Air Force officials said April 13 that they're still committed to the F-35 program. The military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition said the Joint Strike Fighter is "our solution to recapitalization." (LOCKHEED MARTIN)
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The Air Force is putting all its future fighter bets with the F-35 Lightning II.
Even with delays, cost increases and questions from the lawmakers who must approve the F-35's bills, the Air Force is not looking at alternatives to buying 1,763 of the single-engine stealth fighters.
"The Air Force is committed to the Joint Strike Fighter as being our solution for recapitalization of our fighter force structure," said Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, the Air Staff's top military acquisition officer, during a Senate Armed Services airland subcommittee hearing April 13.
The Air Force has decided against buying more F-16 Fighting Falcons or extending the aircraft's predicted lifespan beyond 8,000 flying hours to fill an anticipated "fighter gap," Shackleford said. Upgrades to older fighters in the fleet — electronically scanning radars for F-15C Eagles and new wings for A-10 Thunderbolts — are still coming, but the Air Force is sticking with plans to retire 250 fighters this year to help pay for the F-35, he said.
The Air Force's unwavering commitment to the F-35 comes as milestones for fielding the stealth fighters are pushed back.
Last year, Air Force leaders predicted Air Combat Command would have enough operational F-35s — 12 to 24 jets with the advanced Block 3 avionics software — to equip a combat squadron and declare initial operational capability in 2013. That goal has slipped to the fall of 2015, Shackelford said.
The Marine Corps will fly an early version of the F-35 — with Block 2 software — with the first squadron of 10 jets becoming operational in December 2010, said Marine Lt. Gen. George Trautman, deputy commandant for aviation. The Navy will wait for Block 3 software, and is expecting initial operating capability for a squadron of 10 jets in the summer of 2016, Vice Adm. David Architzel, from the Navy's acquisition office, told senators.
The Air Force counts on the F-35 to replace fighters as they are retired. Once full-rate production starts by 2016, the service plans to buy 80 F-35s annually — up from 48 a year that had been proposed.
But rising costs could force the Air Force to rethink the number of planes it will buy.
A decade ago when the services committed themselves to the F-35, the jets were predicted to cost about $80 million each, a price slightly higher than a new F-16 or F-15E. Since then, F-35 prices have soared up to $131 million, according to estimates by the Government Accountability Office.
Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cautioned against comparing the F-35's costs and capabilities with those of the F-16 or F-15. The stealthy F-35 will fly with targeting radar able to track troop movements on the ground and relay the radar picture, a capability older jets lack, Deptula told an April 14 forum sponsored by the Air Force Association in Arlington, Va.
From a technology standpoint, military officials don't see any problems that will ground the F-35.
"The Defense Department has not uncovered any technology or manufacturing show-stoppers," the department said in response to a report by the GAO, which criticized the services for planning to field the jets before all flight tests are completed.
One example cited by the GAO is a plan to fly the F-35 with fully integrated avionics in 2012, even though development flight tests will continue through 2014. By the end of 2014, the Defense Department will have already purchased 307 of the jets, which would be expensive to retrofit if flight tests reveal major design problems.
Barry Watts, a retired Air Force colonel and now a senior fellow for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington, D.C., said the government has a history of drastically cutting back the number of stealth aircraft it buys as price and technology concerns grow.
At the Air Force Association forum, Watts said the Defense Department's history of starting and scaling back stealth aircraft projects — the F-22, the B-2 Spirit, the F-117 Nighthawk and the Navy's A-12 — might not portend well for the Air Force acquiring 1,763 jets by 2034, if F-35 problems persist.
"We have seen a huge amount of money spent to buy pitifully few aircraft," he said.
* May 1996 — Joint Strike Fighter program begins.
* November 1996 — Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin are chosen to design and build prototypes and compete for the aircraft contract.
* October 2001 — The contract is awarded to Lockheed. The first operational jets are due in 2008. Program's total is estimated at $231 billion for 2,866 jets for the Air Force, Marines and Navy.
* December 2006 — First flight of the F-35.
* March 2007 — New program goals delay the arrival of operational jets until 2010 and the program price has grown to $276.5 billion for a smaller number of jets — 2,457 — after the Navy trims its purchase plans.
* February 2010 — The program cost increases to $322.6 billion for 2,457 jets. In response to test delays and growing costs, the Marine Corps major general serving as JSF program director is fired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and the department pumps in $2.8 billion dollars to speed testing. The goal is to fly 400 test missions in 2010. Defense officials promise flight training will begin later in the year at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.