Rising Risk in the Fighter Force

Feb. 1, 2010

The Air Force is poised to launch a dramatic restructuring of its fighter fleet. Anticipating years of flat budgets and a changing military strategy, the service will shrink its fighter force as much as 20 percent. There will be fewer squadrons and they will have fewer people.

There will be newer machines—and the average age of the fighter fleet may stabilize after steadily graying for 20 years—but a portion of the inventory will be geared toward less demanding wars.

The service has developed a matrix of options for the future of the fighter fleet. The set it chooses to implement will depend on the answers to three questions, all of which should be forthcoming this spring:

  • What military strategy will the Air Force be asked to execute, based on the results of the latest Quadrennial Defense Review
  • At what rate will the Air Force be allowed to buy the new F-35 fighter
  • Will Congress grant USAF’s request to retire some 250 of its inventory of fourth generation “legacy” fighters

F-22 Raptors of the 27th Fighter Squadron at Langley AFB, Va., in formation during a December 2009 training mission in Southwest Asia. (USAF photo by SSgt. Michael B. Keller)

A fourth perennial but critical question—how many F-22s will the Air Force be allowed to buywas put to rest last year, when Congress and the Air Force leadership capitulated to the decision by President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to terminate production at 187 aircraft.

Gen. William M. Fraser III, head of Air Combat Command, affirmed that the fighter force faces what could prove to be significant turbulence, declaring, “All options are on the table.”

Speaking in late December, Fraser explained that the QDR will answer some major questions: How many wars, of what size, and at what intensity the Air Force must be able to fight in the future. The QDR will then be translated into a National Military Strategy, which will spell out the Air Force’s specific responsibilities.

Balancing Demands

That, in turn, will determine how many combat aircraft the service will have to field. If stealthy new F-35s enter the fleet at a rapid rate, ACC won’t need to keep as many older, legacy fighters that are outclassed by those now fielded by many other countries. If the F-35s are bought slowly, or delayed by testing or production difficulties, USAF will have to undertake a series of expensive service life extensions on its older fighters, as well as upgrades that would make them relevant to a modern, all-up fight.

Moreover, these calculations will be made in the context of continuing and expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’re still going to have to fight today’s fight in this irregular war,” Fraser said, adding that the Air Force is seeking to balance the demands of the present, in which the Air Force enjoys a permissive airspace, against the need to prevail in the toughest scenarios, where USAF’s control of the air will be harshly and competently challenged.

Fraser warned that the Air Force has to be “prepared for tomorrow, should the need arise [to fight] a more intense conflict, where other capabilities may be needed.”

By late December, no one had any of the answers that USAF needed in order to craft its plan. The QDR’s findings remained tightly held by the Pentagon leadership, although Fraser said it was unlikely the Air Force would be asked to do less in the future.

“I’ve not heard any discussion about mission relief,” he said.

It’s expected that the QDR will steer toward a different strategy than that which forces are currently directed to carry out. For the moment, US forces are still observing the so-called 1-4-2-1 strategy, which calls for being prepared to defend the homeland, deter aggression in four critical geographic regions, fight two nearly simultaneous and widely separated major theater wars, and achieve a decisive victory in one of them. “Decisive victory” implies a lengthy ground-force occupation.

Gates has said that the new strategy will put a bigger emphasis on what he calls “likely” wars—in his view, those that would be similar to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—and a reduced emphasis on preparing for major conventional conflicts with near-peer adversaries. Gates finds those unlikely.

For most of this decade, the Air Force’s benchmark was a total of 2,250 aircraft. Maj. Gen. David J. Scott, director of operational capability requirements on the Air Staff, said the required number is actually “between 1,800 and 2,250.” The Combat Air Forces Reduction—or “CAF Redux,” as ACC calls it—would lower the fielded fighter force from 2,250 to about 2,000, so the fleet would still be “smack in the middle of the range,” Scott said. He acknowledged that, against today’s strategy, “obviously there’s a risk” with lower numbers.

Of the new fighter mix, Scott said probably 50 or so “could probably be … a Reaper or Predator-type aircraft”—remotely piloted aircraft with an attack capability geared to a low- or no-threat environment. Some small proportion, not yet determined, will be light attack aircraft, likely propeller driven, for counterinsurgency operations.

Scott said that the quality of the aircraft will determine how many are needed.

Air Force leaders point out that numbers of fighters aren’t the whole story. Tankers, ISR assets, and logistics are force multipliers. Here, an F-15 tanks up over Afghanistan. (USAF photo by A1C Brett Clashman)

“If you have 1,500 fifth generation aircraft”—those with stealth, sensor fusion, and advanced electronic capabilities—“maybe you need only 300 fourth generation aircraft.” Bottom line, he said, “it may not always be 2,000 [fighters] from [the years] 2010 to 2032. That number may change.”

The Air Staff is looking at the potential mixes of fighters the Air Force might have at various times, and is comparing them against anticipated threats, to find the essential numbers required, Scott said.

The Biggest Question Mark

A smaller number of fighters will mean fewer options and tougher choices. They can’t be in two places at once. “We are taking risk,” Fraser acknowledged, “but it’s measured risk.”

Scott maintained that, even at reduced levels, “we can do everything we need to do with those numbers.” He maintained that the number of platforms is not the whole story.

“It’s [the] weapons that you put on those platforms,” he said. “It’s the ability to get those platforms where you need to get them with the tankers and the lift. It’s the protection and the airborne control with the AWACS and the Rivet Joints and those sorts of things. … It’s an integrated fight, [and] we can take care of our nation’s priorities.”

The rate at which the F-35 will join the force is perhaps the biggest question mark in the Air Force’s future plans. Over the past few years, the planned F-35 accession rate has swung as high as 130 a year and as low as 48, the last officially blessed number. Each shift has rippled into USAF’s planning for legacy fleet upgrades.

Air Force officials said a rate of 80 F-35s per year or more will permit modernization of the fighter fleet at an acceptable rate, and reduce the need to spend large sums extending the life of the legacy aircraft.

“Obviously, 110 [per year] is … the number we would like to have,” Scott said. “As we currently look at what 80 gives us, and the service life that we currently have on our legacy fighters, we maintain above the numbers that the Chief needs … for the current fight” and the current strategy.

However, the F-35 ran into trouble last fall, when delays in production and flight testing prompted a Pentagon analysis group to warn of potential significant future cost jumps in the program. Increased costs could result in a slower or reduced buy of the F-35, which again would affect legacy fleet plans.

Pentagon spokesman Geoffrey S. Morrell said that in charting a course for the F-35, Gates hoped to find “the sweet spot” between cost estimators who tend to highlight worst-case scenarios, and program office and contractor management, who tend to be optimistic.

A1C Kyle Crawford of the 332nd Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron checks a tool kit. Many maintenance billets are being transferred to shorthanded specialties. (USAF photo by SrA. Christopher Hubenthal)

Late in the year, though, word came from the Pentagon that Gates would assume poorer rather than better performance on the F-35 program, and that the services would budget accordingly. Since most of the F-35’s development money has been spent, reductions would have to come from production money, either stretching it out or eating into the overall planned buy. The Air Force’s long-stated requirement for the F-35 is 1,763 aircraft.

For the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, the Air Force asked to retire 250 legacy fighters early—a hefty number amounting to more than three wings’ worth of capability. It has argued that it will use the savings derived for legacy fighter upgrades and to increase the rate at which F-35s are bought.

However, late last fall, Congress balked at the Air Force’s plan. House-Senate authorization and appropriation conferees both ordered the Air Force to provide a series of reports on how it will restructure its fighter activities before Congress will permit the reductions. Authorization conferees in October ordered USAF to provide “a roadmap that resolves the looming tactical aircraft shortfall” before the service can proceed with fighter retirements. Conferees were concerned that the Air Force hasn’t developed a plan that will address both the needs of the active duty force and those of the Guard and Reserve.

Fraser said that at least some of the savings from the early retirements will indeed be “put back into the combat air forces. But it’s a corporate decision.”

Manpower savings, for example, have already been spent. Some of them have been “applied to new, emerging missions, to some of the stressed Air Force specialty codes,” Fraser said. The savings “in dollars and personnel … will be taken and applied to where the Air Force best needs it. … It’s not confined to one specific command.”

Given that the F-22 is now capped at 186 aircraft (one operational aircraft was lost in an accident) and with likely delays in the F-35, USAF is assuming it will have to retain some number of legacy aircraft to meet its quota of fighters. Much of the fleet was built in the 1980s or even earlier, however, so the first order of business is to determine how much life is left in the old airplanes.

A multibillion dollar program is under way to replace the worn-out wings on 1980sera A-10s such as this one. A dove-tailing digital upgrade gives the aircraft capability for new sensors and weapons. (Photo by Bryan William Jones)

Extreme Fatigue

To that end, USAF is conducting what are called fleet viability boards. For fighters, the effort was spurred by an accident in late 2007, when an F-15 in a practice dogfight broke in half. The service discovered that a longeron—a “life of the aircraft” part—buckled and caused the aircraft to fold up under heavy G forces.

The F-15 fleet was grounded for months, and the service dug deep to discover whether the aged airplanes were still safe to fly. Ten or so suspect items were either replaced or inspected, and the F-15s were cleared to fly again. However, USAF has launched a full-scale fatigue test, in which a representative F-15 is being subjected to simulated years of hard use in laboratory conditions.

“You’ve got strain gauges all over this bird, and there’s a telemetry room that looks at every aspect of what those strain gauges are feeling,” explained Col. Timothy Forsythe, chief of ACC’s combat aircraft division.

Any failures in the test F-15 will inform maintenance people of trouble spots to watch in the flying aircraft, as it will be years ahead of the fleet in experiencing those stresses.

The test will be completed in 2014-16, but Fraser said he sees “no reason to doubt” that the F-15s will be safe to fly until then. Besides the stress test, the Air Force was funded for data recorders on the fighter, to help track the fatigue applied to it in combat and training flights.

“We will not put guys out there in an unsafe airplane,” Forsythe said.

The Air Force expects to keep 176 F-15C/D fighters such as this one until about 2030. Here, A1C Kevin Romer performs a postflight inspection in Southwest Asia. (USAF photo by MSgt. Scott Wagers)

Although originally built to fly around 12,000 hours, analysis by Air Force Materiel Command indicates the F-15C can fly as many as 20,000 hours; “it can easily get past 2030,” Forsythe said. That applies, though, to the youngest and least-stressed F-15Cs in the fleet.

These so-called “Golden” or “Long-Term” Eagles will be retained and outfitted with active electronically scanned array radars, like those on the F-22 and F-35, and which are now proliferating widely among foreign fighters. The AESA is an advancement that Forsythe said represents an evolutionary milestone in air combat.

“It throws you into a whole new ballgame,” Forsythe said. “You’re able to look further, … with more accuracy. You can use it for things that you cannot use a mechanically scanned array radar for. You’re able to task it in different ways simultaneously.” Whereas the mechanical radars on F-15s and F-16s are maintenance-intensive, the mean time between failure of AESAs “is huge. … In the long run, they become much more cost-effective.”

The Air Force is planning to retain 176 F-15C/Ds into the late 2020s at least. Some 107 new AESAs are already funded for them, and 18 of those to be retained already have an earlier-version AESA, which was funded by the Air National Guard. Eventually, USAF would like to equip all the Long-Term Eagles with AESAs, although ACC officials said budget austerity may require some noncombat-coded aircraft to go without them.

Other upgrades would include some structural strengthening and the addition of new gear such as an Infrared Search and Track system. The IRST is like a heat-seeking radar; it can spot radar-stealthy objects at long range by their heat signatures. Additional improvements would be added in electronic warfare and electronic self-protection systems. Most foreign fighters of the fourth generation and better have IRSTs.

The F-15E Strike Eagles were mostly built in the 1990s and were constructed with stronger structures to maneuver hard with big loads of weapons. Forsythe said the F-15Es are in the best shape of all the fighters and will last well past 2035.

A big question is how fast the Air Force will get new F-35 fighters. Slowed or postponed deliveries will cause old warbirds to stay on the job even longer. Lockheed Martin pilot David Nelson takes an F-35 on his first flight in the new fighter. (Photo by Liz Kaszynski)

The F-16 fleet has also undergone fleet viability analysis. What are called the “pre-blocks”—the early Block 25, 30, and 32 aircraft—are now almost all retired, with the exception of a few aircraft used for test purposes. The current versions in Block 40/42 and 50/52 are expected to last as long as the F-15Cs—up to about 2030.

No fatigue test is yet in motion on the F-16, but ACC wants to do one on an F-16 Block 50 aircraft. Any fatigue problems that showed up on that airplane would also inform maintainers of areas of concern on the Block 40, 42, and 52 versions, since they are structurally similar.

Like the F-15C, the F-16 will probably get AESA, IRST, and electronic warfare improvements. A structural enhancement is probably needed, too.

Although there would have to be a competition to equip the F-16 with an AESA, Forsythe said it wouldn’t take “as much time as one would think,” despite the glacial process of most acquisitions. That’s because the technology readiness level of AESA radars is very high, he said. Development would be quick.

Many F-16s already have capability for the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, which allows the pilot to see cockpit information inside his helmet and direct missiles by looking at the target. It’s another game-changer, according to Forsythe, but “a helmet can only give you so much” by way of displays and still be transparent. Many cockpit displays are still four-inch, monochrome squares, he said.

“Our sensors have more fidelity than some of the displays that we have,” so cockpit upgrades are another necessity.

The venerable A-10, built tough for hard duty killing tanks at low altitude, is in good condition considering that all remaining models date back to the early 1980s. Due to a wing-crack problem, USAF has invested in re-winging all the A-10s it plans to keep, and is upgrading them to a standard A-10C version with digital systems that expand its capabilities. The rewinging program will be concluded in 2016 and will leave ACC with 347 aircraft.

The F-22 is still considered brand-new—the Air Force hasn’t even taken delivery of all the airplanes yet—but Fraser said he’s trying to make sure that “we get the maximum capability out of the platform” and fund it properly to maintain its edge as the top fighter in the world. A bevy of upgrades that will make the F-22 even better is already in the pipeline, and Gates has said they’re worth $6 billion to $7 billion over the next years.

The F-22s, even with a truncated inventory, will remain the key enabler for US airpower, paving a stealthy path through enemy air defenses in any contested airspace.

Starting next year, the Raptor will get the Increment 3.1 software, which adds capabilities for synthetic aperture radar, the Small Diameter Bomb, electronic attack and geolocation of radar emitters. It will sharply enhance the F-22’s power in ground attack and suppression of enemy defenses.

It took 20 years to field the F-22, shown here performing at an air show, and USAF is already inside the window to begin defining its replacement, a sixth generation fighter. Preliminary studies are about to begin. (Photo by Piotr Butowski)

Upgrades will then come along at two-year intervals. In 2013, advanced electronic protection and combat identification systems will be added, along with capacity for Link 16 data reception. In 2015, the F-22 gets the Increment 3.2 software, adding the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (or MADL), the AIM-120D AMRAAM, and AIM-9X missiles—the most advanced versions—an automatic ground collision avoidance system, and continued improvements in electronic warfare. Further improvements haven’t been chosen yet, but could include an IRST, improved identification, friend or foe gear, new satellite navigation, and various navigation, communications, and surveillance enhancements.

Now That We Know the Number

Fraser said he’s looking at a variety of options to get even more capability out of the Raptor, to include increasing the fraction of the fleet that is “combat coded,” that is, ready for war at any time. He declined to identify the alternatives specifically, but they may include steps such as reducing the number now set aside for training of new F-22 pilots.

Another study under way is examining what size F-22 squadrons should be.

“Now that we know what number” of F-22s the Air Force will have, “we’re going to have to go back and look, with all options on the table, as to how best to manage that fleet,” Fraser said. The planned 24 aircraft per squadron has never been filled out; it may stay at 18 per squadron, or fewer, given the Raptor’s ability to cover more airspace and fly more frequently than F-15s.

Besides the major platforms in USAF’s fighter arsenal, the service is well under way in developing new weapons that will expand the reach and destructive power of those aircraft. The AMRAAM—USAF’s radar-guided air-to-air weapon—will be improved with longer range and new warheads. Beyond the AMRAAM, which is a 25-year-old design, the Air Force is looking for a new missile.

“There is a next generation weapon that we are working on,” Scott said, adding that it will likely be a multimode munition able to seek targets both in radar and heat-seeking mode.

Capt. Matthew Feeman pilots an F-16 from Shaw AFB, S.C., in a homeland defense exercise. Planned pgrades may be displaced if USAF isn’t allowed to retire hundreds of its oldest fighters. (USAF photo by SrA. Michael Cowley)

More than that, “we have a next generation jammer [and a] next generation fighter. We are always looking at what [to] do next. If you think about F-22s and F-35s, one day, they are going to age out.”

Scott said ACC is beginning an analysis of alternatives to “look at what’s next in the fighter world,” and added that it will take 12 to18 months.

“We’ve begun the planning … for sixth gen,” Fraser said, noting that ACC is looking at a fighter beyond the F-22, “with some preliminary planning for sixth gen Tacair capability and what we’ll need in the future.” Although USAF will be investing in remotely piloted vehicles and longer-range standoff weapons, Fraser said that they alone cannot do the job in the decades to come.

“It’s got to be a proper balance,” he said. “I still think we need to be prepared for the high-end fight, in an anti-access environment, should we be called upon to do that. And that’s not going to be in purely a standoff role.”

He acknowledged that the F-22 took 20 years to go from the drawing board to squadron service, and “it’s going to take us a while” to get the next generation of fighters.

“That’s why we’ve got to start now,” he said.