The Air Force’s “4+1” fighter plan for the 2020s, unveiled in recent months, will leave the service with a fleet that’s too small and improperly configured to deal with peer threats. What’s needed is a plan that emphasizes stealth aircraft; rapidly retires non-stealthy and expensive-to-maintain “legacy” airplanes; and doesn’t create gaps in USAF’s ability to control the air in a conflict, according to new analysis from AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Mitchell released a paper Oct. 25 offering an alternate fighter roadmap, saying the Air Force’s plan is budget-driven rather than strategy-driven.
“When you look at where we are today, and the Air Force’s plans for how they intend to get to the fighter force of the 2030s, there’s going to be a significant gap, a decrease in capacity—and, in some cases, capability—before we get to” the 2030s fighter force the service envisions, said Heather Penney, Mitchell senior resident fellow and author of the study, in a briefing for reporters. Mitchell’s plan offers an alternative path to the fighter force USAF seeks, she said. The report is titled, “The Future Fighter Force Our Nation Requires: Building a Bridge.”
Mitchell recommends the Air Force do what’s necessary to bring on at least 200 new fighters a year, just to keep the force at its current numerical levels. Current rates “are nowhere near this level,” Penney wrote.
The “4+1” plan spelled out in recent months calls for the F-22, closely followed by the Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter, as one leg; the F-35, the “cornerstone” of the fleet, as another; the F-15E/EX as a supplement to carry big weapons as a third; and F-16s to serve as a force-capacity maintainer. The A-10s are described as the “plus one” for close air support needs, as it can neither dogfight nor penetrate enemy airspace. Both the F-22 and A-10 would phase out in 2030, USAF has said.
The faults in USAF’s strategy are that it doesn’t buy F-35s fast enough; it retires the F-22 before its replacement is in hand; 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. The Air Force must also plan for combat losses unlike what it has experienced in the last 20 years, he said, due to the accelerating capability of adversaries such as China.
“The Air Force must revisit its decision to slow production rates” of the F-35, Penney said in the report. Numbers must be increased so that legacy aircraft that are no longer up for peer fights can be retired “one for one” with new jets, she said. Meanwhile, investing in the F-15EX—which, despite being updated with new flight controls and electronic warfare, will remain a non-stealthy aircraft—should be abandoned in favor of a rapid program to introduce a stealthy new and less expensive force—a multirole fighter complement to NGAD. The Air Force has referred to this airplane as a generation “4.5 plus or 5.0 minus” aircraft. The airplane is roughly analogous to the F-16 as the “low-end” fighter to the F-15’s “high end” in the 1980s.
Retiring the F-22 before a full force of NGADs is in hand—what Mitchell described as “gapping the force”—would allow China “the fait accompli it seeks” in potential conflicts such as with Taiwan, Deptula said, because the Air Force would not be credibly able to challenge it.
Mitchell’s eight recommendations to the Air Force are:
- Develop a “planning force” that actually meets the National Defense Strategy’s requirements to deter peer adversaries while having enough in reserve to deal with a possible second conflict. This would “go a long way in educating the American public and the Congress” in understanding USAF’s fighter force structure requirements; and explain the risks of not building the requisite inventories.
- “Extend legacy F-16s, wholly divesting the F-15C/D, A-10C, and F-15E inventories as F-35 production ramps up.” The F-16s can still function in “permissive environments” and can affordably provide multirole capacity in the near term, wrote Penney, a former USAF F-16 pilot, but the other airplanes “should be fully divested on a one-for-one replacement rate” as F-35s are built. The money saved would be put toward buying F-35s and procuring the NGAD.
- Kill the F-15EX and use the funds to launch a “new, stealthy, general-purpose fighter design” that USAF has tentatively dubbed the MR-X. The Air Force “accepted the F-15EX not because it will be relevant to future warfare” but because of a desire for a competitive production line to spur operating cost reductions on the F-35. The MR-X would be affordable and “relevant to the threats of the future,” whereas the F-15EX, because it is not stealthy, would have to “stand off” so far from enemy territory that it would “negate” the value of standoff weapons strapped to it. Mitchell said the F-117 and YF-16 are models of how USAF can “advance new designs and capabilities affordably.”
- Ramp up the F-35, offsetting F-15C/D, A-10C, and F-15E retirements. Penney told reporters that while Lockheed Martin has negotiated a peak production rate of about 155 F-35s a year, the additional tails needed could be obtained “by adding a third shift.” The Air Force has said it prefers to wait for the Block 4 version of the F-35, but Penney wrote that those aircraft now in production “have the foundation” for Block 4 and could be updated later. Increasing F-35 production also “provides some hedge” if NGAD is delayed. Mitchell documents assert that “every F-35A that is not bought between now and  is one less Block 4 aircraft in the Air Force’s 2030 inventory.”
- Close the F-35 Joint Program Office. Deptula said the JPO as now structured—run by a committee of F-35 users, both U.S. and international—takes too long to reach decisions and moves too slowly to stay ahead of threats. The services all have their own F-35 “integration offices,” so this wouldn’t be hard to accomplish, Penney said, and the result would be more focused on each user’s needs, particularly those of the Air Force.
- Keep and modernize the F-22. Deptula noted that telling Congress the F-22 will retire in 2030 means the jet would not get needed upgrades in the late 2020s, because Congress would not want to fund improvements that would go into airplanes about to phase out. Rather, Penney wrote, the F-22 provides meaningful capability for “both the European and Pacific theaters,” and USAF should not let go of the F-22 until the NGAD is fielded and operational. The air superiority mission “must not be gapped,” Deptula said.
- Accelerate “and remain steadfastly committed to” the NGAD. Penney called NGAD the “foundation of the future fighter force” but noted it won’t be fielded until the 2030s. USAF must remain “wholly committed” to seeing it through.
- Abolish the “pass through” section of the Air Force budget. Deptula noted that the pass-through—monies that appear to be part of USAF’s budget but are not controlled by it, being diverted immediately to classified DOD programs, mostly in space—give Congress the impression that USAF’s budget is about 20 percent bigger than it is. Deptula said that since the 1991 Gulf War, it appeared as if the Air Force has “received nearly $1 trillion more” than it actually has; and that removing this idiosyncrasy would better illustrate how underfunded the service is, relative to the other services. Moreover, “Space Force was basically an unfunded mandate,” which the Air Force is paying for out of hide, with little additional appropriation, even though it is absorbing space functions of the other services, he said. Given general agreement that dealing with China is mainly an Air Force problem, abetted by the Navy and to a much lesser degree the Army, budget proportionality is needed, he said; in buying power, USAF has been last among the services for more than 30 years.
“The Air Force faces a crucial transition,” Penney wrote. While USAF leaders are struggling to recapitalize “core missions while staying within serious budget restraints”—the Air Force must in the same timeframe recapitalize three-fourths of the nation’s nuclear deterrent—it’s been pushed to delay fighter programs so much that its “ability to fulfill its national defense responsibilities” is threatened. The Air Force has grown “too old and too small” to meet all the missions demanded of it, and past efforts to cannibalize the force, paying for new programs by retiring still-relevant capabilities, “have not worked.”
Flatly, she said, the Air Force “does not have the combat aircraft capacity” to cover its global responsibilities while functioning in “a high operational tempo of a complex and multipolar world.”
Slowing the F-35, and buying the “50-year-old” F-15EX design is “not a sound means to build the fighter force the nation needs,” she said. Though “well intentioned” and attempting to live within political reality, the Air Force’s 4+1 plan “only widens the gaps in foundational … capabilities” at a time when the world is getting “increasingly complex and dangerous.” Fighter recapitalization “cannot be put off any longer.”