Beginning of the End for F-35?

The United States Air Force’s (USAF) Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) office has drawn up a new future fighter roadmap that would cap Lockheed Martin F-35A deliveries at “about 1,050 jets” representing a 720 aircraft reduction.

AFWIC argues that legacy platforms like the Boeing F-15 and Lockheed Martin F-16 can and should continue to play a vital role in the USAF’s frontline force mix, and this is likely to be reflected in the new TacAir study launched by the USAF, in association with the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office.

New USAF chief of staff General Charles Q.Brown has characterised the F-35 as a boutique, high-end fighter in the same class as the Lockheed Martin F-22. It is perhaps worth remembering that the USAF ended F-22 production prematurely, after just eight test aircraft and 187 operational aircraft had been built – far short of the 750 advanced tactical fighters that it had originally envisaged.

Former Pentagon acquisition tsar Will Roper was just as critical, observing that: “the F-35A is ‘a long way from being an affordable fighter that we can buy in bulk’.”

Although procurement cost of the F-35 has dropped to around $102.7 million (Lockheed Martin’s claim of an $80m unit cost does not include the engine) the aircraft still has prohibitively high operating, support and sustainment costs, and availability remains below expectations. These facts are the source of growing anger and frustration among the top brass.

The USAF has not yet officially abandoned plans to buy 1,763 F-35A aircraft, and this figure remains the official ‘program of record’, but the service has clearly begun to examine options for the future of its tactical fighter fleet. Some radical alternatives are clearly being considered in the new TacAir study, which will aim to establish the right mix of aircraft, what capabilities they should have and how many of each type will be required.

While it is far too early to predict with certainty what the report’s conclusions may be, it is already clear that the USAF is shifting further and further away from its original plan to deploy an all-stealthy frontline force, consisting of Boeing B-2 bombers, F-22 air dominance fighters, and F-35 tactical fighters.

In recent years, the operational and cost advantages of using fourth and fifth generation fighters together, leveraging the strengths of each, has been recognised and embraced much more widely. Fourth generation fighters enjoy some attributes that aircraft like the F-35 do not share.

They can carry bigger weapon loads and more AAMs to the fight, and some may enjoy superior performance, or have more advanced sensors, or may be able to use rapidly reprogrammable electronic warfare (EW) equipment to protect them against enemy air defences. Some believe that this kind of ‘digital stealth’ is actually more effective than traditional stealth in countering an evolving threat, since jammers can be upgraded or replaced whereas an low observable aircraft’s shape, structure and surface coatings cannot be changed. There has also been an acknowledgement that the USAF has the wrong mix of aircraft for the lower-end fight – something for which stealth fighters are arguably particularly poorly suited.

The USAF has recognised this, and has revealed “expanded plans to blend legacy fourth- and fifth-generation fighters to meet a range of mission sets.” It has also started to acquire new fourth generation fighters, something that would have been deemed unthinkable a few years ago. The idea that only stealthy fighters can provide a meaningful capability now seems very old-fashioned.

Delays to the F-35 forced the USAF to delay the planned retirement of the F-16 from 2025 to at least 2048, and the USAF has now purchased an initial eight F-15EX Advanced Eagles and is eventually set to procure at least 144 F-15EX aircraft.

Continued procurement of the F-35, with its sky-high operating and support costs, will threaten the USAF’s ability to expand to fulfil former chief of staff General Dave Goldfein’s goal of growing the force from 312 to 386 operational squadrons by 2030. His replacement, General Brown, reportedly believes that the USAF is hurtling toward “the most difficult force structure decisions in generations” and has said that hard choices must be made.

“Programs that once held promise, but are no longer affordable or will not deliver needed capabilities on competition-relevant timelines, must be divested or terminated,” he stated last August.

Brown would like to introduce a more cost-effective alternative to the remaining, unbuilt, F-35As and buying new F-16s could also be an option. General Brown (himself a former F-16 pilot) is, however, “open to looking at other platforms to see what that right force mix is.”

Brown reportedly thinks that the USAF needs an aircraft with an open mission systems architecture, and with enough computing power to allow software codes to be updated very quickly. He believed that even the latest F-16 variants lack this, and will therefore be unable to provide the kind of operational agility that the USAF needs.

Brown told a defence media roundtable: “I want to be able to build something new and different that’s not the F 16 — that has some of those capabilities, but gets there faster and uses some of our digital approach,” adding, “I want to entertain a clean-sheet design of something that’s not necessarily fourth-generation, but may not be completely fifth-generation either…..

Let’s not just buy off the shelf, let’s actually take a look at something else out there that we can build.” This was the first time that a senior US Air Force officer had advocated introducing a new fourth-generation aircraft into the USAF inventory.

But if such an aircraft is adopted, and if the USAF does cap F-35A production at 1,050 aircraft (60 percent of the planned total), what will that mean for F-35 sustainment costs and for the economies of scale that F-35 export customers were expecting?

And what does it say about the USAF’s long term commitment to the type? Air staffs in Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore will doubtless be watching developments with great interest.

by Jon Lake