New fighters, missiles and missions are the hallmarks of the U.S. Air Force. While these still percolate in long-term plans, near-term fiscal constraints are forcing the service to craft a delicate balance between upgrading existing forces and husbanding funds for new equipment.

Whether even hoping for equipment such as an eventual Lockheed Martin F-22 replacement is delusional or merely prudent is in the eye of the beholder, given the urgency behind debt-reduction talks coming to a head this month in Congress. The reality is that work on the concept, referred to as F-X, is in its infancy. It involves exploring what technologies might be necessary to assure air superiority 20 years from now and 30 years beyond that, says USAF Col. Edward Corcoran, the air superiority core function team leader at Air Combat Command.

Perhaps slightly earlier out of the gate will be a next-generation missile, a notional follow-on to the Raytheon AIM-120D air-to-air missile for internal carriage in the compact weapons bays of the F-22 and F-35 stealthy fighters.

The service also is in talks with the Missile Defense Agency about adding an airborne weapons layer to the country's missile defense architecture. The goal is to determine the launch platform and interceptor, and whether this is a cost-effective proposition. The jury is still out, but “it certainly looks promising,” Corcoran told the IQPC International Fighter conference in London.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz first inquired about a so-called air-launched hit-to-kill concept in June 2009, when he kicked off an exploratory study. Since then, the service is said to be interested but would like the MDA to cover the development portion. How those interests will be prioritized is part of an Air Force exercise to draw up a master plan intended to be the foundational document for budget decisions from fiscal 2014 and beyond. The finished version is expected in January, allowing time for it to reflect more precisely the scope of budget cuts now being debated that will take effect over the next decade. An example of the financial pressure for the Air Force is its proposal in the forthcoming budget to trim some F-16 and A-10 squadrons from the National Guard, a move to save money but that also adds risk to the service's ability to conduct missions.

Some spending decisions are mandatory. For instance, the anticipated delay in the operational debut of the F-35A, now not expected until 2018, is forcing the service to upgrade 300-350 Block 40/50 F-16s with service-life extensions and avionics upgrades costing almost $10 million per aircraft, Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, tells Congress.

The service also is grappling with aging issues on the F-15 fleet. Detailed fatigue trials, ordered after a right-side longeron fatigue-related failure downed an F-15C in 2008, recently unearthed additional cracking in this structure. The situation was deemed non-critical—a fix can be addressed for most aircraft during depot maintenance, says Lt. Col. Kevin Riordan, operational adviser for the system program office. But, the review underscores the fragility of an aging fleet. Some high-time airframes must be repaired more rapidly, he notes, but there is no indication the fleet cannot meet its current service-life projection: 2030 for F-15Cs and 2035 for F-15Es.

Air Force officials say that while F-15s and F-16s are gaining hours supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the missions are not placing high structural demands on the airframes owing to the permissive airspace. Thus, the hours gained are less harsh on the structures than if these missions required high-g air-to-air combat maneuvers.

Another question is where scarce money can best be used to keep the aircraft operationally viable into the future. Software and processor upgrades are likely candidates, as is the active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar upgrade—the APG63(V)3 for the F-15C and APG-82(V)1 for the F-15E. The F-16 will probably receive a small AESA radar.

Still under review is whether to put the Sniper targeting pod already used on F-15Es on the C-model; the move would come after $345 million for an infrared search-and-track system was pulled in the fiscal 2012 budget to save money.

Corcoran notes that for any upgrade now being proposed, program officials must offer an offset to control spending.

Also being considered are long-term upgrades for the newest fighter, the F-22. Near-term upgrades to be fielded in the next five years are already under way, but the service soon expects to define the content of the next package—Increment 3.2C. Potential elements include multi-spectral capabilities to expand the offensive and defensive frequency potential of the fighter, required upgrades such as Mode 5 integration friend or foe, or automatic ground collision and terrain avoidance. Officials are examining how best to share F-22 data, collected by an unprecedented onboard sensor suite, with legacy fighters. Eventually a data-sharing network with F-35s is planned, but delays in the latter's development have made passing F-22 data to fourth-generation fighters a higher priority.

The first major F-22 enhancement—Increment 3.1—is now entering service, with an initial pair of upgraded stealth fighters recently delivered to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Fleet retrofits will continue through 2016 and include the hardware and software modifications needed to drop eight Small-Diameter Bombs, take synthetic aperture radar (SAR) pictures and provide precision location and electronic attack capabilities.

Full operational test and evaluation is still being completed, but Maj. Richard Foster, Air Combat Command requirements officer, says the results are positive. SAR accuracy is 55% better than specified and geolocation accuracy is 15% better. Also, electronic attacks have proven 100% successful in testing.

The F-22 also will get a rudimentary AIM-120D firing capability next year (through the so-called Update 4), although full integration is not planned until Increment 3.2B in 2017. An initial capability to fire the Raytheon AIM-9X dogfight missile also has been accelerated to 2015 (under Update 5), with full integration also to come with Increment 3.2B.

Next on the upgrade path is Increment 3.2A, a software enhancement that includes expanded Link 16 data-link functionality, combat identification and electronic protection. It should emerge around 2014.

Besides the full integration of the latest air-to-air missiles, Increment 3.2B also expands geolocation by 88% beyond what is now being introduced.

In addition, around 2016 USAF expects to have moved to two F-22 configurations, the Block 20 aircraft to be used for training and development and Block 30/35s for the operational fleet. Foster says 36 aircraft will be in the Block 20 standard with 149 to settle on the Block 30/35 configuration.