The New Air Force Fighter Debate

Sept. 1, 2004

Over the next 15 years, the size of the Air Force’s fighter fleet will decline by at least 10 percent but perhaps as much as 25 percent. This will constitute the largest reduction in the fighter force since the end of the Cold War, but it is not driven by a diminishing threat. It will be the result of increasing combat capability.

Improvements in weapons, sensors, and data-sharing powers now being added to current fighters and designed into future ones will bring greater combat effectiveness, even though the number of aircraft will be reduced.

At the same time, though, the Air Force must have a fighter fleet large enough to satisfy the demands of a transformed US military. Fighters are increasingly linked to small, geographically dispersed ground units and often must cover more ground in order to quickly destroy fleeting targets. The service also must hold enough aircraft in reserve for contingencies, training, test, and depot maintenance—collectively called the “rotation base” of the fleet.

The Air Force also will factor in the capabilities of its bomber fleet. Bombers now are able to destroy large numbers of targets per sortie and perform missions—such as close air support—once viewed as the exclusive realm of fighters.

The Air Force would like to save money by consolidating its forces at fewer bases, but it cannot make such force structure changes until completion of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure action.

As a result of all these factors, the precise size and composition of the future fighter force is a matter of spirited debate. However, senior Air Force officials agree on one thing: The transition to a smaller, more capable fighter force hinges totally on acquiring sufficient numbers of stealthy F/A-22 and F-35 fighters—and without any further delay.

The future fighter force now taking shape also assumes that the world political and military situation does not change radically in the next 20 years. Should there be an unexpectedly large shift in the threat, the size of the force relative to its responsibilities would undoubtedly have to be reassessed.

Only a few years ago, Air Force leaders believed that a crisis would engulf the fighter force. They warned lawmakers that the fighter fleet would begin a sharp decline around 2007, when large numbers of 1980s-vintage aircraft would begin retiring in blocks. They would be replaced only slowly with newer, stealthy models eventually restoring the size of the fleet. The gap appeared as a valley on a line graph and became known as the “fighter bathtub.” The Air Force wasn’t sure it could meet all its commitments during that period.

Since then, circumstances and thinking have changed. The Air Force will see a fighter decline—from about 2,500 airplanes to perhaps 1,900 by 2020—but USAF leaders believe the service will retain sufficient combat punch.

“I predict that we will be significantly smaller in the next 20 years than we are today but with the same capability—or better,” said Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, head of Air Combat Command, in a recent statement to military affairs writers.

Extending the Legacy Fighters

Speaking on June 23 in Washington, D.C., Hornburg said today’s “legacy” fighters—A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s—are being given powerful new capabilities that will enhance their effectiveness, which will allow them to serve as a bridge to the next generation of fighters.

New targeting pods, radars, munitions, and data links, coupled with structural upgrades to keep these fighters airworthy, will create “a great leveraging force over the battlefield,” Hornburg said.

“Every year, the fighters we have today, even though they may be one year older, are one year more capable,” said Maj. Gen. Donald J. Hoffman, ACC’s director of requirements. For each fighter, the combination of upgrades, munitions, connections to a sophisticated network “really magnifies the effect it can have on the battlefield,” Hoffman explained.

Today’s F-15s and F-16s were purchased in large quantities during the mid- to late-1980s, with estimated 20-year service lives. Experts predicted they would start “aging out” of the inventory in large numbers in the mid-2000s. That hasn’t happened, though, according to Hoffman.

During a decade of Northern Watch and Southern Watch combat air patrols over Iraq, the fighters were flying fairly benign flight profiles, skipping the “nine-G training sorties” they would have flown at home, he noted. Predictions about wear and tear were worse than the realities experienced by the fleet.

There’s no rule of thumb, though, for how much longer each fighter can hang on. Hoffman said each type of fighter—and each block within types—has its own history and quirks, and some are aging better than others. It’s not possible to make judgments about their condition until “we open up these aircraft” and subject them to a thorough analysis, he said.

There are known problems. Many of the air superiority F-15s, for example, are under flight restrictions. They can’t fly at top speed because engineers worry that their control surfaces will delaminate and rip apart. The problem is being fixed, but it will take six years to make the changes throughout the F-15 fleet. Each F-15 will receive new vertical and horizontal stabilizers as it goes through programmed depot maintenance.

The Air Force has launched service life extension programs (SLEPs) that will add stiffeners and structural components to keep the current generation of aircraft in fighting trim until replacement aircraft arrive. The F-16 fleet, for instance, is receiving the Falcon STAR upgrade to strengthen spars and control surfaces. Upgrading the entire fleet will take eight years.

By tailoring SLEPs, the Air Force can put off the day when the “iron that we bought in the ’80s reaches the end of its service life,” Hoffman said.

Some present day fighters—multirole F-15Es and small lots of F-16s—were purchased fairly late in the last fighter buying cycle, so they will last well into the future. F-16s bought in the 1990s, for instance, should reach 2025 without too much difficulty.

The Air Force must equip the F-15E and F-16 with new radars, said Hornburg, who speculated the F-15Cs would also need new radars “in due course.” He said the service is modernizing legacy airplanes, “as much as we can afford.”

The B-1B Model

In the quality vs. quantity debate, the Air Force has a test case that suggests it’s best to push for quality. The service recently took out of service nearly a third of its B-1B bombers—those suffering the most fatigue, damage, and chronic maintenance problems. The money saved by not flying, manning, and maintaining those airplanes was redirected toward upgrading and fully funding spare parts and support for all of the B-1Bs. The result—seen during Gulf War II—was a more capable, combat-ready weapon system.

“We were able to make the rest of the B-1 fleet much more healthy than it ever could have been if we had kept all of [them],” Hoffman said.

The B-1B experience provided a model for USAF’s handling of its A-10s, the first of which entered service in the late 1970s. Some number of today’s 350 A-10s will be retired soon, Hoffman said. The savings will be used in two ways. First, USAF will improve or replace the engines of the remaining A-10s, so they can fly higher, carry a heavier load, and perform better at higher altitudes. Second, the A-10 also will receive new munitions and targeting systems, a modern cockpit, and systems that allow it to become part of the battlefield network.

“The only networking to the aircraft right now is a voice radio to the pilot, and the pilot does all the networking in his head,” Hoffman noted.

There will be fewer A-10s in the future, but they’ll be much more capable than today’s A-10s, he said. With these upgrades, the A-10 could serve well into the 2020s.

Other platforms likely will undergo the same “retire some, upgrade the remainder” approach, said Lt. Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, who was USAF’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs until he was confirmed July 22 to be the Joint Staff director of logistics.

According to McNabb, the Air Force must proceed this way with its current fighters because simply leaving large numbers of unusable airplanes on the ramp “just eats your lunch” on operation and maintenance cost. Fully funding a smaller number of fighters will provide “much better bang for the buck for the taxpayer,” said McNabb.

USAF’s Fiscal 2005 defense budget submission included a plan to retire 10 F-117s. “We felt we could live with that risk,” said Hoffman. However, the step was not an easy one, and the proposed reduction “gives you an indication of what the fiscal environment is right now,” he noted. Such a move also depends on buying the new stealth fighters—F/A-22s and F-35s.

“The F-117 is a wonderful platform,” Hoffman said. However, he went on, “as we get new air-to-ground stealth capability” with the B-2, F/A-22, F-35, and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, “I think we can afford to replace the F-117.”

By 2009, said McNabb, all USAF combat aircraft will be capable of employing precision weapons. He noted, “That really does change the equation of how much you need in order to satisfy the combat commanders and the strategy that they have.”

Sizing for Effect

Hoffman said that ACC is doing “what if” drills to estimate the future total force structure requirement. He explained that the drills are based on “alternative futures” driven by varying budgetary assumptions. However, current fighter types will be useful for decades. “We’ve got time to study this and do it right,” Hoffman said.

Air Force Secretary James G. Roche and Gen. John P. Jumper, Chief of Staff, want to get the service thinking about the battlefield effects, rather than individual systems.

Roche and Jumper have insisted that planners focus on effects, rather than “numbers … or types of platforms, or different combinations of platforms,” said McNabb.

This philosophy has spread throughout the Defense Department, McNabb said, noting, “It was probably the most profound thing that they have done in the Air Force.”

From this effects-based thinking came development of new concepts of operation and smarter ways to employ assets already in hand.

McNabb said that the Air Force is using a series of simulations and computer modeling to establish the right size and mix of fighters. Change the adversary and conditions and the answer will change, he said.

He emphasized that the simulations conducted under a broad range of circumstances, do not look at the performance of fighters “in a vacuum.” They take into account the impact of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance assets, unmanned aerial vehicles, bombers, precision munitions, and capabilities of other services.

Hoffman said the simulations are run with “all the analytical rigor that’s at our disposal.” However, he noted, decisions sometimes hinge on the subjective judgment of skilled warriors.

“I wish there was one machine where you could take all the information, put it in there, turn the crank, and get an answer, but, a lot of times, it becomes a subjective assessment, a military body of expertise,” said Hoffman.

The assessment pays close attention to the Army’s shift to small, widely dispersed, combat operating groups. According to McNabb, these Army units are going to depend heavily on airpower, much like today’s special operations forces.

Even so, Air Force leaders believe the future fighter force can be smaller because the F/A-22 and the F-35 are so much more capable than the F-15 and F-16. Replacing them one-for-one is not required, said Hornburg.

The new fighters will offer dramatic advances, not only because of combat prowess, but also because they will require less maintenance and thus will be able to fly more frequently, producing more sorties.

Operational tests of the F/A-22 were conducted during the summer. These tests pitted F/A-22s against superior numbers of F-15s and F-16s. In such mock engagements, the Raptors consistently beat a larger force of the other fighters. The F/A-22s were able to spot and shoot their adversaries without being spotted themselves, and they could fly more missions in a day.

The stealthy F/A-22 will be able to fly stealthy attack missions deep behind enemy lines and survive against the toughest air defenses. In addition, it will collect battlefield data that can be passed instantly to other aircraft in a coordinated air and ground battle. Collectively, these attributes mean that each F/A-22 will be worth several F-15s, the reigning world air superiority champ.

Similarly, the stealthy F-35 is being designed to surpass the F-16 in capability, reliability, and ownership cost. Designers say the F-35 will fly more sorties per day than the F-16, at lower cost and with greater effectiveness.

The ability of both the F/A-22 and F-35 to generate more sorties in a given period is key to determining the right size of the overall fighter fleet.

To ensure USAF gets maximum value from its F/A-22s, said McNabb, it will increase the fighter’s crew ratio. Currently, USAF assigns 1.25 pilots per aircraft. That figure will rise to between 1.5 and two pilots per aircraft. He explained that raising the crew ratio means USAF won’t have “empty iron sitting on the ramp.”

This would give USAF an opportunity to form more associate units, with Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command pilots, ground crews, and maintainers using and servicing the aircraft that belong to active duty units. This would ease the pain as the service retires its oldest fighters, most of which reside in the reserve components.

The experience of a Guard or Reserve pilot is also a force multiplier, McNabb noted. An experienced pilot “doesn’t take as much to keep up” as a brand-new fighter pilot, and his battle seasoning will make him that much more effective.

McNabb said that the Air Force is looking for the best mix of munitions, crew ratio, crew experience, numbers deployed, and onboard capabilities of each fighter type. The goal is to deliver the combat power the Air Force needs—no more and no less.

If USAF maintained fewer than 1.75 pilots per Raptor, the Air Force “wouldn’t be taking full advantage” of what the Raptor can do, said McNabb.

Blurred Lines

Hoffman recalled that the Air Force, in the early 1990s, merged the bombers of Strategic Air Command and fighters of Tactical Air Command to form Air Combat Command. Distinctions between bomber and fighter combat had become “kind of blurred” he said. The lines are even less distinct now, he added.

In recognition of that reality, USAF gave up two traditional documents—the Fighter Roadmap and Bomber Roadmap. In their place has come a single “Flight Plan 2025,” which lays out a collective combat force plan, comprising all aircraft.

McNabb said he has no simple “bumper sticker” to replace the easy-to-understand fighter bathtub chart. The picture only becomes clear “if you put in all the parts of the puzzle,” he said. Focusing on any one piece in isolation provides “a different solution,” he noted.

Despite the F/A-22’s advanced capabilities, McNabb said, USAF cannot buy fewer than 381. The service needs that number of F/A-22s to ensure it can put a squadron’s worth of Raptors into each of its 10 air and space expeditionary forces and still have enough left over for training, test, and depot maintenance.

Once the capabilities of the F-35 are better known, he said, there could be a “different mix” of the two fighters “as we go forward.”

Hornburg agreed, saying USAF’s fighter fleet would be “too small” if the service could not “fully equip 10 air expeditionary forces.” He said that planning requirement comes from DOD.

If the Pentagon needs the Air Force to do something, and it doesn’t have the wherewithal to do it, “then we’re too small,” he said.

According to Hornburg, it is essential to shift the debate away from numbers and focus instead on what effects can be achieved.

“We need to talk [in terms of] capability, not airplane management,” he said. “Capability and effect have to be the driving factors, not just the numbers of things that it takes to give you that capability.”

Given such an approach, Hornburg said, “I can tell you that I do not believe we will be too small in the year 2020 or 2025.”

Hornburg on Cope India

Early in 2004, an Air Force F-15 unit flew in simulated dogfights against Indian Su-30s, Mirage 2000s, and MiG-21s. Various news accounts reported that the F-15s had been defeated in many of the engagements. (See “Washington Watch,” July, p. 6.) Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, commander of Air Combat Command, said the results of that exercise are classified, but he admitted they raised some concern.

It’s sobering, he said, “when we find that some of our advantages aren’t as great as we thought they might be.” Such an event “leads me to remind people we need to continue to modernize our air-to-air capability,” he added.

There is no doubt that some foreign aircraft are “nearing the capability of ours,” and that “we’re going to be fighting a larger and more capable surface-to-air threat,” said Hornburg. “We need stealth technology and … other capabilities” of the type that will be provided by the F/A-22 and F-35.

Hornburg said that USAF’s current F-15s and F-16s are “still very good,” but they are “becoming dated.”

He warned that the Cope India exercise was a reminder “that the first thing that needs to happen in a combat situation is [to gain] control of the air.” The ACC commander added, “If we want air superiority, it doesn’t come cheap, and it’s not automatic.”

F-35 Status Report

The Pentagon is facing a one-year delay in the F-35 program primarily because of weight problems. The F-35 design is overweight by about 2,000 pounds, and engineers are looking at ways to either reduce the weight or improve performance of the aircraft.

Navy acquisition executive John J. Young Jr., who until recently oversaw the program, said in an interview with Inside the Navy that the F-35 will be so much more capable than the aircraft it replaces that DOD should consider reducing some of its performance requirements in order to keep the program on schedule and on budget. The F-35 is slated to replace the A-10 and F-16 in the Air Force, early F/A-18s in the Navy, and AV-8Bs in the Marine Corps.

Michael W. Wynne, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, has directed program managers to put first priority on development of the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the F-35, shifting the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) version to second priority. The carrier-capable Navy version will remain the third development priority. The STOVL version is being developed for the Marine Corps and UK military forces.

The Air Force, last spring, announced it will purchase a mix of both the CTOL and STOVL versions of the F-35. The service has not released details on the numbers of each version it will buy.

F/A-22 Status Report

The F/A-22 continues to excel in operational testing at Nellis AFB, Nev., winning lopsided victories in contests in which it has sometimes been outnumbered 8-to-1 by F-15s. Plans called for the classified tests to conclude in August. A report on whether the F/A-22 meets requirements for operational deployment is due in December.

The first operational F/A-22s are to be delivered in May 2005 to Langley AFB, Va. That’s about five months later than planned, but the change was made to allow prime contractor Lockheed Martin to incorporate any changes dictated by the operational flight tests.

Initial operational capability for the Raptor is set for December 2005. However, Marvin R. Sambur, USAF’s top acquisition executive, said in May that this date may slip “a couple of months.”

In January, the Pentagon will determine if the aircraft is ready to enter full-rate production, currently set at a maximum of 38 F/A-22s per year.

The Air Force wants to build a total of 381 F/A-22s, but service officials admit they can only afford about 277 under the cost cap mandated by DOD. An additional cost cap imposed by Congress would limit the Raptor fleet to only 218 aircraft.