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The U.S. Air Force Has a Fighter Gap Problem

F-35
F-35 Stealth Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

After making progress for years in getting Congress to approve unpopular early weapons retirements, the Air Force is hitting a brick wall. Service leaders have simply gone too far—with plans to get rid of 1,500 aircraft over the next five years while buying just 467 new aircraft.  

The plan to shrink and age the Air Force further and faster is also colliding with readiness challenges and a stubborn fighter gap. A recent House hearing quickly narrowed on the collaboration of systems to deliver air superiority. The Air Force officials pointed to the “fighter mix” of F-35s, F-15EXs, F-22s, and F-16s to ensure the U.S. is capable of deterring and defending against threats. 

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said it himself: “China’s engineers are not faster than ours…what they have done, that we have not done enough of, is start a lot of new things and then take them into fielding.” 

In other words, China is not smarter than us; they’re simply outspending us on purchases of new equipment. While admitting a major shortcoming, leaders spent the rest of the hearing defending a budget that restricts the Air Force’s ability to field more capability and therefore compete. 

Yet the People’s Liberation Air Force (PLAF) continues to crank out advanced stealth fighters, as evidenced by the J-20—China’s best stealth aircraft—beginning to patrol the East and South China Seas. In addition to operationalizing J-20 and FC-31 fighters which “gradually erode longstanding and significant US military-technical advantages,” according to the Department of Defense, the PLAF is simultaneously creating new medium- and long-range stealth bombers.

The Next Generation Air Dominance program is critical to developing and later fielding sixth-gen capabilities, but they are exactly that: next generation. America’s Air Force has combat credible fighters available for purchase that would sustain the fleet today. 

The trouble lies not in our ability to produce, but rather the Administration’s willingness to procure. 

Understanding that our lack of fielding systems at scale is a big disadvantage, the Administration is responding with silence. Changes to the Pentagon’s five-year spending plans in one budget cycle are troubling. 

During that period the Air Force planned on fielding 144 F-35s, meanwhile the current mid-range budget plans for only 95. That is a 35 percent decrease in the Air Force’s planned fifth-gen fighter fleet. Officials claim the drastic dip between 2022 to 2024—from 48 to 33 to 19—is to wait until the “more advanced” Joint Strike Fighter Block 4 modernization package can be purchased. But the Block 4 upgrades can be installed on already-deployed aircraft.

This is the plan for F-22s and F-16s, so it is puzzling why leaders aren’t willing to shore near-term gaps in fighter capability. Well, puzzling only if one thinks this is about anything other than diminished resources

F-22

F-22. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The problem with this approach is if Pentagon leaders notice a crack in the sidewalk, they stop all traffic and rebuild the road. While there may be backroads on the way home, there is no alternate path for a fighter-few fleet once conflict begins.  

The same trend applies to the F-15EX, the system that the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff—after a very long pause—could list as the only potential advantage the United States has over China with regards to hypersonic weapons. So even though the administration would increase F-15EX production in FY23 and FY24, they would still “substantially” reduce the total buy by 44 percent. 

When asked about identifying efficiencies across platforms, especially the F-35 program, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall stated that “sustainment provides a great opportunity for this and continued savings, because [sustainment] is over 50 percent of lifetime costs.” 

This is exactly why the Pentagon should not plan on cutting costs by cutting new fighter purchases. Rather, they should identify continued savings to bolster modernization efforts in the maintenance of weapons platforms.  

Thankfully, the hearing wrapped with needed candor by Lt. Gen. David Nahom, deputy chief of staff for Air Force plans and programs. He told Congress that resource trade-offs (read: fewer dollars) mean the service will have to keep more F-15Es in service than initially planned. 

He noted that in a “resource-unconstrained world, those would all be EXs—newer airplanes, better sustainability, more time on them, etc.” Let’s hope Congress is listening … and feeling generous.

F-15EX

F-15EX. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

 

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow her on Twitter: @MEaglen.

More about Mackenzie Eaglen: While working at AEI, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member on the National Defense Strategy Commission, a congressionally mandated bipartisan review group whose final report in November 2018, “Providing for the Common Defense,” included assessments and recommendations for the administration. Earlier, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member on the 2014 congressionally mandated National Defense Panel, established to assess US defense interests and strategic objectives, and in 2010 on the congressionally mandated bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, which evaluated the Pentagon’s defense strategy. She is also one of the 12-member US Army War College Board of Visitors, which offers advice about program objectives and effectiveness.

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She is also a regular guest lecturer at universities, a member of the board of advisers of the Alexander Hamilton Society, and a member of the steering committee of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Michael Byrd killed a terrorist slut

    May 2, 2022 at 8:03 pm

    Its the Century Series all over again. However unlike the 60s there isn’t a F4 Phantom II or another Navy fighter jet to bail the flyboys out this time.

  2. Slack

    May 2, 2022 at 9:33 pm

    The most dangerous nation on this planet is talking dangerously about ‘fighter gap’ when it spends upward of one trillion bucks yearly for its military.

    The more talk the more dangerous. And more deranged.

  3. Him

    May 2, 2022 at 9:36 pm

    I read that the Arizona chip-manufacturing plant won’t start production until 2023. Before that, the U.S. military is entirely dependent on the TSMC factory in Taiwan for critical chips required for its jet fighters and presumably all its high-tech weapons, such as Javelins etc. etc.

    The TSMC chip manufacturing plant is on the Taiwan island coast nearest to the China Mainland, within range of China’s long range missiles. If that one TSMC chip plant gets bombed, no more computer chips for the U.S. military.

    This is total insanity on the part of U.S. decision-makers. But it no longer surprises me because these sorts of decisions are now the norm across the entire spectrum.

    It is based on an ideology, popularised by Obama, that any person who sounds Churchill-like warnings against the military build-up of Totalitarian regimes is a “war monger” engaging in “fear mongering”. Those are favorite words of Leftists.

    Even now, with China gearing up to attack Taiwan, you still have modern Neville Chamberlains accusing others of being “fear mongers”.

    While we’re at it, the manufacture of computer chips requires massive amounts of water, so it’s odd that the TSMC foundry is located in a desert.

  4. photobug

    May 3, 2022 at 12:25 am

    To HIM – your comments on chip production are right on. Who in the US defense sector things that’s acceptable is likely working for the PRC and / or Putin. Regardless of political affiliation, anyone with any common sense should be able to understand that certain things you cannot depend on getting anywhere but in the US in numerous factories. When I studied Econ, sure, I learned that certain countries will be better and cheaper at doing certain things. BUT – you always needed to be sure you made enough on your own. People think that this chip shortage just affects high end PC’s, video games and cars, but it’s far more critical than that.

    As to our air capabilities, with Putin and PRC these days, it’s not a time to downsize – same with the Navy.

  5. Commentar

    May 3, 2022 at 12:30 am

    As said by bush junior, US pres is a war president. USA is a war nation (US been at war 225 out of 246 years of existence). US society is a war society with 30k to 40k killed by firearms yearly.

    Thus it’s time to talk about ‘credibility gap’ and not the endless military gaps of Cold War era. Credibility gap or morality gap or more directly, trustworthiness gap.

    The incumbent US president (even though hobbled by dementia) is hellbent on taking down russia, and is engaged in a bloody proxy war against moscow right on its front doorstep.

    On the other side of the globe, the pacific forces can barely restrain itself from initiating a potentially earthshaking clash with china.

    Where is the morality, the moral scruples, the human face of the US. None. Zip. Zilch.

    US just a caveman nation with caveman instincts. What fossilised old joe should do is to leave europe ALONE. And leave russia alone.

    Also, stop sending warships, cg, warplanes, spyplanes, subs and special forces near or off china’s shores.

    Instead, old joe should expel all PRC diplomats, ban all exports and imports to/from china until it hands over xi jinping to a US court for flooding US with opioids while trump was president.

    Sadly.., won’t happen because US void of morality, moral scruples and no sense of civilised humanity, only filled with caveman instinct.

    • Peter the Pan

      May 3, 2022 at 5:37 am

      Thanks, I couldn’t agree more!!!

    • L'amateur d'aéroplanes

      May 4, 2022 at 3:24 pm

      Someone should revise their world history instead of doing American centrism. France, Russia, the United Kingdom and many other nations have had infinitely more years of war than the United States in recent centuries. The French army has NEVER ceased to carry out combat operations in the 20th Century except between 1964 and 1968. Even Thailand has about thirty just wars with Burma.

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