The Air National Guard, principal defender of US air space, flies a geriatric collection of F-15s and F-16s. The fighters are so aged that most of them will be scrapped within a relatively few years.
Single-engine F-16s on the verge of retirement are located at 17 ANG bases. Massive retirements will start in 2015. By 2020, 13 of the bases will lose their fourth generation fighters, the other four bases by 2022. Guard F-15s, sprinkled around another six bases, will last a few years longer, but there are no firm plans for replacing them, either.
Under current plans, the biggest part of the air defense mission would fall to newly introduced F-35 fighters. However the phase-out and phase-in timelines don’t quite match up. The first F-35 won’t reach many Guard units until the mid-2020s. Unless the Guard carries out F-16 service life extension programs (SLEP), a lengthy gap will open up between departure of the F-16s and the arrival of the F-35s.
Like death and taxes, the Boneyard is inevitable. (Staff photo by Guy Aceto)
This poses a special problem in defending United States air sovereignty. At present, the US military maintains 18 sites dedicated to what the Pentagon calls “air sovereignty alert.” Of these sites, 16 are manned by Guard airmen.
“A lot more attention needs to be paid [to] defense of the homeland,” said Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, the ANG director. While the clock is ticking, he told reporters on July 29, “there is no recapitalization plan.”
“The key for me is this interim between now and the full fielding” of the F-35, Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., NORAD commander, told the trade newsletter, Inside the Air Force.
Renuart and Wyatt agree on several things. The Guard has an urgent need for new or significantly upgraded fighters; ANG needs to acquire specific capabilities, not particular air platforms; and the country has no plan to deal with the fighter gap.
The US has been in such situations before. In the early 1950s, the advent of long-range Soviet bombers armed with nuclear weapons forced US defense officials to rapidly assemble a way to barricade US air space. When the Pentagon reactivated Air Defense Command in 1951, the command lacked the purpose-built fighter-interceptors, communications systems, and radars vital to defending the homeland. Within the decade, a list of aircraft, radar networks, defensive weapons, and new organizations was under development or operational.
Then, almost as quickly as it had emerged, the threat changed. The rise of Soviet ICBMs and ballistic missile-equipped submarines changed the equation. Bombers were no longer seen as the primary threat to the US.
That realization sparked four straight decades of slow but constant dissipation of US air sovereignty capability. The F-106 was USAF’s last purpose-built interceptor. Aerospace Defense Command was disestablished in 1980. The US-Canadian NORAD command oversaw an ever-contracting network of alert sites and fighters.
By 2001, the US was down to 14 fighters on alert at seven locations. Some in the Pentagon argued for eliminating the air defense sites altogether, saying the threat did not justify the cost. The result was that, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda hijackers struck US targets, there were large gaps in coverage, and NORAD’s radars were focused outward.
The nation again scrambled to reconstitute its air defense system. In the days after 9/11, 26 alert sites were put on line, with combat air patrols a regular sight over major US cities. Airspace defense evolved into a steady-state mission, typically with 18 alert sites, enhanced radar coverage, and combat air patrols flown as needed.
The equipment that has backstopped this vital mission is now in question, but DOD has many options available.
It could SLEP old F-15s and F-16s to keep them in service until the F-35 is ready. Wyatt said the Guard would need to extend the lives of 100 to 150 legacy fighters to bridge to the F-35.
Another option is to upgrade old fighters with advanced radars, other types of advanced sensors, and equipment that give them the ability to track and destroy cruise missiles. Renuart and Wyatt both expressed interest in adding these sorts of near-term capabilities.
However, there is a debate over whether legacy fighters should be refurbished and upgraded. Many question whether it is more cost-effective to simply buy new aircraft.
Some in Congress have advocated a plan in which the Air Force would buy new “Generation 4.5” fighters for the ASA mission, but Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Chief of Staff, has attempted to quash these suggestions. “On 4.5, the answer is no,” Schwartz said in June. “N-O. I can’t make it any clearer.”
For the air defense mission, the F-22 would be ideal. “The nature of the current and future asymmetric threats” requires a fighter with speed and situational awareness like the F-22’s, Wyatt noted in a recent letter to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican who this year led the fight to save the F-22 program.
“The F-22’s unique capability … enables it to handle a full spectrum of threats that the ANG’s current legacy systems are not capable of addressing. I am fond of saying that ‘America’s most important job [homeland defense] should be handled by America’s best fighter.’”
On the ASA front, there is no shortage of options. What the US lacks is a real plan.