The U.S. Air Force fighter force is in crisis. Three decades of canceled, curtailed, and delayed investment in aircraft modernization has left the nation with far too few advanced fighters to meet demand. The Fiscal 2023 budget will be submitted to Congress in February 2022, and all indications are that the fighter crisis will only deepen.
Most of Air Force’s fighters—F-15C/Ds, F-15Es, F-16C/Ds, and A-10Cs—were designed in the late 1960s and early ’70s and acquired in the 1980s. They were flown hard in multiple wars. Today, they are structurally fatigued and technologically obsolete compared to advanced Chinese and Russian air defenses and next-generation fighters. Yet the nation has not allocated the necessary funds to replace its aging fighters with more capable aircraft, and certainly not in the numbers that are needed.
Despite dramatic cuts to the Air Force in the face of known operational demand, defense leaders continue to promote the idea that the introduction of advanced capabilities can enable and/or justify an even smaller force structure. While that concept once had merit, the truth is those force structure cuts happened decades ago. Today’s small fleet dynamics fail to meet peacetime demand, let alone the reality that in peer combat, additional fighters are needed to absorb and compensate for losses over time. This dynamic also results in running down air and ground crews, exacerbating morale and retention issues.
We are rapidly approaching the point in time that, no matter how capable it may be, the Air Force will be too small to meet our national security commitments. How did we get here? For 27 years in a row, the Department of Defense has invested less in its Department of the Air Force than in the Departments of the Army or Navy. Since 9/11, in fact, the nation has invested more than $1 trillion more in our Army than our Air Force—an average of more than $53 billion a year. It is time to rebalance the DOD budget to recapitalize and grow our nation’s Air Force.
Lt. Gen. David Deptula, USAF (Ret.), is the Dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and Heather Penney is a senior fellow. This article is adapted from a study, “The Future Fighter Force Our Nation Requires.” You can download the full report at www.Mitchell AerospacePower.org.
WHY AIR FORCE FIGHTERS MATTER
When addressing U.S. military fighter force structure issues, it is very important to understand first principals. The United States possesses only one air force—USAF—whose purpose is to organize, train, and equip forces to exploit the third dimension to achieve U.S. security objectives directly or in conjunction with other service components. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps possess air arms that exist to support their core competencies in their respective domains—land, sea, and the littorals. Navy and Marine Corps fighters are doctrinally dedicated to supporting their service mission-sets first. They do not exist to execute a broader theater-wide air campaign. While naval aircraft can and have supported theater-wide campaigns, the re-emergence of potential naval conflict will likely refocus these fighters on naval defense and other sea-focused operations. Similarly, the purpose of Marine Corps fighters is to provide close air support to Marines on the ground. Marine combat air power is scaled to support Marine operations.
Accordingly, fighter aircraft from each of the services are not equivalent. This is true whether comparing effects realized, mission availability, or functions executed to fulfill combatant command requirements. Marine aircraft force structure exists to support Marine Air-Ground Task Forces and most Navy aircraft are associated with carrier strike groups, which dramatically limits their availability to meet combatant command requests, given their deployment cycles and associated tiered readiness. Air Force squadrons, therefore, are the only aviation units that deploy primarily to fill combatant command requirements. Their rotational structure also means they are available for front line operations for a far greater percentage of their lives. Because Air Force aircraft carry the predominant operational load for joint operations, modernizing the USAF fighter force is crucial to all joint force operations. Other service contributions are helpful, but additive, not core.
Analysts and leaders inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the General Accountability Office, and Congress err, therefore, when they view all fighter aircraft as interchangeable to meet national defense and contingency requirements. This erroneous assumption happens all too often, however; thus, false assumptions yield high-risk conclusions.
Only the Air Force is designed to deliver fighter aircraft in the volume, readiness, and availability necessary to execute theater-wide combat operations at scale. Over 20 years of land-dominated operations, DOD accepted growing risk by not fully funding Air Force modernization. Now the bill is due: The Air Force fighter force is too old and too small to meet the challenges posed by potential peer conflict. Gapping the Air Force’s fighter inventory even further over the next decade, as has been proposed, places the entire joint force at risk.
A FIGHTER FORCE UNDER STRESS
The Air Force’s fighter force is now insufficient to match, much less dominate, the global threats challenging U.S. security interests. The service has supported over three decades of continuous combat operations with an aircraft inventory predominantly procured before most of its pilots were born. These legacy aircraft are stressed to their extremes every time they fly. That wear and tear adds up and takes its toll. Eventually, physics wins. Already, the F-15C fleet is prohibited from flying at maximum airspeed and G-loading due to airframe fatigue.
Another exacerbating factor is a smaller number of aircraft carrying a larger mission load. Defense cuts in the 1990s culled 40 percent of the Air Force’s fighter inventory, leaving fewer aircraft and aircrews to meet an unsustainably high operational tempo. Remaining fighters flew continuously for over a decade, including Operations Northern and Southern Watch missions over Iraq, wars over Bosnia and Kosovo, and ultimately over Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria in the post-9/11 period. At the same time, leaders cut the Air Force’s total inventory another 20 percent—even in the face of higher demand for air power. As a result, over 80 percent of today’s USAF fighter fleet is flying beyond its design service life.
Aged aircraft drive up weapon system sustainment costs, like old cars whose maintenance bills and service calls continue to grow with time. Breaking this cycle by procuring new aircraft is crucial, but without the budget bandwidth to both sustain the legacy fleet and develop and buy new aircraft, Air Force leaders must seek to retire older aircraft to free up budget space to acquire “peer-capable” aircraft. Yet because it takes multiple aircraft divestitures to generate the savings to pay for just one new aircraft, the Air Force is unable to replace its fighters on a one-for-one rate. Thus, the number of jets on the ramp gets smaller and smaller. This fuels the downward spiral where remaining aircraft and crews are pushed even harder, so that the aircraft that remain fly more, break more, and ultimately cost more to sustain.
Consider that the Air Force today has only five squadrons of F-22s, which are shared by five Active-duty and five associated Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units. Using Air Force data and considering those F-22s assigned for primary training, development, and backup aircraft inventory, only about 123 F-22s make up the primary mission aircraft inventory. Factor in 50 percent mission capable rates, the current norm for the F-22, and that leaves just 62 mission capable F-22s on any given day. Of course, a surge with adequate preparation could certainly increase this number; so, if mission capable rates increase to 80 percent, available F-22s increase to 98 mission capable aircraft available. If mission planning assumes 1/3 of the available airframes are in the fight; 1/3 preparing to launch or enroute; and 1/3 recovering, refueling and rearming, then 33 F-22s can be in a fight at any one time—using the entire USAF F-22 inventory. This simple analysis does not even include the impact of combat losses and battle damage.
When it comes to facing advanced threats and peer adversaries that are growing in both capability and capacity, the U.S. Air Force fighter inventory is woefully undersized and increasingly at risk of defeat in high-intensity conflict.
RISK IN THE NEAR-TERM
America finds itself in a period of growing international tension, with rising concern over territorial aggression from both Russia and China. Having extricated itself from combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. faces a world where perceived U.S. weakness appears to have incentivized adversaries to push the bounds of acceptable global behavior. Russian activity on the borders of Ukraine and China’s stepped up military “combat drills” around Taiwan both raise alarms.
U.S. global leadership depends on credible military strength, especially the asymmetric advantage afforded by superior American air power. Without the capacity and capability to project strength and counter multiple threats simultaneously, adversaries could engage in opportunistic aggression. Without a capable USAF fighter force to back up U.S. diplomacy, forward deterrence, and joint military operations, the U.S. has fewer options to rapidly respond to aggression, altering global norms and enforcement of the rule of law.
THE NEED FOR A PLANNING FORCE
Responding to threats in a credible, sustainable fashion demands an honest recognition of actual mission demand. The 2018 National Defense Strategy focused on these sorts of threats, but three decades of delayed investment cannot be undone in an instant. Investments that should have been paced over time must now be surged. Indeed, in its quest to free up funds for future buys, the Air Force is on course to shrink its fighter inventory through the 2020s and early 2030s; plans call for retiring 421 fighters through 2026, while only acquiring 304. Divestments will continue to exceed procurement through the end of the decade.
Solutions to these problems are illusive because it is budget shortfalls, not mission requirements, that are driving DOD decision making. Air Force officials say they would need to procure 72 new aircraft per year to replace existing inventory; if the refresh cycle was 20 years, rather than 30 or more, that rises to 97 fighters, just to sustain the legislated minimum fighter force of 1,950 fighter aircraft. Even this rate will fall short, however, if ongoing strategic competition requires more growth. Current funding affords only about 60 fighters per year—too few to meet the demands of the national defense strategy. While Air Force plans for fiscal 2023 are not yet public, it is clear budget pressure risks eroding these totals even more.
The divide between real-world requirements and budget allocations represents the differences between a “planning force”—defined as the requisite capacity and capabilities the Air Force needs to fulfill the National Defense Strategy at a reasonable level of risk—and the programmed force—defined as the assets for which the service is actually funded. The gap between the planning force and the programmed force represents risk. In the past, budget documents conveyed this risk to Congress and the American public, but that practice was terminated in the late 1990s. It is time to resume this practice. Problems cannot be solved unless they are acknowledged and quantified. Just because the service cannot afford to meet a requirement does not invalidate the existence of the requirement. Congress deserves to understand the risks their budgets are causing.
USAF presently lacks the capacity to fulfill the full range of combatant commander demands, and pressures are not likely to ease in future years. Meanwhile, investment in Air Force fighter procurement faces competition from other near-term, high-cost requirements: nuclear command, control, and communications systems; the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent to replace USAF’s 400 Minuteman III nuclear missiles; the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker; the B-21 bomber; the MH-139 nuclear missile security and airlift helicopter; the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter; the T-7 trainer, the Advanced Battle Management System enterprise, AWACS replacement, next-generation unmanned aerial vehicle acquisition, and more. Every one of these programs is essential.
Today’s Air Force budget is too small to keep even today’s undersized fighter force inventory. Instead of cannibalizing the fighter force to accommodate budget constraints, Air Force plans and force structure should be based on—and resourced to—strategy and threats.
A key factor driving this shortfall is that the Air Force does not have as much actual budget authority—real buying power —as generally believed.
Approximately 20 percent of the Air Force’s budget is “pass-through” funding—money that literally passes through Air Force accounts, but that funds national security programs the Air Force neither controls nor influences. In the Air Force’s fiscal 2020 budget, over 40 percent of procurement funds were pass-through, an impact of more than $22 billion dollars. Collectively, over the past 30 years, such pass-through funds amounted to $932 billion.
With an insufficient budget topline, the Air Force is now driven to cannibalize its fighter force in order to free up funds to recapitalize that geriatric force. Infrastructure, end strength, and personnel benefits are untouchable accounts, the Space Force is an underfunded mandate, and pass-through accounting further diminishes the Air Force’s real buying power. Other priorities are rightfully considered “no-fail,” like the nuclear enterprise: replacing the 1960s-era Minuteman III ICBM and the nation’s archaic nuclear command and control enterprise, the B-21 bomber, NGAD, and KC-46 aerial refueling tanker are other strategic imperatives that must be protected for the future. That leaves the fighter procurement portfolio as one of the only places left for the Air Force to make trade-offs for modernization funds.
FY23 BUDGET CHALLENGES
The Air Force therefore faces impossible choices as very nearly all Air Force core mission capabilities must be reset. There is simply not enough budget to sustain the old, buy the new, and invest in the future. The Fiscal ’23 Program Budget Review (PBR) will be a key indicator as to how seriously the Pentagon takes the Air Force’s fiscal crisis—and its consequences. Questions that should inform the FY23 PBR:
- Is the Air Force aggressively replacing legacy aircraft at a one-for-one rate, targeting whole fleets for retirement? The service has long sought to retire legacy platforms but has not matched procurement to its divestment rate. Congress has mandated that the Air Force maintain a floor of 1,950 fighter aircraft. Fighter procurement should, at a minimum, replace retiring fighters at a one-for-one rate to prevent the force from shrinking any further. Allowing Air Force fighter divestments to outpace procurement is a strong indicator that OSD is continuing to under-resource the Air Force enterprise.
- Is the Air Force procuring F-35s at meaningful and economic rates? The fewer aircraft the Air Force buys, the more expensive each aircraft gets, as fixed overhead costs must be spread across fewer jets, which causes the service to decrease buy rates, further driving up costs. This is known in the defense community as the “death spiral,” and was a contributing factor in the premature termination of the F-22. Now DOD is on the verge of inducing the death spiral on the F-35, dropping procurement from 62 USAF aircraft in ’21 to 49 in fiscal ’22, and possibly fewer in ’23. While the other services, partners, and foreign military sales (FMS) can mitigate this effect, the Air Force cannot rely on those orders to keep the F-35A line healthy for the long run. The Air Force must accelerate F-35 production to credibly hedge risk in the next decade. Given the number of competing Air Force modernization efforts, steady F-35A buys year after year are the only way to realistically accrue mass. Budget room will not exist throughout the rest of the 2020s and 2030s to spike production.
- What is the optimum way to fill the USAF fighter force bathtub of the 2020s? In 2026 the USAF fighter force structure is projected to reach an all-time low. Part of the solution to correct that deficiency may be to accelerate available production lines, which realistically includes the F-35 and F-15EX. However, that takes money. When OSD imposed the F-15EX decision on the Air Force, it committed to providing additive funding for the F-15EX to the Air Force’s topline. That funding commitment eroded, however, leaving the Air Force trying to fund two production lines from a budget originally planned for one. Evidence of insufficient resourcing is that F-35 production volume declines as F-15EX numbers increase. When the Air Force committed to the F-15EX, then-Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein stipulated that it must not come at the expense of F-35 production. Without additional budget from OSD, the risk of a death spiral for both the F-35 and the F-15EX grows, as does pressure to raid money from important future development efforts, like the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. None of these options are acceptable.
- Does RDT&E funding exceed procurement accounts? In 2022, the Air Force requested $28.8B for its research, development, test, and engineering accounts compared to just $22.9B for procurement. Investing in the future is crucial to maintaining the competitive edge our warfighters need and deserve, but given the Air Force recapitalization crisis, it cannot afford to neglect immediate fighter requirements. The 2020s were long planned to be the decade to reset geriatric aircraft inventories; modernization cannot be punted again. The ratio between RDT&E and procurement must be balanced to deliver capability now. Transitioning technology into programs of record has long been a challenge for the Air Force, and over-prioritizing RDT&E now at the expense of procurement poses the real danger of continuing the service’s modernization crisis.
- Should more attention be focused on the Air Force strategy-resource mismatch? All military members are required to support the President’s budget, but service leaders also have an obligation to provide their best professional military advice to Congress. Air Force leaders have steadfastly supported budgets issued to them for the past 20 years. It is time now to be candid about the state of the Air Force.
Previous decisions to skip a generation of technology may have appeared visionary at the time, but ultimately widened the Air Force’s capability and capacity gaps. Cancelßing or even slowing present fighter production to chase future generations of unproven and immature technology is not prudent. Cannibalizing the force is a budget strategy that risks seeing legacy fighters run out of life before sixth-generation aircraft can replace them. This approach also assumes that developmental programs will miraculously meet schedule, performance, and budget targets better than current production—a dubious hope that invites failure.
Current Air Force plans risk gapping America’s fighter capability and capacity until the late 2030s. Assuming this near- to mid-term risk presents a window of opportunity to rivals and may incentivize opportunistic adversary behavior, potentially inviting outright peer conflict. The Air Force is assuming great risk because it lacks the resources to do otherwise. DOD must resource the Air Force so that it can procure a fighter force that can credibly bridge to the future.
Past generations of Air Force leaders deferred to OSD leadership, which neglected crucial opportunities to modernize the Air Force fighter force. “Kicking the can down the road” again today risks irreparable harm to America’s ability to fight and win. As former Air Combat Command Commander, retired Gen. John D. W. Corley, recently remarked, “If it’s always about ‘program next,’ you’ll never have a program at all.”