- By John Reed
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.
The U.S. Air Force will lose dominance of the skies within ten years to mass produced Chinese and Russian stealth fighters unless it gets thousands of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters by the 2020s. That’s the pitch service officials made today during the Air Force Association’s annual conference outside Washington.
However, if budget constraints brought on by sequestration continue, the service may only be able to buy these new, so-called "5th generation" jets if it retires hundreds of older, "4th generation" fighters that it had planned on keeping.
A "4th generation fleet by itself will be irrelevant," said the Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of the service’s Air Combat Command, during a speech here while showing a picture of Russian and Chinese stealth fighters. "A 4th generation aircraft meeting a [Chinese or Russian] 5th generation aircraft in combat may be cost effective, but it will be dead before it ever knows it is in a fight," said Hostage, making the case as to why the service must buy new fighters.
Retiring large numbers of the service’s 4th generation F-16s, F-15s and A-10s soon would allow Air Force leaders to buy 1,763 F-35s as well as roughly 100 new stealth bombers in time to defeat Chinese or Russian-made stealth jets and advanced air defenses, according to Hostage.
"1,763 is not a luxury, it’s national defense priority," said Hostage during his speech. If all goes well, "I think we’ll have the F-35 [fleet] growing and at a size in 2023, that it will be more than sufficient" to fight against modern threats.
The F-35 has been plagued by development problems leading to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of redesigns. These redesigns in turn have led to years’ worth of production delays for the airplane and a massive reduction in the planned number of jets the Pentagon plans to buy. The latest figures indicate that the military will only have 365 JSFs by 2017 instead of the 1,591 it originally planned on having by then.
The Pentagon currenlty plans to buy a total of 2,443 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps over the coming decades.
"If the F-35 program stays to where it’s been whacked down to, we’ll be alright" but that number can’t go any lower or slow down, Hostage told reporters after his speech.
If purchases of the F-35 slow, "we’ll have a serious problem," he said.
The F-35s must be purchased in large numbers by the beginning of the next decade to offset any retirements of its older fighters, according to Hostage.
His comments came the same day as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said that the service is looking at cutting aircraft that can only do one mission in order to free up funds for the hundreds of new tankers, bombers and F-35s it wants to have by the middle of the 2020s.
"If there are airplanes that are better suited for multiple missions than another airplane, then the one that isn’t is at risk as we look at downsizing and saving money," said Welsh, shown above wearing a Mexican wrestling mask during his speech here.
"If you don’t have [F-35] you can’t operate against advanced air defenses of the future," said Welsh. "You can’t dress up an old [fighter] and make it a new one."
One example of a plane with limited roles is the legendary A-10 Warthog ground attack plane. The Warthog has provided close air support to generations of troops on the ground with its 30-mm Gatling gun along with bombs and rockets. However, the Warthog’s run may be reaching its end.
Hostage is looking stronly at the possibility of sending the roughly 30-year old A-10 fleet to the boneyard in order to afford new fighters, an option he says he is not happy about.
Hostage told Army leaders that, "in order to ensure the jet noise you hear over your heads in the future is friendly, I’ve got to pair the force down, and one of the things I think I have to give up is [the] A-10. While they were not happy, the accepted it."
He went on to say that jets like the F-35, the B-1 bomber and even the service’s new stealth bomber will be able to replace the A-10 in the close air support role. Hostage also acknowledged that retiring the A-10s and other older aircraft may not be easy. Governors and lawmakers with Air National Guard A-10 units in their states are likley to put up a massive political fight over any such descision, said Hostage.
With the war in Afghanistan winding down and defense spending in decline, the Air Force is facing the fact that can’t have it all. It will shrink and retire the jets that have served it well since the 1980s and scramble to field brand new fighters and bombers in time to meet new threats.