Into Thin Air
The U.S. Air Force Is Running Out of Fighter Jets
Congress is insisting that the U.S. military field more dogfighters than its Russian and Chinese rivals. All signs point to the Air Force missing that goal.
The U.S. Air Force is running out of fighter jets. And that’s its own damned fault. Even as its squadrons dwindle, the flying branch remains committed to exclusively buying overly-complex, enormously expensive F-35 stealth fighters that it simply cannot afford in the quantities it needs in order to maintain its numerical strength.
That’s because the Air Force wants all of its fighters to be radar-evading stealth fighters, regardless of the cost or impact of this goal on the service’s ability to do its job defending America’s interests in the sky.
The Air Force is, in that sense, a victim of its own technological ambition. And the self-inflicted warplane-shortage couldn’t come at a worse time. While the American air arm slowly withers away, the air forces of China and Russia only grow stronger.
In late 2015, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring the Air Force to maintain at least 1,900 fighter jets.
To lawmakers, the legal minimum makes sense. China and Russia are both buying large numbers of new fighters and, as of late 2015, owned around 1,400 and 1,300 jets, respectively. The Air Force’s own 1,900 jets, combined with the 1,400 fighters the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operate, ensure that the U.S. military’s frontline warplanes outnumber the aircraft of its two biggest rivals.
But the Pentagon admits in the latest edition of its master aviation plan, released in late May, that it intends to slip below the Congressionally-imposed warplane “floor” starting in 2022. “The Air Force has insufficient resources to maintain the… mandated number of fighter aircraft,” the aviation plan states.
“At the current resource levels, projected aircraft service life divestiture outpaces procurement,” the plan explains. In other words, older planes will wear out before newer planes can replace them. “This will substantially drop the total number of combat-coded fighters and fighter squadrons,” the plan warns.
The U.S. Air Force’s annual budget is more than $100 billion, substantially bigger in real terms than the combined budgets of its Russian and Chinese rivals. But even that generous funding has proved inadequate for the Air Force’s lofty scheme to replace almost all of its current fighters with the new F-35.
When Lockheed Martin devised the supersonic, radar-dodging F-35 in the late 1990s, the new fighter—which avoids detection thanks to its special shape and skin coating—was supposed to be both superior to the previous generation of non-stealthy A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s and more affordable than other new planes such as the F-22 stealth fighter. The Maryland-based plane-maker developed three different versions of the F-35, one each for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines.
But Lockheed and its allies in the Pentagon over-promised with the new fighter. In fact, the F-35 turned out to be less heavily-armed than the tank-killing A-10, slower than the powerful F-15, and less maneuverable than the nimble F-16. Lockheed set out to build an aerial jack-of-all-trades, but instead ended up producing a warplane that had just one thing going for it: stealth.
The F-35 proved to be expensive, too. In 2014, a single new F-35A—that’s the Air Force’s version—cost $150 million, including the engine and required safety upgrades. By comparison, a brand-new F-16 costs around $80 million and a new F-15 sets the buyer back a little more than $100 million.
The F-35’s high cost compelled the Pentagon to cut way back on the number of new planes it bought. The Air Force’s original goal was to ramp up to buying 80 F-35s annually starting in 2015. In reality, the service bought just 19 of the jets that year—less than a quarter of the planes it had said it needed.
“We’re always struggling to get the production rate as high as we can get it on F-35,” Bill LaPlante, then the Air Force’s top weapons-buyer, said in late 2015. “That’s as true as saying it’s cold outside. It’s always true.”
But the Pentagon’s new aviation plan assumes the Air Force will manage to buy 243 F-35s between 2017 and 2021, an average of just 49 per year and, in total, just over half the number of new jets the Air Force once thought it would get. The gap between expectation and reality helps explain why the military’s flying branch is running out of airplanes.
In theory, the Air Force could try to keep existing jets in service longer and, in that way, continue to meet Congress’ 1,900-fighter requirement. The problem is that airplanes tend to get more expensive to maintain as they get older, owing to mounting wear and tear and the need to upgrade them with new electronics and weaponry so that they can continue to put up a decent fight.
Determined to buy as many F-35s as it possible can as fast as it can—this despite the plane’s disappointing record, so far—the Air Force has tried to scrap old planes and redirect their maintenance funding toward buying a few more F-35s.
In 2006, the Air Force made a surprise decision to retire all 52 of its vaunted F-117 stealth fighters—a controversial move that reportedly freed up $1 billion over five years. Three years later in 2009, the Air Force cut 250 aircraft—including many of the stories A-10 attack planes as well as older F-15s, and F-16s. The move allegedly saved $3.5 billion over the next half-decade. Eliminating more than 400 jets saved enough money over eight years to buy around 30 F-35s.
Do the math. That’s four extra F-35s per year. Eliminating what then represented a 10th of the Air Force’s fighter fleet still freed up enough funding to make up just a fraction of the F-35 production-shortfall.
Doubling down on that self-defeating strategy, in 2013 the Air Force proposed to decommission all 300 of its A-10s, even though it had just finished upgrading the rugged ground-attackers with new weapons and electronics. The plan ostensibly would have saved $3.5 billion over five years—enough for 20 F-35s, or four per year. Still not enough to plug the gap between the number of F-35s the Air Force said it needed and the quantity it could actually afford.
But Congress nixed the A-10 retirement several years running and, in mandating the 1,900-plane minimum starting in late 2015, essentially required the Air Force to keep all the old fighters it has left for as long as it takes the service to buy adequate numbers of F-35s to replace the older planes on a one-for-one basis. No more grounding large numbers of old planes in order to purchase small numbers of new planes.
The Air Force owns around 180 F-22s. To stay above the Congressional fighter floor, the Air Force will need to buy more than 1,700 F-35s. At current rates, that could take another 25 years. So let’s say those rates are eventually doubled as production heats up. Let’s say it only takes 12 or 15 years. Today’s F-15s and F-16s, most of which were built in the 1980s, could be 50 years old by then—twice as old as what the military currently considers an “old” fighter.
“The Air Force will be required to upgrade and extend the service life of the F-15 and F-16,” the Pentagon’s aviation plan acknowledges. There’s an alternative, of course. Lockheed still makes the F-16. Boeing still makes the F-15. Both are cheaper than the F-35. The Air Force could buy more copies of either or both and boost its fighter numbers for a comparative bargain.
But the Air Force doesn’t want F-15s and F-16s, because the Air Force believes in stealth. “The platforms and systems that made us great over the last 50 years will not make us great over the next 50 years,” Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told a Senate subcommittee in February. “While they might be expensive, failing to push the strategic edge might put our nation at risk.”
If the Air Force won’t budge on the expensive, slow-to-build F-35 and Congress holds the flying branch to the 1,900-fighter requirement, then there’s only one way to make those two ends meet. Lawmakers and, by extension, American taxpayers, must give the Air Force more money to buy more F-35s.