The US Air Force is thinking about what its future fighter fleet might look like, and that picture apparently doesn’t include the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown said at a McAleese and Associates conference Wednesday that the service is trying to find the right mix of aircraft for the future fleet through an internal tactical air study, according to multiple reports.
“Right now we have seven fighter fleets,” Brown said, according to Defense One. “My intent is to get down to about four … really a four plus one,” with the A-10, a ground-attack aircraft rather than a pure fighter, as the plus-one.
The general said that the mix could include the A-10 and F-16 “for a while,” the F-35, which “will be the cornerstone” for the fleet, the F-15EX, and then the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.
The Air Force official explained that Brown is thinking more about the long-term. The F-22 will “eventually” retire, the spokesperson said, explaining that the platform’s likely successor will be the NGAD fighter, which Brown reportedly called “the air-superiority fighter of the future.”
Although the A-10 and the F-16 made the chief of staff’s list, the A-10 is not expected to serve beyond the 2030s, according to Air Force Magazine, and the Air Force, Brown said, is already thinking about the F-16 replacement, which could be “additional F-35, or something else into the future.”
“I don’t need to make that decision today,” Brown said. “That’s probably six, seven, eight years away into the future.”
Talking about the Air Force’s internal tactical air study, Brown stated the service will “look across the board, [at] all of our combat aircraft, our attack, our fighter portfolio,” adding that the Air Force is really looking “for a window of options, because the facts and assumptions based on a threat will change over time.”
The F-22 Raptor is a single-seat, fifth-generation stealth air-dominance and multi-role fighter that first flew in 1997 and entered service in 2005.
Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown revealed the new statistic during a hearing about the fiscal 2022 budget before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. As of this week, he said, the F-35 fighter fleet is second in size only to the F-16 Fighting Falcon; the Air Force has 934 F-16 C and D models.
Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Malinda Singleton told Military.com the service has 283 F-35s, which also surpasses the A-10 Warthog fleet by two aircraft.
During the hearing, Brown discussed how the Air Force plans to move forward with its “TacAir study,” which will determine the right mix of aircraft for the future, and assess how future fighter concepts will fit into the current mix of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters.
“It won’t necessarily give us an answer, [but] a range of answers to take a look at the threat and make sure we have done the analysis to inform ourselves but also our key stakeholders, which includes this committee,” he said.
The F-35 fleet eclipsed the number of F-22 Raptors in 2019 – with 203 at the end of that fiscal year; the Air Force capped its Raptor fleet at 187 in 2009 (it currently has 186).
Brown in February disputed reports calling the F-35 a high-cost Pentagon failure, saying that was “nowhere near the case.” In his prepared testimony before the subcommittee Friday, he said the jet remains “the cornerstone of our future fighter force and air superiority.”
Cancel culture is a common, almost viral, term in political and social discourse these days. Basically, somebody expresses views considered to be outrageous or vile or racist or otherwise insensitive and inappropriate. In response, that person is “canceled,” perhaps losing a job or otherwise sidelined and silenced.
In being deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for instance, this country’s previous president has, it could be argued, been canceled – at least by polite society. More than a few might add, good riddance.
Cancel culture is all around us, with a single glaring exception: the US military. No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled.
As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our 21st-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s 21st-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.
Is it any surprise, then, that a system which seems to eternally reward failure consistently produces it as well?
After all, if cancel culture should apply anywhere, it would be to faulty multibillion-dollar weapons systems and more than a few generals, who instead either get booted upstairs to staff positions or retire comfortably onto the boards of directors of major weapons companies.
Let’s take a closer look at several major weapons systems that are begging to be canceled – and a rare case of one that finally was.
* The F-35 stealth fighter: I’ve writtenextensively on the F-35 over the years. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the plane was at one point seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Nonetheless, the US military persisted and it is now nearing full production at a projected total cost of $1.7 trillion by the year 2070. Even so, nagging problems persist, including engine difficulties and serious maintenance deficiencies. Even more troubling: the plane often can’t be cleared for flying if lightning is anywhere in the area, which is deeply ironic, given that it’s called the Lightning II. Let’s hope that there are no thunderstorms in the next war.
* The Boeing KC-46 tanker: A tanker is basically a flying gas station, air-to-air refueling being something the Air Force mastered half a century ago. Never underestimate the military’s ability to produce new problems while pursuing more advanced technology, however. Doing away with old-fashioned windows and an actual airman as a “boom operator” in the refueling loop (as in a legacy tanker like the KC-135), the KC-46 uses a largely automated refueling system via video. Attractive in theory, that system has yet to work reliably in practice. (Maybe, it will, however, by the year 2024, the Air Force now says.) And what good is a tanker that isn’t assured of actually transferring fuel in mid-air and turns out to be compromised as well by its own fuel leaks? The Air Force is now speaking of “repurposing” its new generation of tankers for missions other than refueling. That’s like me saying that I’m repurposing my boat as an anchor since it happened to spring a leak and sink to the bottom of the lake.
* And speaking of boats, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Navy has had serious problems of its own with its most recent Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. That service started building carriers in the 1920s, so one might imagine that, by now, the brass had gained some mastery of the process of updating them and building new ones. But never underestimate the allure of cramming unproven and expensive technologies for “next generation” success on board such vessels. Include among them, when it comes to the Ford-class carriers, elevators for raising munitions that notoriously don’t operate well and a catapult system for launching planes from the deck (known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System or EMALS) that’s constantly breaking down. As you might imagine, not much can happen on an aircraft carrier when you can’t load munitions or launch planes effectively. Each new Ford-class carrier costs in the neighborhood of $14 billion, yet despite all that money, it simply “isn’t very good at actually being a carrier,” as an article in Popular Mechanics magazine bluntly put it recently. Think of it as the KC-46 of the seas.
* And speaking of failing ships, let’s not forget the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have earned the nickname “little crappy ships.” A serious propulsion design flaw may end up turning them into “floating garbage piles,” defense journalist Jared Keller recently concluded. The Navy bought 10 of them for roughly half a billion dollars each, with future orders currently on hold. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the same one responsible for the wildly profligate (and profitable) F-35.
* Grimly for the Navy, problems were so severe with its Zumwalt-class of stealth destroyers that the program was actually canceled after only three ships had been built. (The Navy initially planned to build 32 of them.) Critiqued as a vessel in search of a mission, the Zumwalt-class was also bedeviled by problems with its radar and main armament. In total, the Navy spent $22 billion on a failed “next generation” concept whose cancelation offers us that utter rarity of our moment: a weapon so visibly terrible that even the military-industrial complex couldn’t continue to justify it.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday has gone on record as rejecting the idea of integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as “concurrent development”). Godspeed, admiral!
Much like the troubled F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt’s spiraling costs were due in part to the Pentagon’s fixation on integrating just such “leading-edge” technologies into designs that themselves were in flux. (Not for nothing do military wags refer to them as bleeding edge technologies.)
Such wildly ambitious concurrent development, rather than saving time and money, tends to waste plenty of both, leading to ultra-expensive less-than-fully effective weapons like the Zumwalt, the original version of which had a particularly inglorious breakdown while passing through (or rather not passing through) the Panama Canal in November 2016.
Given such expensive failures, you might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the 21st century, while fighting never-ending disastrous wars across significant parts of the planet, America’s military isn’t also actively working to disarm itself. Seriously, if we’re truly talking about weapons that are vital to national defense, failure shouldn’t be an option, but far too often it is.
With this dubious record, one might imagine the next class of Navy vessel could very well be named for Philip Francis Queeg, the disturbed and incompetent ship captain of novelist Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny.”
It’s also quite possible that the Pentagon’s next advanced fighter jet will fulfill former Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine’s estimate from the 1980s that, by the year 2054, the entire Pentagon budget would be needed to buy one – and only one – combat aircraft. Perhaps a Death Star for America’s new Space Force?
Is it even possible to cancel a major weapons system like the F-35?
The Navy’s Zumwalt-class of destroyers was such a disaster that the program was indeed canceled a mere $22 billion along the line, but what about a program like the F-35? Is it even possible to cancel such a behemoth of a weapons system?
That question was put to me by Christian Sorensen, author of “Understanding the War Industry,” who like me is a member of the Eisenhower Media Network. Overpriced and underperforming weapons, Sorensen noted, are a feature of, rather than some sort of bug in, the military-industrial complex as future profits for giant weapons companies drive design and fielding decisions, not capability, efficiency, or even need.
He’s right, of course. There may even be a perverse incentive within the system to build flawed weapons, since there’s so much money to be made in troubleshooting and “fixing” those flaws. Meanwhile, the F-35, like America’s leading financial institutions in the 2007-2009 Great Recession, is treated as if it were too big to fail. And perhaps it is.
Jobs, profits, influence, and foreign trade are all involved here, so much so that mediocre (or worse) performance is judged acceptable, if only to keep the money flowing and the production lines rolling. And as it happens, the Air Force really has no obvious alternative to the F-35.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the aerospace industry used to build a wealth of models: the “century series” of fighters, from the F-100 through the F-106. (The notorious F-111 was an early version of the F-35.) The Air Force could also tap Navy designs like for the F-4 Phantom. Now, it’s essentially the F-35 or bust.
In its obvious desperation, that service is turning to older designs like the F-15 Eagle (circa 1970) and the F-117 Stealth Fighter (circa 1980) to bridge the gap created by delays and cost overruns in the F-35 program. Five decades after its initial flight, it’s something of a miracle that the F-15 is still being produced – and, of course, an obvious indictment of the soaring costs and inadequate performance of its replacements.
The exorbitant pricing of the F-35, as well as the F-22 Raptor, has recently even driven top Air Force officials to propose the creation of an entirely new “low cost” fighter. Irony of ironies, once upon a time in another universe, the F-35 was supposed to be the low-cost replacement for “fourth-generation” F-15s and F-16s.
Last month, current Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown exhibited the usual convoluted and nonsensical logic of the military-industrial complex when he discussed that new dream fighter:
“If we have the capability to do something even more capable [than the F-16] for cheaper and faster, why not? Let’s not just buy off the shelf. Let’s actually take a look at something else out there that we can build.”
In other words, why buy already-proven and much-improved variants of the F-16 when you could design and build an entirely new plane from scratch, supposedly in a “cheaper” and “faster” manner? Of course, given that new fighters now take roughly two decades to design and field, that’s an obvious fantasy from the start.
If my old service – I’m a retired Air Force officer – wants fast and cheap, it should simply go with the tried-and-true F-16. Yet an entirely new plane is so much more attractive to a service under the spell of the giant weapons makers, even as the F-35 continues to be produced under its old, now demonstrably false, mantra of cheaper-and-better.
As Christian Sorensen summed up our present situation to me: “If an exorbitant under-performing platform like the F-35 can’t be canceled, then what are we doing? How do we ever expect to bring home the troops [garrisoning the globe] if we can’t even end one awful weapons platform or address the underlying systemic issues that cause such a platform to be created?”
Of course, an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” like the one that President Dwight D. Eisenhower described in his 1961 farewell address to the nation (in which he first warned of the dangers of a “military-industrial complex” gaining “unwarranted influence”) would work to cancel wasteful, unnecessary weapons systems like the F-35.
But what if the forces in place in American society act to keep that very citizenry apathetic and ignorant instead?
Call me jaded, but I can’t see the F-35 being canceled outright, even though it hasn’t technically yet reached the stage of full production.
Likely enough, however, such a cancellation would only happen in the wake of major cuts to the defense budget that forced the services to make hard choices.
But such cuts clearly aren’t on the agenda of a Congress that continues to fund record Pentagon budgets in a bipartisan fashion; a Congress that, unchecked as it is by us citizens, simply won’t force the Pentagon to make tough choices.
And here’s one more factor to consider as to why cancel culture is never applied to Pentagon weaponry: Americans generally love weaponry. We embrace weapons, celebrate them, pose with them.
To cancel them, we’d have to cancel a version of ourselves that revels in high-tech mayhem. To cancel them, we’d have to cancel a made-in-America mindset that equates such weaponry – the stealthier and sexier the better – with safety and security, and that sees destruction overseas as serving democracy at home.
America’s military-industrial complex will undoubtedly keep building the fanciest, most expensive weaponry known to humanity, even if the end products are quite often ineffective and unsound. Yet as scores of billions of dollars are thrown away on such weapons systems, America’s roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure continue to crumble.
According to a recent story published in Naval News, for the first time, the power module for the F-35C Lightning II multirole combat aircraft has been delivered by a CMV-22B Osprey to an aircraft carrier at sea, the USS Carl Vinson.
The engine was an F-135 Power Module, which is common to all three variants of the F-35 aircraft.
To the casual observer, this may not seem like an event of much importance, but for the Navy and the Marine Corps that fly the plane, this is a very big deal.
It is said that when it comes to the art of war, amateurs talk about tactics while professionals talk about logistics. And the F-35 coming into naval service created some unique logistical challenges for the Navy and Marine Corps.
There are some 500 F-35s currently in service building to a peak strength of over 2,400. While the F-35 holds out the promise of incredible performance and combat capability, none of that will matter if these aircraft cannot be sustained while operating at sea.
One of the major problems was that the hot exhaust of the F-35’s engine tended to melt the flight decks of the ships they were landing on. The same problem existed with the V-22 Osprey and its engine nacelles when in the vertical position. The Navy solved that problem by making the decks more heat-resistant.
The F-35 also incorporates an automated parts system that tracks every component installed on this enormously complex aircraft to keep track of its performance and durability. This system has also been plagued with data-entry problems that are still being worked out.
This is in no way unique to the introduction of a new aircraft into the Navy or Air Force. You can plan very carefully to take all factors into account, but logging hours with the F-35 in the real world is necessary to find problems no one ever thought of. One of those problems for the F-35 was engine swaps.
The Lightning II uses the Pratt and Whitney F-135 Power Module designed to be unplugged and removed from the aircraft. It is then shipped as a single unit to a maintenance facility ashore to be overhauled and then returned to the squadrons as a spare.
Building a fleet of F-35s is pricey, but their construction cost isn’t the only cost involved. To keep these planes flying and fighting requires a very long and expensive logistics “tail” of spare parts and engines. This is why about 70% of the Navy’s weapons budget is just for the sustainment of the weapons it already has.
When it comes to the F-35C and its modular powerplant, the Navy needed to buy hundreds of spare engines that need to be replaced after a certain number of running hours are logged. The problem was how to get them out to the aircraft carriers that have Lightning squadrons.
The F-135 Power Module is a beast in terms of weight and size. It’s over 4,500 pounds and too large to fit into the cargo bay of the ancient C-2A Greyhounds. Further, you cannot just slam the F-35C’s engine onto the deck during a carrier landing and not expect it to be damaged. In contrast, the Osprey will be able to land vertically with a minimum of shock and vibration to the Power Module.
Now here is why this rather mundane delivery of an F-35C engine to the Vinson matters so much: If the F-35C is fully sustainable at sea the Navy can roughly double its carrier strike capability and give the Marine Corps the ability to provide its own close air support and inland strike capability without needing a Carrier Strike Group to help them.
Using the fleet’s current amphibious landing ships with flight decks the Navy could put to sea with 24-25 aircraft carriers flying variants of the F-35, instead of just 12 supercarriers. And for Marines landing ashore, it would be its own F-35B in the VTOL variant providing not just close air support for troops on the beach but also a deep inland strike capability.
There are still other logistical problems to be worked out. For example, Navy ships and resupply vessels need larger electric motors and specialized skids to sling the power module during replenishment-at-sea operations, and an Osprey variant that can do in-flight refueling for the F-35 is badly needed.
But being able to fly 1,000 miles out to sea and gently land the power module for these aircraft brings us much closer to the game-changer that the Lightning II aircraft promised to be at its inception.
The 354th Fighter Wing and the 168th Wing Air National Guard completed a readiness exercise on December 18, 2020, verifying the wing’s ability to rapidly generate combat airpower at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.
More than 30 fighters and two refueling aircraft were generated.
The formation executed on the runway is known as an “Elephant Walk.” This formation tested the rapid readiness of every flying unit on Eielson AFB and displayed the airpower of the 354th FW and the 168th Wing together.
“The Elephant Walk isn’t only to practice our abilities to respond quickly,” said US Air Force Col. David Skalicky, 354th Operations Group commander, “This is to show our airmen who work behind the scenes what Eielson AFB is about. It’s about showing our strength in the Arctic arena.”
Skalicky continued, reminding the airmen in a pre-exercise briefing, “We are executing this despite coronavirus, despite the extreme weather conditions, and despite that it’s one of the shortest days of the year.”
With great amounts of planning, preparation and communication 18 F-35A Lightning IIs, 12 F-16 Fighting Falcons, and two KC-135 Stratotankers arrived on the flightline ready for a takeoff.
“Every airman across the fighter wing contributed to today’s event, and we proved what our team is capable of …supporting, defending, or delivering 5th-generation airpower and advanced training. Stay tuned, because our combat capability will continue to grow, and I’m incredibly proud of the disciplined, professional, combat-focused approach our team displayed today,” said Col. David Berkland, the 354th FW commander.