April 26, 2018

An F-35A Lightning II performing aerial maneuvers. USAF only expects to be able to purchase 48 F-35As a year for the forseeable future. Photo: A1C Alexander Cook


The Air Force sits at 55 fighter squadrons, insufficient for the numerous tasks set before the service. To cope with a resurgent and aggressive Russia and rising China, ongoing wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, countering North Korea and deterring Iran, there’s just not enough Air Force to go around.

The service knows this and bears some of the responsibility. Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein and Air Combat Command chief Gen. James M. Holmes in recent months have publicly lamented the Combat Air Forces downsizing of 2010—known as the “CAF Redux”—which traded away 25 percent of the fighter fleet and its attending personnel in order to fund overdue modernization programs that could be put off no longer. These decisions were made before Russia’s land-grabs in Europe, China’s island-building campaign, the anti-ISIS war, or the indefinite extension of the war in Afghanistan.

The Air Force must grow, and in mid-March a senior USAF official explained how much.

“We think we need 70” fighter squadrons, Lt. Gen. Jerry D. Harris, Jr., deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, told attendees at a McAleese/Credit Suisse defense conference in Washington, D.C. An Active Duty fighter squadron is generally one-to-two dozen aircraft.

Though the goal is to have 70 squadrons, Defense Department policy is to first improve readiness; to get existing force structure up to full strength, with all the people, equipment, spare parts, and munitions necessary to do the mission. In recent years, mission capable rates for Air Force combat aircraft have dipped below 50 percent in many units.“We’ll fix the 55 first,” Harris said, without saying how long it might take to get to 70 fully capable fighter squadrons.

It won’t happen fast. The Air Force is buying new, fifth generation F-35As, but only at a rate of about 48 per year—56 were ordered for Fiscal 2018 after Congress added to USAF’s request. That four-dozen annual level will be held until about “the end of the FYDP,” or Future Years Defense Program, which occurs in Fiscal 2023, when USAF will step up purchases to 54 F-35As a year, Harris said. In the next FYDP, he anticipates the rate advancing only to between “75 and 100” F-35As annually.

As recently as 2014, plans had called for USAF to buy 110 F-35s a year by now.

Holmes, speaking at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in February, said it would take about 80 F-35s a year for a decade to reduce the average age of the fighter fleet—which is now hovering at about 27 years—to 20 years. At 100 a year, the average age and capability would be something “we’d be happier with,” he said.

Only by the late 2020s “do we get to a 50-50 fleet” of fighters, divided evenly between fourth generation F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, and fifth generation F-35s, Harris noted.

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Buying 48 F-35s a year adds two squadrons annually, while 76 adds three and 100 four. Assuming Harris’ forecast about buy rates comes true, and that USAF doesn’t retire any fourth generation aircraft until it reaches 70 squadrons, it couldn’t achieve that force structure until about 2025.

It’s not clear whether the Air Force considers its 300 or so remotely piloted MQ-9 Reapers, which it classifies as “attack” aircraft, as part of its fighter force, or whether it considers those aircraft individually or in groups of four (necessary to maintain a 24-hour orbit) as equivalent to one fighter.

It’s also unclear whether USAF would count a proposed new “light attack aircraft”—likely to be a turboprop intended for counterinsurgency where there are minimal or no air defenses—as a full-up fighter to be counted in the mix.

Air Force Undersecretary Matthew P. Donovan, speaking at an AFA Mitchell Institute event in February, noted that USAF is “still buying F-35s, and we’re not retiring anything else … so that is increasing our capacity.”

Despite Congress blocking the Air Force from retiring its old fighters—specifically, plans to phase out the A-10—Harris said science marches on, and F-35s will eventually replace the F-15, F-16, and A-10. Once the Air Force begins buying the next generation of fighters—Harris called it “sixth gen”—“then we’ll stop buying fifth gen,” he said.

A continuing battle, though, is the cost of sustaining the F-35. Joint Program Office director Vice Adm. Mathias W. Winter, speaking with reporters in March said, “we will be unaffordable” if sustainment costs don’t come down substantially on the jet, and the services may not be able to buy all the planned fighters. The early jets are the problem actors, available for duty less than half the time, he said, while later lot aircraft are turning in availability rates of 70-75 percent, near to where the services expect the F-35 to be at full maturity. Winter said efforts are underway to bring costs down, chiefly in process improvements with vendors.

Holmes, at the AWS symposium, said the Air Force may not try to bring all of its F-35s up to a common configuration, thus saving the retrofit costs of earlier aircraft, but reducing the capability of the overall force.


The new National Defense Strategy, released in January, was praised for its brevity and frank recognition that the US is again facing a world of “great power competition.” What it didn’t offer, though, was a “force-sizing construct” explaining how big the US military ought to be—in numbers of ships, planes, brigades, etc.—to compete in that world. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, USAF Gen. Paul J. Selva, said in March that this omission was deliberate, and the size of the force will be driven by something other than a slogan.

Selva also said he’s officially retiring phrases such as “anti-access” and “area denial” as challenges to overcome, except in pursuit of a broader strategic goal.

Force-sizing constructs became the norm after the Cold War. Each “Quadrennial Defense Review” of US military strategy offered up pithy summaries explaining the strategic objective the US military should be sized to carry out. The first of these rubrics called for maintaining a military capable of prevailing in two-and-a-half “nearly simultaneous” major theater wars.

Later versions shifted to two MTWs “in close succession.”

Later still it became “win-hold-win,” wherein US forces would be sized to fight two opponents at once, holding the second foe at bay until the first, greater threat, could be defeated. Eventually, it became variations of “1+2,” for one war plus two large “missions” of varying scope.

Selva, speaking at the McAleese/Credit Suisse defense conference, said he considers force-sizing constructs “a little trite.” He counted off the previous catchphrases—“we’re going to fight two wars, whether they’re simultaneous, divided by 30 days, separated by 15 days … win one, deter one.” He wryly pointed out, “Nobody ever said ‘win one, lose one.’?”

Those previous Quadrennial Defense Reviews, Selva said, “were conducted absent any real consideration of who might threaten the nation” and so they were rather nebulous. Moreover, “all of them were budget-driven—my opinion—rather than budget-informed.”

The problem with such rubrics, is that once laid out, they “become law” and limit how the military is “allowed to think about the organization and the institution.” In that regard, history has “failed us,” Selva asserted.

The force-sizing constructs weren’t helpful, he said, merely picking who among the services “gets to win” doing a particular piece of the strategy, but not all of it.

Instead, the new strategy talks about “dynamic force employment,” which Selva explained recognizes the fact that threats are “not static” and “a force-sizing construct that we define today will not serve us a decade from now.”

Force-sizing constructs don’t really get specific about “where are you going to use” the force, “against what threats? To accomplish what tasks?” Selva said he’s “parted company” with “a substantial piece of the department that wants to talk about threats as if they are monolithic.”

Donovan, speaking at the Mitchell Institute event, said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the Joint Staff are “both working through the force-sizing construct,” and how it comes out will depend in part on “which scenarios they’re going to go against.”


The goal for the military is “guaranteed … [or] assured force projection,” Selva said. The US must be able to project power anywhere on Earth that it feels it must go without being halted by an enemy, he insisted, meaning the military must have the capabilities and tools “to get inside the threats that are posed by our potential adversaries.”

China and Russia are the “two big pacing threats” now faced by the US. That’s why “it will be a rare day from this point forward that you hear me talk about ‘anti-access’ … or ‘area denial’ ever again,” Selva said. “Because those are the threats put in the way of our force projection,” and merely puncturing those defenses is not a strategy or an end unto itself.

Previous force-sizing constructs were focused on the big fights, without any capability overage available for the small ones. Selva weighed in on this, saying, “not that everything is a ‘lesser included case,’ but if you’re able to dynamically employ your force against those two threats, you’ll be able to take care of a lot of the rest of the problems in the world.”

Force-sizing constructs “locked us into an argument over the validity of the construct, and they didn’t open up the space to have a clear-eyed debate about the capability and capacity to address the threats that were right there in front of us,” Selva explained.

In a separate setting in January, Selva told defense writers that the new National Defense Strategy recognizes that the challenges posed by China’s and Russia’s militaries are “unique, … and the elements are overlapping but not the same.” The force has to be designed to address both threats “inside a capability and capacity model affordable with our … budgets.” He also said the Pentagon will no longer fudge on how risky the size and capability of the force is.

“If it’s not affordable, then we will express the risk to the Secretary [of Defense], to the President, to the American people,” Selva said. “What we have done for the last two decades is bury the risk, because we said we’ll just ‘adjust.’?’’