Air Force Didn’t Ask for New F-15s, But Needs to Bolster Fighter Buy

An F-15C Eagle takes off from Kadena Air Base, Japan, Jan. 9, 2019. Air Force photo by A1C Matthew Seefeldt.

There are new F-15s in the Air Force’s fiscal year 2020 budget, but the service didn’t ask for them, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson revealed Thursday.

The add was made by other entities to meet force structure capacity demanded by the National Defense Strategy, she and other top service leaders said, and buying more F-35s is seen as not affordable just now, chiefly because of the sustainment cost.

Speaking at a press conference at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., Wilson referred to the old adage that if you like sausage, you don’t want to see it being made, and budget-building is “a lot of sausage.” The service, she said, “got a budget with a topline allocated, and then there are discussions after that, including the potential for some additional funds…So it’s not something that’s just an Air Force decision, ultimately: it’s a Defense Department budget” that rolls “into a presidential budget.”

When pressed, Wilson said, “Our budget proposal that we initially submitted…did not include additional fourth generation aircraft.” Asked if the Air Force actually wants to buy more F-15s specifically, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein answered “we want to buy new airplanes,” and Wilson reiterated, “we want to buy 72 new aircraft per year.” The F-15 is a fourth generation fighter, while the F-35 is fifth generation. The Air Force has maintained for nearly 20 years that it doesn’t want to buy any “new old” fighters, preferring to get to a fifth generation force as soon as possible.

Goldfein explained that in some 3,000 gamed iterations of various-sized and differently-equipped forces against postulated threats, “it became very clear” that in order to address the threat and meet combatant commander requirements with “moderate risk,” it needs “to grow in capacity.”

“In fighter force structure, first and foremost, we are adamant about keeping the program of record on F-35 on track…with a full buy of 1763 aircraft.” The F-35 is key as the “quarterback” of future air campaigns, he said. It’s crucial in meeting pillars of the NDS, such as “defending the homeland…the nuclear deterrent; which the F-35 plays in; defeating a near peer…deterring a rogue element.” But for “maintaining campaign momentum, we need fighter force structure capacity to do that.”

Coincidentally, the Navy declared initial operational capability with its carrier-capable F-35C on Thursday.

The 72 figure results both from a need to grow the fighter force structure and a desire to drive the average age of USAF fighters from about 27 years to 15, which Goldfein said is “manageable, from a sustainment perspective.”

He said the Air Force will have “a mix of fifth and fourth [generation fighters] for years to come. We have to maintain that mix well into the 2030s.” While the A-10 and F-16 can be sustained that long, the F-15 is “not going to make it,” due to structural fatigue.

“In a perfect world, were we to have the resources available to us, the 72 would be F-35s. Because an F-15 or any variant will never be an F-35. But this is about capacity.”

Goldfein added, “the money was not available” to buy 72 F-35s. Asked if that meant the F-15 will be cheaper than the F-35, he said, “we don’t know, because we don’t know what the offer will be on an F-15 variant, but that’s part of the competitive nature going forward for us.”

Wilson hastened to add, however, that unit cost is not the whole story.

“It’s not just the cost of the airplane. It’s the cost to maintain the airframe over its life. And one of the things that’s a little bit frustrating about the F-35 is, Lockheed Martin has not driven down the sustainment cost as fast as we want them to. And when you look at lifespan of the aircraft, cost to maintain the aircraft, fourth generation fighters are less expensive to sustain than fifth generation fighters,” she said.

Goldfein acknowledged that new F-15s would have a service life of perhaps 30 years, but through the 2030s, the fleet will be a fourth/fifth mix. And “this is about ensuring we don’t lose capacity against NDS tasks, in the timeframe we need to build up the F-35 as the quarterback of the joint penetrating team.”

Wilson could not offer an apples-to-apples cost comparison between the F-15 and F-35, but said “we just don’t think there has been enough attention on the sustainment cost [of the F-35]… and driving it down.” She said it is “strategically important” that the sustainment cost of the aircraft be lowered.

When the Air Force, the other services, and partner countries signed up for the F-35, Goldfein said, they understood that its stealth and electronics would make it more complex and expensive to operate and maintain, but the users anticipated costs “at the high end” of what a fourth generation aircraft would cost to own. “It’s not realistic” to expect the F-35 to turn in midrange fourth gen sustainment costs, he asserted.

Wilson noted that the Air Force has begun an initiative “outside” of the F-35 Joint Program Office, to get the aircraft’s Autonomic Logistics Information System working better. In a speech earlier in the day, she said maintainers complain that the ALIS consumes 10 to 15 more hours per week of effort than it should. The attempt to improve it is being undertaken “in partnership with Lockheed Martin, and the maintainers at Nellis.”

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes, in a separate press conference, said buying 48 F-35s a year will merely create a force, 30 years in the future, that averages 30 years of age per airplane.

“I would like to see us buy more airplanes per year,” he asserted. “Seventy-two is a good target.” But he said he understands that fighters are but one of many Air Force priorities that include nuclear and tanker modernization, a new trainer, space, and cyber, so “within that, if we’re going to have a mix of fifth and fourth gen, and that’s how we get to 72 a year, I think that’s great.”

“The truth is,” he continued, “no matter what we do, we’re going to have the mix of fifth and fourth gen for many years to come, at any buy rate, and so we want to buy fifth gen enough to keep up and stay ahead with our adversaries, and then we need to keep the capacity we have. And if the affordable answer to that is buying some fourth gen, then there are certainly scenarios where they can be useful to us.”

Asked if he would prefer to buy all F-35s, Holmes said, “I think that’s the Air Force’s position. The fifth gen airplane gets us breadth and depth across everything that we do, but to afford 72 a year, fifth gen is going to cost more, for a variety of reasons.”

Those include not just sustainment costs but beddown and military construction costs, he said, because modernizing an airbase to accept F-35s and build a low observables maintenance shop costs more than simply substituting new versions of older aircraft in the same locations. Training of maintainers and pilots would be lower, too, Holmes noted.

And the F-15 plan is certainly not a done deal. Holmes pointed out: “The Air Force has a view and the Department of Defense has a view, and Congress is the ultimate arbiter of what ends up in our budget, according to the Constitution.”