At least on paper, the Air Force and Navy have staked the future of their tactical aviation on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
But the services’ ongoing pleas for more money to fill what they describe as short-term “gaps” in their fighter inventories — before JSF arrives — are sending confusing and at times inconsistent messages about their modernization plans.
In recent appearances on Capitol Hill, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps officials have argued that their tactical aviation fleets are wearing out and need serious reinforcements soon. Although the JSF is supposed to be in full-rate production in about seven years, the services say they cannot wait that long.
The Air Force wants to continue buying F-22 Raptors from Lockheed Martin beyond the 183 jets it is currently authorized to buy. The Navy has hinted it wants to keep purchasing F/A-18E/Fs Super Hornets from Boeing after the current contract runs out in 2013. It also is seeking billions of dollars to extend the life of older Hornets.
The apparent rush to buy more fighter jets only a few years before JSF begins full production has set off a debate at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill about how the services will be able to afford so much new hardware. The Air Force’s and the Navy’s determination to pour money into non-JSF fighters also casts doubts on the future of the $300 billion F-35 program, whose price goals and schedule are predicated on the U.S. military services and foreign partners buying large numbers of aircraft.
The Air Force has yet to convince Pentagon budget officials and lawmakers that it can afford JSF and also more F-22s — estimated to cost $140 million apiece — beyond the 183 already ordered. The F-22 price tag is nearly twice that of the JSF. Analysts and Pentagon strategists also have questioned whether the Air Force should be acquiring more F-22s at a time when there are no looming threats to U.S. air superiority.
The Air Force says it needs more F-22s in addition to the JSF, although the budget does not seem to support that goal, experts said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates cast new light on these issues at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee when he said he would not support extending the F-22 production run beyond the Pentagon’s goal of 183. “My worry is that if the F-22 production is expanded, it will come at the expense of the Joint Strike Fighter,” Gates said. “The reality is that we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan … and the F-22 has not performed a mission in either theater.”
The Pentagon’s top acquisitions official, John Young, said the Defense Department intends to protect the JSF from becoming a piggybank for other programs. “I would not buy F-22s at the expense of JSF,” Young said. “The Air Force has challenges that need to be addressed before they buy additional jets,” he said.
Specifically, the service has yet to fund planned communications upgrades of its current F-22s, which will require the service to add several billion dollars to its aviation accounts that have not yet been budgeted.
The Navy, meanwhile, is creating a different set of obstacles for the JSF program. Service officials have suggested that they want to continue buying the Super Hornet beyond 2013, even though JSF is scheduled to begin production in 2015. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said the Navy worries about fighter shortages in 2015 and 2016, so it may seek funds for more Super Hornets in the 2010 budget. The Navy strongly supports the JSF, he said.
But these preemptive actions in anticipation of JSF delays only fuel speculation that the Navy wants to keep its budget options open and possibly reduce its future JSF buys. Under such a scenario, the per-aircraft cost of JSF could rise and make the program even less affordable — creating the dreaded “death spiral” that has haunted other weapon-acquisition programs.
“Delays in the JSF program, budget cuts that reduce either the JSF or the F/A-18E/F procurements … all could increase our projected Joint Strike Fighter shortfall,” Rear Adm. Allen G. Myers, director of the Navy’s air warfare division, told the Senate Armed Services’ airpower subcommittee.
Although the Super Hornet costs less than the JSF, purchases of new F/A-18 E/Fs would be timed to coincide with the production ramp-up of JSF. Unless the Navy got a substantial funding boost, paying for both aircraft would put pressure on the Navy’s aviation budget, which already faces competition from the shipbuilding accounts.
At the same time, the Navy will be refurbishing a large number of older Hornets, said Rear Adm. W. Mark Skinner, program executive officer for naval tactical aviation. The current fleet has an expected service life of 6,000 hours. “We expect to extend it to 8,000 hours or even up to 10,000 hours,” said Skinner at a Navy League conference.
The overhaul of the Hornet fleet could take 10 to 15 years and also vie for funds within the Navy’s aviation budget.
The Navy’s long-term goal is to equip 10 carrier wings with 44 strike aircraft each — a mix of F-35s and Super Hornets.
Analysts speculate that the Navy is reluctantly standing by the JSF for the sake of the Marine Corps.
Marines will be flying the vertical take-off variant of the F-35 and are staunch supporters of the program. Unlike the other services, the Marine Corps has chosen to keep flying its old jets for a few more years, and wait for the JSF.
“The Navy hasn’t been as enthusiastic about the F-35 as the Marine Corps. The Navy is happy with the F/A-18,” said Douglas Royce, aerospace analyst at Forecast International, a market intelligence firm.
The Marines continue to fly aging Hornets and Harriers, and refuse to buy replacements until JSF is available.
“The Marines don’t want to go near the Super Hornet,” said Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at the Teal Group. “The Marines view their mission as being different than carrier aviation,” he said.
Mixed messages about JSF and unclear timelines for the retirement of older aircraft are testing the credibility of the services’ “fighter gap” claims. The current fleet has deteriorated faster than expected as a result of war use, but it could be argued that the inventory of U.S. tactical aviation — estimated at 5,000 aircraft — should be sufficient to meet combat needs until JSF is delivered.
The more money the services spend on non-JSF strike aircraft, the more likely they will confront a budget train-wreck scenario in the future, analysts said. The Pentagon has been trying to avert these situations by mandating that all weapon programs get accurate cost estimates and full funding in the budget before they are approved for production, but it is unclear how the Defense Department will apply these rules with the JSF.
If funds are spent on F-22s or F/A-18s beyond what already is in the budget, JSF quantities may shrink over time and that will drive up the cost of each F-35. “The worry about JSF is, will it be affordable?” Royce said. “If the Air Force starts buying fewer, customers will drop off, the price will go up. That’s their nightmare scenario.”
The Defense Department and the military services should make up their minds soon, or they risk ending up with a “hollow force” of crumbling aircraft, Aboulafia said. If it turns out that they cannot afford to replace the existing inventory with new fighters — existing ones or next-generation JSFs — they would have to consider downsizing the strike aviation force, he said.
The size of the force will be part of a broader discussion of how many wings of tactical aircraft the United States needs for the “post-9/11” era, said a Congressional Research Service report. “How this number should be determined, is part of an ongoing debate in the Defense Department and Congress over the proper overall size of U.S. military forces,” the report said.
“A reduction in the number of air wings would lead to a corresponding reduction in the number of aircraft to be procured. However, a reduction in the number of air wings may lead to a decision to increase the proportions of F-22s and F/A-18E/Fs in the force, on grounds that reduced forces need more capable equipment,” said CRS.
The high cost of tactical aircraft programs also has renewed interest in the division of tactical aviation roles and missions among the services, said the report. “The apparent redundancy in tactical aviation among the services — the Air Force plus air components of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army — has often been criticized as a duplication of efforts.”
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