By Dave Deptula
The United States Air Force is operating a fighter aircraft inventory on the brink of disaster. The vast majority of its fighter aircraft were designed at the conclusion of the Vietnam War, were produced in the 1980s, and are increasingly not capable of meeting future threats. The F-15C’s structural integrity limits mean that fleet’s airworthiness will come to an end in the early/mid-2020s. An immediate change in defense policy and resourcing is required to ensure U.S. air superiority meets the urgent and pragmatic real-world security objectives of the 2018 national defense strategy.
Teetering on the edge of an Air Force air superiority capability collapse was never supposed to happen. Plans laid out in the late 1980s and early 1990s called for 750 F-22 Raptors to replace F-15 Eagles, and for 1763 F-35 Lightning IIs to replace F-16s. The F-22 was optimized primarily to meet air-to-air challenges and the F-35 was designed to provide multi-role flexibility for both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Both are stealthy aircraft with advanced sensors, powerful onboard computing, and secure communications to collaborate across the battlespace—all the elements that define a “fifth-generation” fighter aircraft.
In 2009 however, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates prematurely canceled the F-22 purchase at less than half the Air Force’s then stated 381 F-22 requirement to free up funds for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gates asserted that by 2020 the U.S. would have nearly 1100 F-22s and F-35s, however, the F-35’s programmed production rate growth has continually been reduced. The Air Force presently has only 186 F-22s and approximately 175 F-35s.
That inventory is woefully inadequate to meet moderate combat demands, let alone a potential North Korean conflict simultaneous with a requirement to check Russian aggression in Europe or Chinese aggression in East Asia. What was once “tomorrow’s threat” is now today’s reality. Deterring the ambitions of modern adversaries demands a fighter force inventory properly sized and infused with advanced fifth-generation capabilities.
Yet instead of investing in more modern F-35s, the Pentagon’s 2020 budget request seeks billions of dollars for new-built F-15EXs—an aircraft design whose roots extend back to the late 1960s. As Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson made clear on Feb 28, this was not an Air Force judgment; “Our budget proposal that we initially submitted did not include additional fourth-generation aircraft.” Seemingly oblivious to its own 2018 national defense strategy and reorientation to great-power contests, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) drove this decision.
According to a senior defense official briefing to media on Mar 22, the rationale was based on three major elements:
- The need to rapidly increase Air Force fighter force structure
- Industrial base diversity
The first is a no-brainer. Today’s fighter aircraft average 28 years old with that age growing annually. The Air Force Chief of Staff has stated he needs to buy 72 aircraft a year to reverse that trend and eventually bring the average age down to 15 years. Bizarrely, however, the Pentagon’s proposed 2020 budget would deliver just eight F-15EXs in, “3 to 3.5 years after contract award” (Air Force FY 2020 Justification Book Volume 1 of 2 Aircraft Procurement, (I-22)).
Here’s a much better solution: Congress shifts the money from F-15EX to increase F-35A production. Of note, the Air Force’s unfunded priority list for FY 2020 includes an additional 12 F-35As. By increasing F-35 production from 48/yr. to 60/yr. in 2020, then 78-80 beyond 2020, the Air Force could have an additional 108 F-35s by 2023/24 instead of an anemic additional 8 F-15EXs.
Now let’s look at cost. The Office of the Secretary of Defense claims the new F-15EX unit cost will be about $90 million per copy. Today the F-35A runs about $89 million per copy and is expected to decline to about $80 million in 2020. OSD notes, however, that sustainment costs for the F-35A are greater than the F-15EX. That is a questionable assumption as the F-35A program matures, its sustainment costs are headed down to similar levels as F-15s.
More to the point, OSD’s myopic focus on unit and sustainment costs ignores the actual costs necessary to accomplish desired objectives against the priority threats of the national defense strategy. Unlike F-35, the F-15EX will require additional specialized support aircraft to jam radars, defeat enemy fighters, and negate surface-to-air-missile systems. Those assets, which were not part of OSD’s justification analysis, will drive up requirements for pilots and support personnel, along with additional mission support aircraft such as air-to-air refueling tankers. Against peer threats, the cost of achieving a desired effect with F-15EX is dramatically higher than the same effect delivered from an F-35A.
In their briefing to the media, last Friday OSD emphasized that there is no intention of sending F-15EXs into high-threat environments at all. They would only be used for standoff roles or in places where there is no issue of air superiority. That means that after billions of dollars are spent on the F-15EX, for the next 30-40 years, they will be incapable of participating against peer threats—the largest capacity gap in the Air Force’s fighter inventory.
The last justifying factor cited by OSD is the need to preserve the industrial base, a prudent objective, but it should be done by leaning forward with the next generation air dominance (NGAD) system—not spending finite resources on a design whose roots date back to the Nixon Administration. Enemies have had over 40 years to optimize their defenses against American fourth-generation technology and they have gotten good at it. Buying more new old fighters plays exactly to their strengths.
Additionally, key skills that need to be protected are advanced aircraft design teams—very finite skills. Hitting the production button on a jet whose fundamental design is forty years old does nothing to preserve those skills. While F-15EX fighters offer upgraded capabilities from their Nixon-era F-15 model counterparts, they lack necessary attributes like low observability (stealth) and combat cloud functionality found in their fifth-generation successors. These are not bolt-on capabilities, but features that must be designed into an aircraft from day one.
Given current federal budget deficits, rising interest rates, and mounting pressure from mandatory federal spending accounts, it will be increasingly difficult to sustain current defense spending. History tells us that budgets do not rise forever, but move up and down in cycles. When the next down cycle comes, it will unleash competition for finite dollars between the F-35 and F-15EX leading to a decrease in the F-35 buy rate. Ultimately, if funds are actually appropriated for F-15EX production, they will come out of future spending on the F-35. Reduced production will result in higher unit prices, inducing further program cuts. Indeed, we can already see this happening—DOD’s new five-year plan has the Air Force planning to buy 48 F-35s from 2021-2023, down from 54 per year as previously planned.
The Air Force has seen this act before. These are the same circumstances that led to the curtailed F-22 buy, which is the real cause of today’s aging F-15 fleet. Had we purchased the necessary number of F-22s, today’s F-15Cs would be sunning themselves in desert boneyards today. One difference: This time, it would also impact the Navy, Marine Corps, and allied partners who are also buying the F-35.
Given the large number of Air Force procurement efforts underway—F-35, B-21, KC-46, T-X, UH-1 recapitalization, space initiatives, ground-based nuclear deterrent modernization; and cyber priorities—there is little room for new programs. After three decades’ worth of deferred recapitalization, canceling, curtailing, or delaying any of these programs would imperil core missions. Vietnam-era T-38s will not be viable forever. Nor will Eisenhower-era KC-135s.
President Trump has signaled that 2020 may be the high-water mark of the defense budget, and leaders like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith are advocating for a lower defense budget.
The answer to the Air Force’s fighter modernization challenge is clear. The F-35A is specifically designed to meet future combat requirements. The F-15EX is not. The nation must increase F-35 procurement rates and add resources to the next generation air dominance (NGAD) program to supplement a dangerously undersized F-22 fleet. Today’s fighter force mix is imbalanced with 80 percent fourth-generation and only 20 percent fifth-generation aircraft. The Air Force needs to increase the fifth-generation side with the F-35A as fast as possible.