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New US Air Force study asks: What’s the right number of F-35s?

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WASHINGTON — A new tactical aircraft study underway could make certain what has until now been a suspicion: The U.S. Air Force is unlikely to purchase all of the 1,763 F-35A jets in its program of record.

The service is undertaking the study as it readies its fiscal 2023 budget and grapples with reducing the types of fighters it flies from seven to four main platforms by 2030, as prescribed by the service’s chief of staff.

The four platforms could include:

  • The sixth-generation Next Generation Air Dominance system, or NGAD, which will supersede the F-22.
  • The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, which will make up the preponderance of the fleet.
  • The F-15EX, which will replace much of the existing F-15 inventory.
  • And either the F-16 or its replacement.

That last decision is the most significant for the F-35 program. The Air Force’s original plan was to purchase enough F-35s to supersede all of its F-16s. So if the Air Force keeps the F-16 — or develops a separate low-cost replacement for part of the F-16 fleet — does it need to buy as many F-35s?

“That’s the big question,” said Todd Harrison, an aerospace and defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Quite honestly, I don’t think there is any good news that will come out for the F-35 program for this. It’s only potential downsides. That’s real risk to the program.”

The Air Force has maintained that the F-35 program of record remains unchanged, but the ongoing tactical aircraft study is set to provide alternative models of what its fighter inventory could look like, potentially including proposals with fewer F-35s.

The idea that the Air Force would buy all 1,763 F-35As “has been the greatest work of fiction in defense budgeting for about a decade now,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. “What we’re really talking about is the real number. It’s not 1,763 [F-35As]. Is it 1,200? Is it 1,400? Is it 1,000? We don’t know.”

Any plans to radically reshape the Air Force’s fighter inventory will come under scrutiny by new civilian leadership, which includes Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Andrew Hunter, who was nominated to become the service’s acquisition chief.

Kendall, who served as the Pentagon’s top acquisition official during the Obama administration, has criticized the F-35 program, calling the early years of its development “acquisition malpractice.” However, he grew more supportive of the aircraft during his tenure, in May calling it “the best tactical aircraft of its type in the world.”

Asked recently whether the Air Force should buy a low-cost fighter to replace some of its F-16s instead of purchasing F-35s, Kendall was noncommittal.

“One of the things I think we need to do is take a little bit of time now to sort through the options carefully and do some of that analysis,” he said during an Aug. 13 interview with Defense News. “Make sure we’ve got the requirements right, make sure we’ve got the concepts right for the future and then move as quickly as we can to field those capabilities.”

Finding the right mix

When the U.S. Air Force fought in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, it operated a fleet of about 4,000 fighters. Fast forward to 2021, and that inventory has shrunk to 2,000 aircraft with an average age of 28 years, said Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mark Kelly in an Aug. 16 interview with Defense News.

To win against a near-peer nation like Russia or China, the U.S. needs “high capability, high capacity and affordability,” he said.

“We have to be able to compete and fight well beyond the permissive counterinsurgency environments we’ve operated in for the last 20 years,” he added. “That takes a range of capabilities.”

The Air Force’s tactical aircraft study is meant to help the service identify the right mix of fighters needed to thwart advanced threats in 2030 and beyond, while at the same time establishing a plan for drawing down the large number of legacy aircraft types that put pressure on operations and maintenance accounts.

The study was first acknowledged by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown in February.

“I don’t know that I’ll come to an answer that here’s the exact mix,” Brown said at a May event. “I want to get us shaped in a direction because right now we have seven fighter fleets. My intent is to get down to about four.”

The service completed the first draft of the study, but Kendall has asked for additional analysis, said Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote, the deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense, which is performing several evaluations of its own, will also scrutinize the Air Force’s study. And the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office is carrying out a review of the Air Force’s and Navy’s sixth-generation fighter programs, which will evaluate the associated acquisition strategies, costs, technical maturity and schedule risks.

CAPE is also analyzing the Air Force’s “Digital Century Series” business case, a potential NGAD acquisition strategy through which aircraft manufacturers would continuously develop new fighter designs and compete to build small batches of that aircraft. During a July hearing, acting CAPE director Joseph Nogueira told lawmakers that study could be finished as early as August, but a public update on its status was unavailable by press time.

How low can it go?

Reports vary on how low the F-35 program of record could fall.

Internal documents by the Air Force’s future war-fighting cell indicated a plan to curb orders at 1,050 jets, Aviation Week reported in December. Will Roper, the Air Force’s acquisition executive during the Trump administration, called for F-35 purchases to be capped at about 800 units, CNN reported in May.

Any attempt to cut the program of record will face a difficult fight in Congress — particularly from lawmakers whose districts economically benefit from the jet’s production and who have successfully increased F-35 procurement beyond the Defense Department’s budget request since 2015.

That tradition may be in jeopardy as powerful lawmakers like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., criticize the cost of operating, sustaining and upgrading the jet. But it remains to be seen whether Congress would be amenable to a cut to the overall buy, Harrison said.

“Earlier this year, we started hearing a lot more negative sentiment coming out of Congress about the F-35 program, and quite frankly the Air Force has seemed to soften on the program as well,” he said. “That may be a sign that congressional winds are shifting, that sentiment for the F-35 may have peaked. … But it may be too soon to call it. Negative talk does not necessarily translate into negative appropriations.”

Any changes to the program that result in cost growth could be anathema to lawmakers. F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin has spent more than a decade trying to lower the price of the F-35A to $80 million or less, on par with a fourth-generation fighter. It finally accomplished that goal in a 2019 deal for the 13th batch of aircraft, after years of ramping up production and benefiting from economies of scale.

While Lockheed could argue cuts to the F-35 program might result in higher costs, analysts said the company will have to show its work. Unit costs for the aircraft are unlikely to fall much further than the current price of $78 million per F-35A, Aboulafia said. To keep unit costs stable while reducing the overall buy, the Air Force could simply sustain its current production rate and cut off procurement early, Harrison explained.

Aboulafia added that while the cost of sustaining small aircraft fleets is “ruinous,” there may not be much financial benefit for sustaining 1,763 F-35As compared to a fleet around half that size.

In a statement, Lockheed Martin spokesman Brett Ashworth said the cost of the F-35 shouldn’t be the only criteria for evaluating the aircraft’s value. Instead, the Air Force needs to consider the “cost per effect.”

“The F-35 is the only aircraft in the world with the ability to get to the fight undetected, then gather, synthesize and share information with not only other aircraft, but units on the ground as well,” Ashworth said. “The F-35′s procurement costs include the sensors necessary to accomplish this mission, as well as the modernization and sustainment costs to maintain them. No fourth-generation aircraft can offer a similar capability. And the fight of tomorrow will only be more difficult and dangerous as next-generation threats evolve.”

Not all analysts agree the F-35 should be targeted for cuts. While the Air Force is right to reduce the number of tactical aircraft platforms it flies, it’s undervaluing the capability a stealthy, highly networked fighter like the F-35 would bring to a battle with a sophisticated adversary like China, said Rebecca Grant, an aerospace analyst with IRIS Independent Research.

“Let’s get the most sophisticated war-fighting platform that’s in full production, and let’s buy all of those,” she said. “Put the money into F-35 because you know that platform is useful for your newcomers — your unmanned [aircraft], your [expendable drones], your hypersonic weapons.”

Instead of following Brown’s plan to pare down the fighter fleet to four platforms, Grant contended the Air Force should retire the A-10, cancel the F-15EX program and replace all of its F-16s with F-35s.

“Stop making [a] self-imposed affordability number from 20 years ago their key war-fighting requirement,” she recommended. “Stop designing the future war-fighting force with cost as the dominant variable while throwing out [the requirement for] penetrating enemy airspace.”

To successfully argue the F-35 program should be cut, both Harrison and Aboulafia said the Air Force must shed more light on the “missing variables” of its future fighter proposal. Specifically, it needs to clarify details about plans to replace early block F-16s and field the sixth-generation NGAD family of systems.

“A lot is going to hinge on: Can they show Congress that they have a credible replacement for capabilities?” Harrison said.

So far, the Air Force has kept most information about NGAD under wraps, including what technologies will make up the family of systems, how much it will cost, how many will be purchased and when it will be fielded.

Meanwhile, Brown said new design and manufacturing techniques, such as digital engineering, could allow the service to develop a “four-and-a-half-[generation] or fifth-gen-minus” fighter to replace early block F-16s at a lower cost than the F-35.

However, Harrison is skeptical such an aircraft could be built at a cheaper price tag than the advanced F-16s rolling off Lockheed Martin’s production line in Greenville, South Carolina.

“That just doesn’t seem to hold a lot of water, the idea that we could somehow now make a fourth-gen aircraft cheaper than these existing fourth-gen platforms that are way down the learning curve already, and their development is already a sunk cost,” Harrison said.

The particulars of how many or what types of fighters the Air Force will need are uncertain, but one thing is clear, said Kelly: Going forward, the service will have to walk a tightrope, balancing the capability and number of aircraft it needs with what it can afford.

“I don’t see any of the programs accelerating or expanding into these big exponential increases in a buy, just because of the realities of the budget,” he said.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News’ air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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