🔷 Death Spiral

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Credit: Air Force

Death Spiral

The US Air Force may be the largest in the world, but to borrow a line from Toby Keith (R.I.P), it just ain’t as good as it once was.

In fact, it’s been in a decades-long force structure decline that’s showing no sign of relief.

This year, the flying branch plans to divest 250 aircraft, leaving it with less than 5,000 aircraft—the lowest in its history since it split from the Army after World War II. For reference, the service had ~9,000 aircraft when Desert Storm was fought and ~6,200 aircraft when 9/11 happened.

This follows other cuts: they tried to divest 310 aircraft in 2023 and 250 aircraft in 2022.

And it ain’t over yet.

This is part of a bigger plan to divest 1,469 aircraft from 2023 to 2027. For perspective, that’s equal to the entire air forces of the UK, Australia, and Japan—combined. That wouldn’t be so bad if they were being replaced…but the Air Force is only buying ~400 aircraft over the same timeframe, which is a 1,000-aircraft net negative for those who don’t do math.

When looking at individual aircraft choices (e.g., the decrepit F-15C fleet), these are (mostly) very reasonable, palatable, and defensible decisions.

However, collectively, it raises serious concerns about just how quickly the Air Force has been shedding aircraft and how they intend to meet the never-ending demands from the combatant commands across the world.

Why the Fire Sale?

Rewind to roughly 30 years ago. When the Cold War ended, Congress and the Pentagon killed off and consolidated numerous new aircraft programs, but they also stopped buying new aircraft for the existing fleets. Near-term, it made sense; there’s no need to keep building up a military when there’s no one to fight.


those new programs were the conveyor belts that delivered new technology to the military; and those production lines were delivering continuous replacements to keep flying fleets young…and those replacements were coming with integrated upgrades.

So when that all stopped, the completely expected thing happened: with each passing year, the aircraft got older. #shocked

Over time, issues with aging aircraft grew from molehills to mountains. Now, a 30-year-old fighter jet is significantly more painful to maintain and operate than the planning factors that went into the operations and sustainment portion of the program when it was incepted. 


These mountains are especially hard to move—divestment without replacement is very political because it acutely affects bases… that reside in voting districts.

When Congress blocks divestments, the Air Force must figure out how to keep aging aircraft in action, which drives sustainment costs up. This paradigm eventually devolves into putting Band-Aids on sucking chest wounds.

Making things worse, when divestments have been approved, these fleet cuts are historically net negative. Last year, they proposed cutting 301 aircraft and only buying 95—now they are proposing to kill 250 aircraft and buying just 91.

The Air Force says that if it had more money, it could buy more aircraft, but virtually none of its fleet cuts in the past 50 years have been equally offset by aircraft procurement.

This problem has grown so large that it’s now a self-sustaining death spiral, and there is no ignoring just how tight the corner is that the Air Force has been painted into—and there’s paint on the hands of the Air Force, the Pentagon, and Congress.

Divesting fewer aircraft is no longer an option; buying more aircraft at the rates (and consecutive years) required isn’t politically palatable (in the Pentagon or Congress), especially when there are competing dumpster fires like the Navy shipbuilding crisis. And then there’s the fact there aren’t enough pilots to fly the aircraft.


As the saying goes, never waste a crisis.

There are mission areas where the 1:1 replacement paradigm is being questioned, opening the door to innovative ways to accomplish the missions those aircraft were performing. The trial balloon is the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, which is a concept of using AI-piloted drones to augment manned fighters to quickly create affordable mass.

The program is still in its infancy, and like all advanced tech programs, it’ll hit speed bumps and issues along the way. But this is the way—the problem it’s trying to solve is too important.

As the CCA program picks up steam and the art of the possible becomes more and more clear, expect to see the concept expand to other mission areas and use cases.

Buckle up; the next decade of US Air Force restructuring will be a wild ride!

In That Number

$15 million

The Navy expects its future drone wingmen to come in under $15 million each.


On this day in 1986, the US conducted a 45-jet airstrike on terrorist centers in Libya. What was the name of the mission?

A) Operation Desert Fox
B) Operation Just Cause
C) Operation El Dorado Canyon
D) Operation Ghost Rider

On the Radar

The U.S. is inviting Japan to be a potential partner in the trilateral AUKUS pact to share sensitive technology and jointly develop advanced military capabilities. The invite wasn’t to join AUKUS per se, but part of it. The tech-sharing part of AUKUS in question is known as Pillar II, which Australia was quick to point out—they don’t want to expand AUKUS.

  • The Merge’s Take: We dug into this a bit right before this news broke. Japan is rapidly transforming its military and is throwing big bucks behind it. There are some synergies to be had, so it’ll be interesting to see this play out. Japan and the US recently agreed on a common command and control framework and are jointly developing a hypersonic missile defense system. On the other side of the equation, the US and Australia are jointly developing a hypersonic weapon.


The Marine Corps is moving out with loitering munitions. They chose 3 companies to compete for a potential 8-year, $249m contract with the goal of fielding capabilities with the infantry by 2027. The effort is called the Organic Precision Fires program.

  • The Merge’s Take: 2 of the players are the usual suspects: AeroVironment (Switchblade) and Anduril (Altius) are involved in Army loitering munitions initiatives. The dark horse is Teledyne FLIR, which doesn’t advertise anything remotely similar to a loitering munition. It’ll be curious to see what they’re cooking up or who they are partnering with. Uvision, perhaps?

They Said It
“I’m going to take a ride in an autonomously flown F-16 later this year. There will be a pilot with me who will just be watching, as I will be, as the autonomous technology works, and hopefully, neither he nor I will be needed to fly the airplane.”

— Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall

Knowledge Bombs

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C, El Dorado Canyon. If you guessed D, you were close. The mission rehearsal, conducted in secret a year earlier, was designated Operation Ghost Rider.