The objective mix will include the A-10 “for a while”; the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system; the F-35, “which will be the cornerstone” of the fleet; the F-15EX; and the F-16 or its successor.
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.
As reported by Air Force Magazine, speaking during the McAleese FY2022 Defense Programs Conference, Brown said the tactical aviation study is meant to assemble a range of options that will shift as the threat does. However the study, that was launched earlier this year, is not aimed to produce the exact “right mix” of fighters for the future.
He called the study an “internal document” and something that’s “not so much to be delivered to Congress.”
He added that although the study will “shape some of the ‘22” budget, “it’s really designed to help me shape ’23.” The Joint Staff and the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation shop are helping in constructing the analysis.
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”; the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system; the F-35, “which will be the cornerstone” of the fleet; the F-15EX; and the F-16 or its successor.
When asked to clarify why Brown did not mention the F-22 or the F-15E, a USAF 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.
“The F-22 is still undergoing modernization,” USAF spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said. “There are no plans to retire it in the near-term.” She said that the outcome of the TacAir study will determine how and when the F-22.
The 195th and final F-22 Raptor tail number 4195, rolled off the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics assembly line during a ceremony on Dec. 13, 2011 and was delivered to the USAF on May 2, 2012 at the Lockheed Martin manufacturing facility in Marietta, Georgia. Tail No. 4195 has been the 195th F-22 to roll off the line and into the Air Force fleet. Eight of those jets were built for developmental purposes.
The F-22 combines stealth, advanced sensors and advanced air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons that makes it possible for the aircraft to cruise faster than the speed of sound without being detected.
However, the $143 million price tag per aircraft, along with changes in the military requirements for post Cold-War challenges, lead government officials to the decision to officially cease production of the F-22 in 2009.
Stefanek added that the “plus one” Brown referred to was the A-10. “We have talked about the A-10 serving into the 2030s” but not beyond, she pointed out.
“We’ll have the F-16s with us for a while,” but it will be replaced with something else, Brown said. Whether that will be “additional F-35s or something else into the future” remains to be seen.
Brown called the NGAD the “air superiority fighter of the future,” but he said it’s not just the aircraft that’s important to him but “how we build it.” He’s counting on digital design and acquisition to offer more options as time goes on.
The omission of the F-15E from the short list means that the Strike Eagle is being eyed for phase-out in the 2030s, when it will be as structurally aged as the F-15C/D fleet is now. Even though the last F-15Es were delivered in the late 1990s, the bulk of the force is much older. It is noteworthy that while the F-15EX is planned to be flown by a single pilot for now, has a second cockpit and all the structural strengthening of the F-15E including the conformal fuel tanks (CFTs). Analysts have noted the F-15EX is more like the F-15E than the F-15C, which it is now replacing. The USAF has said it will acquire as many as 144 F-15EXs, but the contract with Boeing leaves the door open to as many as 200.
Photo credit: Teddy Techer