Retiring the F-22 before the NGAD (its replacement) is in hand would allow China “the fait accompli it seeks” in potential conflicts such as with Taiwan.
As already reported, Speaking during the McAleese FY2022 Defense Programs Conference Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., Air Force Chief of Staff, said on May 12, 2021 that the US Air Force (USAF) will cut its fighter inventory from seven fleets to four, and the F-22 is not on his short list.
The extant seven-fleet mix of fighters will need to be reduced to “four, … plus one,” Brown said. The objective mix will include the A-10 “for a while” (it would be phased out in 2030); the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system; the F-35, “which will be the cornerstone” of the fleet; the F-15E/EX; and the F-16 or its successor.
Asked to clarify, an Air Force spokesperson said Brown is thinking very long-term and in the context of “a very small fleet,” which will become increasingly hard to support, especially as it passes the 25-year age mark in 2030. The F-22 will “eventually” retire from the inventory, she said, noting the F-22’s likely successor will be the NGAD.
But according to a new analysis from AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, the Air Force’s “4+1” fighter plan for the 2020s will leave the service with a fleet that’s too small and improperly configured to deal with peer threats.
As noted by Air Force Magazine, Mitchell released a paper on Oct. 25, 2021 titled “The Future Fighter Force Our Nation Requires: Building a Bridge.”
This plan offers an alternate fighter roadmap, saying the Air Force’s plan is budget-driven rather than strategy-driven. It also recommends the USAF do what’s necessary to bring on at least 200 new fighters a year.
The faults in USAF’s strategy are that it doesn’t buy F-35s fast enough; it retires the F-22 before the NGAD (its replacement) is in hand (this would allow China “the fait accompli it seeks” in potential conflicts such as with Taiwan); and it spends scarce dollars on non-stealthy and “increasingly irrelevant” F-15EXs that should go to an all-new fighter than can survive and be built in numbers, said retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of Mitchell.
To this end, the Congress, Office of the Secretary of Defense OSD, and Air Force should:
- Develop and publish a “planning force” to depict what the Air Force actually needs to execute the National Defense Strategy. This action will go a long way in educating the American public and the Congress in understanding Air Force fighter force structure requirements. It would also clearly provide a measure of risk that the Air Force, DOD, and the nation is taking if the DOD and Congress do not fully fund a program design to develop and acquire the planning force.
- Extend legacy F-16s, while wholly divesting the F-15C/D, A-10C and F-15E inventories as the F-35 production ramps up. Extending legacy F-16s will provide capability and capacity in permissive environments, while also preserving irreplaceable enterprise elements. The F-15C/D, A-10C, and F-15E should be fully divested on a one-for-one replacement rate as F-35s come online, freeing up further funding for fifth-generation fighter production and next-generation fighter development. As former Air Combat Command Commander General John Corley, USAF (ret) recently remarked, “If it’s always about ‘program next,’ you’ll never have a program at all.”
- Terminate F-15EX and use F-15EX funding to begin a new, stealthy, general-purpose fighter design. The Air Force accepted the F-15EX not because it will be relevant to future warfare, but because of an OSD desire for an alternative to a single fighter production line. The Air Force should seek the soonest termination point for the F-15EX and redirect that funding to increase F-35 production and begin the development of an affordable, general-purpose, stealthy fighter program that will be relevant to the threats of the future.
- Immediately ramp-up F-35 production to offset F-15C/D, A-10C and F-15E retirements. F-35s procured now have the foundation for Block 4 capabilities; there should be no delay in immediately ramping up F-35 production. Increasing F-35 quantities now also provides some hedge for any potential NGAD delays.
- Close the F-35 Joint Program Office and transition program management to the services. Transitioning F-35 program authority to the respective services and closing the JPO should begin immediately to enable the Air Force to better achieve its F-35 capability, availability, and affordability objectives.
- Retain and continue to modernize F-22. The F-22 must be retained and modernized to continue to provide crucial air dominance capabilities. Given the challenges and capacity that could be demanded by both Pacific and European theaters, the Air Force should consider extending the F-22 until NGAD and other programs can ensure needed capacity.
- Accelerate and remain steadfastly committed to the Next Generation Air Dominance program. NGAD is the foundation of the Air Force’s future fighter force. While it remains highly classified, the Air Force must do all it can to accelerate it where it makes sense and remain wholly committed to seeing this program through. NGAD will not begin fielding until the next decade, but commitment to this crucial capability through this decade is critical to sustain to get to the other side of the bridge.
- Remove pass-through funds from the Air Force budget. Pass-through funds distort the service’s true level of resourcing, result in a significantly smaller real budget, and cause direct harm to the Air Force’s ability to recapitalize its legacy forces. OSD and Congress should remove pass-through from the Air Force’s budget as the first step towards honest and responsible resource decisions for the service.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force