered as being possibly suitable for a carrier-borne AEW is a version of the V-22 Osprey. Through the addition of side-looking paniers as well as an overhead canoe fairing, it might be possible to equip a V-22 for an AEW role. As a side note, it occurred to me that future support aircraft like the KC-X might well be equipped with ESAs to allow the tankers to act as relay statings.
Have painted this with some fairly broad strokes, are there other aircraft types/designs which could potentially be replaced which I missed?