Much of the support for the F-35 fighter program comes from well-intentioned folks who, while acknowledging that the F-35 costs too much and is nowhere near as good as Lockheed Martin claims, feel that we must move forward with it because the United States has no alternative. Fortunately for both our national-defense requirements and the taxpayers’ pocketbook, this is not the case.
The sky will not fall when President Trump cancels the F-35. With over 2,000 fighters in America’s inventory, we will still have the most powerful air forces in the world. Yes, canceling the failed F-35 program will mean that the U.S. will need to go back to the drawing board. In the meantime, though, there are programs that within a few years will allow us to significantly boost our airpower while creating tens of thousands of jobs. These programs will effectively bridge the seven to nine years that are necessary to design and begin producing several new fighter designs in volume.
The Lot 10 sub-$100 million per-plane price is not a real price — the real price, the price that actually gets you a flying plane, is much closer to that calculated by independent defense-procurement analyst Winslow Wheeler: about $119.6 million for the Air Force’s F-35A, $185.2 million for the Navy’s F-35C, and $166.4 million for the Marines’ F-35B. And these prices do not include the millions of dollars of fixes necessary for each plane that will be discovered once they actually began real operational testing in 2019.
Further, recently touted reductions in the 55-year $1.5 trillion overall program cost (GAO 2016) come not from substantive improvements, but from tweaking variables in a very large spreadsheet to reflect unrealistically optimistic assumptions about a plane that is going to require historic amounts of fixes and rework. What we are seeing is political theater designed for the public. The F-35 is the ultimate Platonic archetype of a big-dollar boondoggle. And according the Department of Defense’s Department of Operational Testing & Evaluation it may never be ready combat — no matter how many more billions we dump in to it.
It’s time to turn the page. Here’s how.
Despite the massive hit the F-35 and F-22 programs have dealt U.S. airpower by wasting time and money on designs that provide very little bang for the buck, we still have more fighters in our inventory than Russia and China combined and over twice as many military aircraft. There is, however, a caveat: Many of our fighters are severely under-maintained and are sorely in need of service-life-extensions programs (SLEP), as well as receiving high-value, cost-effective upgrades. We need to rapidly reverse the trend that has seen our services underinvesting in the maintenance personnel necessary to keep our fighters in tip-top shape. In the Air Force alone, a recent report estimates we are short 4,000 maintenance personnel. This has resulted in a large backlog of depot-level maintenance — i.e., the kind of maintenance our tried and proven fighters need in order to continue to be effective instruments of American airpower.
In recent testimony to Congress, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, Lt. General Jon M. Dave, stated he could only “fly 43 percent” of the aircraft he “should have on [his] flight lines.” In other testimony before the House Armed Service Committee in May 2016, service officials confessed that “three out of four F/A-18s are not ready to go to war” — adding that “it could take up to a year for the Navy to pull together enough reserve fighters to field a surge force air wing.”
This dismal state of readiness and the large increase in maintenance-related accidents did not simply suddenly jump out of the bushes and surprise our military commanders and Congress. It’s true that our flying services went through an extended period of high operational tempos after 9/11. And yes, sequestration is a stupid way to control defense-related costs, but the disproportionate slashing of the Operations and Maintenance budget (O&M) by 35 percent in 2013 to protect procurement (a 15 percent cut), only exacerbated the situation.
Chart: A disproportional decrease in O&M (Source: DoD budgets materials)
It takes over four years to train up air-service maintenance personnel to the E5 rank (staff sergeant, the first non-commissioned-officer level) and over 17 years to reach the rank of master sergeant (E7). Since 2011, we have lost about 10 percent of our Air Force’s E5s (staff sergeant), E6s (tech sergeant), and E7s (master sergeant) — a total loss of over 14,000 experience-rich senior NCOs. It is these senior non-coms who are the real backbone of our services. And it is in these senior ranks that we find the deep skills necessary to do heavy-duty, depot-level maintenance. Losing them has damaged our ability to maintain readiness.
We are also losing pilots at an alarming rate as their flying hours are drastically cut due to a lack of flight-capable planes. As the former acting secretary of the Air Force, Eric Fanning, notes, “Pilots want to fly”; when you ground whole squadrons you lose pilots.
Here’s the bottom line: Congress, the Marines, the Air Force, and, to some degree, the Navy gambled against all evidence that a 20-year-old failing program would quickly turn around and start delivering combat-ready fighter planes that would allow them to retire older aircraft rather than spending the money to properly maintain them. Unfortunately, the reckless gamble on the F-35 did not pay off — and so we are left with air forces that are in desperate need of all levels of maintenance, as well as upgrades.
First Things First: Upgrade Our Current Fighter Fleet
Still, even as Trump considers in-depth defense reform, he will immediately need to make some moves to restore our depleted air power and stop pilots from leaving our services. Here, there is good news and great news.
The good news is that, with the F-35 canceled, he will have more than enough resources to leverage, accelerate, and expand existing programs to rapidly restore the readiness and effectiveness of our veteran fighter planes. Our current planes need service-life-extension programs (SLEP) and technical upgrades. SLEPs restore structural strength to airframes, along with upgrading critical systems. Properly executed, they turn back the clock on how much it costs to maintain aging fighters and can add decades of service life. Critically, studies have shown that SLEPs can deliver much more value than buying new fighters.
The great news is that our inventory is chock full of fighters that are excellent candidates for service-life extensions. And no vetted fighter is a better candidate for upgrades and SLEP than the fighter that has been the backbone of our air power for more than 30 years, the F-16. Indeed, rigorous testing proving that existing F-16s potentially could last up to three times as long as their original 8,000 service-life hours was recently completed. This paves the way for reinstating the $2.8 billion F-16 upgrade program, that along with upgrading the F-16’s radar and avionics, was designed to extend the service life of 350 F-16s from 8,000 hours to 12,000 hours — or about another decade of service. At $8 million a pop, this incredibly cost effective program, canceled to protect F-35 funding, needs to be brought back on line.
With the F-35 program canceled, the above F-16 upgrade program and variants of it should be expanded to the remaining 600-plus F-16s in our Air Force and Air National Guard fleets. Since F-16s can generate more daily sorties than F-18s or F-15s (and cost far less to maintain and fly than other strike fighters in our inventory), this one program by itself would ensure that America has the most powerful force of strike planes for at least the next ten years to 15 years. For a total cost of about $8 billion, it will be a real bargain. The F-16s that come out of the upgrade program will be extremely capable strike fighters as well as being quite competent in an air-to-air combat role.
The F-16s that come out of the upgrade program will be extremely capable strike fighters as well as being quite competent in an air-to-air combat role.
Other programs in various stages of planning and implementation include a $12 billion upgrade of our 435 F-15s. Upgrades include improved radar, updated mission computers and infrared search-and-track capabilities, beefed-up electronic-warfare defenses, and more. Like the newer Generation 4.5 fighters of our peer competitors, these upgraded F-15s will have significant counter-stealth capabilities. Another F-15 program will re-wing all of our 238 air-superiority F-15C/Ds with the stronger F-15E wings. These programs are expensive, but still just a fraction of what any new twin-engine, beyond-visual-range–focused (BVR) fighter costs.
As capable as the modernized, life-extended F-16s and F-15s will be, neither fighter is capable of operating from the Navy’s carriers — and both our F/A-18A-D Hornets and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets are badly in need of upgrades and service-life-extension programs. A program that is already well under way to extend the life of 150 F/A-18A-D Hornets by five years should be expanded to the other Hornets in our inventory. Also in the planning stages is an extensive upgrade of our 550 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. While no solid cost estimate is yet available, a good guesstimate for upgrading both our Hornet and Super Hornet fleets is in the neighborhood of $20 billion over the next ten to twelve years.
In sum, there are upgrade programs in place that can be expanded and accelerated, but doing so will require expanding existing maintenance depots and building new facilities, as well as aggressively contracting with more private-sector companies capable of doing the work. Many of these upgrade programs are not slated to ramp up until after 2020; getting them going more quickly will require an immediate infusion of funding. Additionally, because some of the technology being proposed is not quite ready to be rolled out, some programs may need to be broken into phases to ensure that airframe service-life extensions are not held hostage to new and expensive technologies that defense companies are chomping at the bit to sell.
Each program will be different. But the unifying theme will be to get more of our planes flying as quickly as possible while enhancing their longevity and safety.
America’s Desert Treasure Trove
All of the above comes out of existing programs, but there is one more arrow in our quiver that could yield big returns — and fast. Even after we upgrade our F-15s, our dedicated air-superiority fleet will still be lacking in numbers, with only 238 F-15C/Ds and 180 F-22s. Further, when you consider the extremely low sortie-generation rates for the F-22, the number of air-superiority fighters we can keep in the fight is unacceptably low. Unlike the last 30 years, in the coming decades we will be facing off against peer competitors such as China and Russia. Consequently, counting on multi-role strike fighters — with pilots primarily trained in air-to-ground combat — to control the skies will become increasingly risky.
Fortunately, a solution for our lack of air-superiority fighters can be found in the great state of Arizona where thousands of military aircraft are being kept in mothballs at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Some of these aircraft are being kept around for their for parts; others, such as the F-16s, have been warehoused there on the off chance that they will be needed in the future to provide a boost to airpower. That time is now.
The over 200 F-16As held in reserve Davis-Monthan are of particular interest. Unlike later F-16 versions, which over the years morphed into heavier strike fighters at the expense of their aerial-combat capabilities, these lighter, more agile F-16As are much closer to the air-superiority heritage of the YF-16 prototype. By installing modern engines 34 percent more powerful than their original engines, updated avionics, a better radar, infrared search-and-track, and modern missile-launching technology, the F-16A, already a very good air-superiority fighter, will be a force with which to be reckoned.
These upgraded F-16s will possess decent beyond-visual-ranges (BVR) capabilities, but where they will excel is in close-in dogfighting, where their agility, small visual signature, and best in the world thrust-to-weight ratio will allow them to go head to head with any fighter flying today. Most importantly, their reliability and low cost per flying hour, about half that of the F-15C/D and one-third that of the F-22, will allow F-16 air-superiority pilots to get much closer to the 30-plus hours per month of flight time needed to achieve true aerial-combat mastery.
But, while the F-16As will yield the absolutely hottest fighter, there are another 200 F-16C/Ds in mothballs that can undergo similar upgrades. Upgrading them will take their air-to-air capabilities from being merely very good to excellent. Their thrust-to-weight ratio, while not being quite as good at that of their souped up F-16A brethren, will still be the equal of the F-22. (See Table)
Like the slower, clumsier F-35s, the 400 souped up F-16s (what I’ll call “F-16 Super Airs”) will sport helmet-cued, lock-on-after-launch missiles. But unlike the F-35, the situational awareness of which is crippled by a poor cockpit design and its dependence on an already antiquated low-resolution (far less than that of a human eye) Distributed Aperture System, the F-16 features a well-designed bubble canopy that gives pilots excellent situational awareness in close-quarters combat. The F-16’s helmet / heads-up display combination is also immensely superior to the heavy, bug-ridden, helmet-only F-35 system, which will kill most pilots weighing under 136 pounds if they have to eject — i.e., it will kill most ejecting female pilots.
(Click Table to Enlarge)
Bridging the Gap with Upgraded Fighters
Collectively, the upgraded F-16s will boost our dedicated air-superiority fleet by well over 50 percent — i.e., the F-16 “Super Airs” will easily double the number of daily sorties of our F-15C and F-22 fleets. These 400 F-16 Super Airs, with their focus on passive BVR and excellent dogfighting capabilities, will easily provide two to three times the actual air-combat power of 400 F-35s, with their dismal sortie-generation rates and with air crews only getting ten hours of actual flight time per month.
The upgraded F-16s will boost our dedicated air-superiority fleet by well over 50 percent
In a world of radar detectors and anti-radiation missiles, the plane that fires up its radar first loses. And with “first sight” being the No. 1 determinant of air-to-air combat success, the plane with the best combination of a small visual signature and passive sensors wins. F-16 Super Airs will run circles around the heavier, heat-emitting, clumsier, slower F-35. Each of these heavily upgraded F-16s will cost in the neighborhood of $22 to $30 million — a tremendous value.
Additionally, an engine upgrade and passive-sensor upgrade program should be considered for the 95 F/A-18 Hornets mothballed at Davis-Motham. These upgraded air-combat-focused F-18s will provide a very nice boost to the Navy’s fleet air defense carrier wings.
Collectively, the programs discussed above will cost about $60 billion dollars over the next ten to twelve years. A conservative, rough-cut economic analysis indicates they will generate a yearly average of around 21,000 direct jobs and another 63,000 or so induced jobs. Seven to ten years from now, as these programs are ramping down, production of the new fighter designs will be ramping up and will be in need of those same high-skilled workers. While the primary reason for these programs is the restoration of U.S. airpower, it won’t hurt that a whole bunch of jobs will be created.
So fret not! We are not stuck with the F-35. If efforts start right away, these programs will generate genuine, sustainable airpower much faster and at a much lower cost than staying the course with the F-35, which will not achieve true combat capability until sometime after 2022. And things will only get better as new fighters — fighters that are not hopelessly compromised by trying to be all things to all services — go into production. Just exactly what should these fighters look like? That is what we will look at next time.
— Mike Fredenburg holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering and a masters in production operations management and is a regular contributor to National Review. A past contributor to the California Political Review and the San Diego Union Tribune, he was the founding president of the Adam Smith Institute of San Diego.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to include updated unit-cost figures by independent defense-procurement analyst Winslow Wheeler. The unit-cost figures and model identifiers for the Navy’s F-35C and the Marines’ F-35B were originally reversed. The table has also been amended to reflect this update.