A replacement for the E-8C Joint Stars and the aging T-38 trainer are the next priorities under the sacred top three – the F-35 fighter, KC-46 tanker and next-generation bomber – for the U.S. Air Force, according to its top officer.

Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the service, said a next-generation ground moving target indicator (GMTI) fleet and T-X would fall just under the top three – in that order – if funding is available in the forthcoming fiscal 2015 budget.

The Air Force is developing two potential budget proposals – the “high” budget and the “low” budget. The latter takes into account a worst-case scenario of sequestration impacts stretching through fiscal year 2015 and includes deep cuts to training and existing programs. The former allows for at least some new-start work, though not as much as the service had hoped.

The Joint Stars fleet is housed on aging Boeing 707 airframes, all of which were purchased as used platforms before being modified with mission systems in the 1990s and 2000s. Thus, their service life is hampered. That, coupled with a desire from combatant commanders for more and better GMTI intelligence – from tracking ground vehicles to individuals on foot – has prompted senior Air Force officials to back plans for a new fleet. An analysis of alternatives done by the service has pointed to a solid business case for housing the next system on a business jet to take advantage of both speed and low operating costs.

Thus, the major prime contractors have been in talks with business jet providers for design options.

Welsh says he does not have an immediate concern over the safety of the aging T-38 fast-jet trainer. But its replacement, T-X, is “like the tide. It is coming,” he said during a Sept. 18 press event at the AFA conference. Competitors for the purchase of 350 T-X aircraft include Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries with the T-50, BAE/Northrop Grumman with the Hawk T2, General Dynamics/Alenia Aermacchi with the M346 and Boeing, with a new-build design.

Welsh also notes that the service cannot maintain a fleet of 65 orbits worth of Predator and Reaper unmanned air systems (UAS). They have been wildly successful in the permissive air spaces over Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. But they do not fill a growing need for penetrating intelligence collectors to support operations in highly defended air space. Thus, the service is likely to propose a cutback in force structure for those aircraft, which are made by General Atomics.

Likewise, Air Force Gen. Mike Hostage, who heads Air Combat Command, says he is likely to propose retiring the MC-12W Project Liberty fleet in order to meet mandatory cuts. “There are other things I need more desperately than MC-12,” he told reporters during a press conference Sept. 17 at the annual Air Force Association conference.