The oft-maligned F-35 program has run into another bit of turbulence. For years, Congress has authorized the Defense Department to purchase more F-35 Lightning II aircraft than the services had made budget requests for. But that largess appears to be coming to an end—just as the US Air Force starts to look for other ways to fill out its fighter squadrons.
In February, the Air Force lifted the curtains on plans to buy a brand-new aircraft to replace the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown said the service is looking at buying what he called a “clean sheet” fighter in 2023, using lessons learned from the efforts behind the recently acquired T-7A Red Hawk trainer. But that plan may have some difficulty taking flight because the Air Force was supposed to already have an F-16 replacement—the F-35A Lightning II.
The new fighter plan, which calls for an aircraft with some evolutionary improvements over aircraft like the current F-16 and F-18 Super Hornet, is essentially an acknowledgment by Brown and the Air Force that the F-35 program has failed to meet the Air Force’s goals of attaining what the service has sought since the 1970s: a balance referred to frequently by the late Senator John McCain as the “high-low mix.”
Mix it up
The “high-low mix” concept, born out of the group of Air Force reformers sometimes called the “Fighter Mafia“—Cols. John Boyd, Thomas Christie, Franklin “Chuck” Spinney, and Pierre Sprey—sought to fix the death spiral of fighter aircraft development cost and complexity by augmenting a few expensive, high-capability aircraft built for air superiority with a larger number of less-complicated and less-expensive aircraft that could handle basic air defense, strike missions, and close air support. In the 1970s, the “high” was the F-15 Eagle, and the “low” was the multirole F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Navy followed suit with the F-14 Tomcat as its “high” and the F/A-18 Hornet as a less-expensive “low.”
It’s hard to believe it now, but the F-35 was supposed to be the “low” to the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor “high.” Unfortunately, the F-22, initially designed in the 1980s, was too high—both in terms of the price for delivery and the ongoing maintenance and support costs, and production was shut down at just under 200 aircraft. And while the cost of the F-16 was less than half that of an F-15, the F-35 has roughly two-thirds the unit cost of the F-22—and the final price tag on the F-35 could be higher still.
In the middle
The problem is that the F-35 went from being the “low” to being something in between. And in the meantime, the F-16 has been repeatedly upgraded to make it into more of a middleweight air superiority fighter, even as more of the aircraft are shifted to reserve squadrons. The Air Force Reserve will need a fighter aircraft that can be easily and cheaply maintained to replace the F-16—and that certainly won’t be the F-35.
In a House Armed Services Committee hearing on April 22, members of the Subcommittees on Readiness and Tactical Air and Land Forces expressed deepening concerns about the long-term affordability of the F-35. Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee Chairman Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) said, “Given the overall affordability concerns that exist within the program, I would not support any requests for additional aircraft beyond what is contained in this year’s president’s budget request.”
Readiness Subcommittee Chair John Garamendi (D-Calif.) echoed that sentiment. Citing the F-35 program’s budget overruns and failure to deliver on its promised capabilities, Garamendi said that Congress would no longer throw more money at the F-35 program to fix it at taxpayers’ expense. “The easy days of the past are over,” he said.
Meanwhile, the “high” side of the equation has some holes in it, and the F-15 Eagle has been refeathered to fill the gap—with eight F-15EX on order and a few already delivered this year—to fill in those gaps. Maybe the replacement for the F-16 will have a familiar look to it as well.
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