An F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter from the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and an F-22A Raptor from the 43rd Fighter Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., soar over the Emerald Coast on Sept. 19. (Master Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock / Air Force)
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The Air Force's push to field F-22 and F-35 fifth-generation fighters and the delays that have plagued both programs is putting the service at risk of not having enough fighters for future missions, a former F-22 squadron commander warned in a journal article published by Air University.
Cost overruns that ultimately cut the production of F-22s by more than 50 percent should have served as a lesson as the Air Force began development of the F-35 joint strike fighter, wrote Lt. Col. Christopher J. Niemi, former commander of the 525th Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Instead, he wrote in the November issue of Air & Space Power Journal, the service is stuck with a smaller fleet and less money to invest in fourth-generation aircraft.
"The cost of F-22s and F-35s threatens to reduce the size of the Air Force's fielded fighter fleet to dangerously small numbers, particularly in the current fiscal environment," Niemi wrote. "These facts suggest that the Air Force should reconsider its long-standing position that fifth-generation fighters are the only option for recapitalizing the fighter fleet."
Niemi's article primarily explores the F-22 acquisition process and consequences for the fighter fleet. Among those consequences, he said, was the Air Force's failure to apply lessons learned during the F-22 acquisition to the F-35 program.
"The Air Force should not have been surprised by these [F-35] program cost overruns and schedule delays, given its F-22 experience and the program's similarity to the F-35," he wrote. "That is, both are fifth-generation fighters; both are made by Lockheed Martin; and both planned high levels of concurrent deployment."
Initial operating capability for the F-35, once expected by 2013, has been pushed back to 2018. To compensate for the F-35 delay, the Air Force has begun putting more money into its aging fighters. In recent months, the service has announced engine and electronic upgrades, along with other service life extension programs, for its F-15C Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle fleets, with a plan to double their service life. In addition, it is planning upgrades to keep F-16Cs and Ds flying past 2030.
The Air Force's focus on F-22s and F-35s during the past two decades has yielded 187 F-22s and now the beginnings of F-35 training. F-22s have so far conducted deterrence deployments and homeland intercepts, "missions hardly worthy of its unmatched prowess and cost," according to Niemi.
"The Air Force delayed multirole, close-air support, and (suppression of enemy air defense) fighter recapitalization during the F-22 acquisition," Niemi wrote. "As a consequence, today's average age for Air Force fighters is twice the historical norms, and the service will not field significant numbers of new fighter aircraft for many years."
Niemi acknowledged that the F-22 is a "superb air-to-air fighter whose stealth, advanced avionics and maneuverability offer immense advantages in modern combat," but questioned whether those attributes are worth the cost. He noted that legacy fighters have better air-to-ground capabilities, fewer maintenance problems and, in the case of the F-15C, significantly longer range. And an all-stealth fighter fleet has no advantage in conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, Niemi wrote.
"This fact has three important consequences: [F-22] operational missions need more air-to-air tanker support, the F-22 has a limited ability to deeply penetrate hostile airspace, and pilots cannot take full advantage of the F-22's supercruise capability."
Col. Raymond O'Mara was the chief of F-22 integration for the 1st Fighter Wing when F-22s first began operating in the Air Force. He said the service's biggest limitation in its fifth generation fleet is that there aren't enough of them.
"Because we cut down the buy on the F-22 so far, and all others are aging out, we built a situation where we are starting to run out of airplanes," said O'Mara, who now is the chairman of the Air War College Strategy Department at Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
The Navy is buying more planes than the Air Force because of the way the Navy planned its progression with the fourth generation F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The Air Force could address its gap by purchasing new F-16 Block 60s or a new F-15 such as the F-15K variant built for South Korea, O'Mara said
"If the Air Force wants to stay in the air power business with fighters, this is something that has to be seriously considered," he said.
Niemi's article, along with a recent column by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert that was critical of the Joint Strike Fighter, is part of a growing trend of military insiders raising concerns about the new focus on stealth, said Winslow Wheeler, the director of the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.
Stealth is a niche capability that comes at a cost to other missions such as close-air support and a larger fleet size, he said.
"They shouldn't think it's the only way to go for tactical aircraft in the future," he said. "Look at the huge penalty to pay for that. The force has shrunk dramatically."
Niemi's article was published shortly after the Congressional Research Service issued a report on the F-22, outlining upcoming issues for Congress to address in the fleet. The report, released Oct. 25, said that Congress should address the reliability and maintainability of the in-service F-22s, cost effectiveness of the F-22 modernization program, and even potential export or additional procurement of F-22s.
The administration's fiscal 2013 budget request includes funding for four F-22 projects: $283.9 million for modifications of in-service aircraft, $36.7 million to equip air logistics centers to perform F-22 maintenance, $140.1 million in research and development for a new start program for software upgrades, and $371.7 million in research and development for F-22 squadrons, according to the report.
The upgrades would begin about a year after an Air Force investigation concluded in June that a faulty valve in pilots' life support vests was causing hypoxia among some pilots. The Air Force grounded the F-22 for four months in 2011, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in May directed F-22s pilots to fly at lower altitudes and near landing zones.