The unknown story of the F-16 mission that marked the first combat use of GBU-38 JDAM and the beginning of the battle for Falluja

USAF mulls 4.5/5 gen minus clean sheet fighter to replace F-16, thinks to use the F-35 less to mitigate F135 engine wear issues

By Dario Leone
Feb 19 2021
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Former USAF acquisition chief Will Roper opened the possibility of buying more F-16s for this purpose but Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. waved away that idea because the F-16 lacks open mission systems capability.

On Feb. 17, 2021 US Air Force (USAF) Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. revealed that the service is launching a months-long study of tactical aviation requirements, seeking a force mix that addresses both near- and long-term requirements, which will be available in time to inform the fiscal 2023 budget request.

According to Air Force Magazine, he wants the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation shop involved so the study will have credibility and buy-in from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Brown explained that USAF needs a fifth-gen capability, comparable to the F-22 and F-35, and a “sixth-gen” capability such as the Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter, but it also needs “a mix for the lower-end fight.”

USAF acquisition chief Will Roper opened the possibility of buying more F-16s for this purpose but Brown waved away that idea because the F-16 lacks open mission systems capability, and gets operational flight program updates—new software—too infrequently. Brown is more interested in a “clean sheet design,” which he referred to as a “fourth-and-a half/fifth-gen minus” aircraft. The TacAir study will decide just what is needed, and in what numbers.

As reported on Jan. 29, the USAF was thinking to buy new Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets two decades after signing the last production contract for new Vipers.

“Actually, I want to build something new and different that’s not the F-16; that has some of those capabilities, but gets there faster, using our digital approach,” Brown explained when asked specifically about buying new F-16s.

“Not everybody will agree” with the study’s findings, but he said, “We … want a point of departure, a point of dialog.” There will be risk associated with whatever optimum force mix emerges. “My job then is to articulate what that risk might be,” he pointed out.

TacAir review will also play a role in mitigating the F-35 engine wear issues. Brown said that the USAF has the largest and “most mature” F-35 fleet, and is seeing F135 engines “failing a little faster in certain areas,” due to their “high use rate” and heavy deployment pace, given their relative newness in the fleet.

Because of these issues, the USAF F-35 Demo Team, assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base (AFB), Utah, has been forced to reduce appearances this year: the Air Combat Command (ACC) that controls the team cut the number of 2021 shows by eight performances (about one-third) towards the end of January to ensure the flying doesn’t aggravate a worsening service-wide shortage of engines.

Brown explained that options are being looked at in maintenance and depot to mitigate the problem, noting he has three- and four-star generals studying the issue.

But he said that one big solution could simply be to use the F-35 less.

“I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft,” he said. “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our ‘high end’ [fighter], we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight … We don’t want to burn up capability now and wish we had it later.”

There’s “going to be some tension associated” with that approach, and “I fully expect that,” he said.

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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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