Fighter Math

March 21, 2019

Today’s Air Force has too few squadrons, people, and planes to meet the requirements demanded by our National Defense Strategy, and the Pentagon’s 2020 budget request doesn’t do enough to address the shortfall.

The Air Force we have has 312 operational squadrons. “The Air Force We Need,” as defined by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson last fall, should have 386 squadrons, a force built to match the demands of a strategy that anticipates great power competition and, potentially, great power conflict in the future.

The Air Force has yet to share all the math behind that assertion, but it has laid out some details and more can be surmised. Consider, for example, the fighter force.

At the dawn of the current fiscal year, the Air Force possessed 2,073 fighters organized into 55 operational squadrons. Those planes average nearly 27 years of age—old and getting older. At the present pace of fighter acquisition—56 planes per year in the 2019 budget and the 2020 request—the fighter fleet will surpass 35 years of age, on average, in less than 10 years.

That’s not a force built to deter a peer competitor, let alone win a major war.

The Air Force We Need requires 62 operational fighter squadrons. At 24 jets per squadron, plus jets for test and development, training, and spares, that works out to a requirement for 2,232 fighters.

(62 squadrons x 24 fighters) x 1.5 = 2,232

To sustain that force, the Air Force must buy 72 fighters per year. Doing so would ensure the average age of the fleet declines to 15.5 years and that all jets are retired after 31 years of service—which is still too old, but better than the current path the Air Force is on. This is not rocket science:

2,232 fighters ÷ 72 jets = 31 years service life

Now look at the 2020 budget request. The Air Force is asking for 48 F-35As, down eight from the 56 approved by Congress for 2019. In their place, the budget request includes $1.1 billion to buy the first eight of a planned 144 F-15EX aircraft, which would be purchased over the next 12 years. Here’s what happens when you buy 56 planes a year and try to fulfill a requirement for 2,232 jets:

2,232 fighters ÷ 56 jets = 39.85 years service life

The reason this is a hot topic today is that current F-15Cs will be 44 years old in 2030. They can’t make it that long. But buying the F-15EX—a “new, old airplane”—is hardly the solution. That’s a 30-year fix to a 10-year problem.

The wiser course is to buy more F-35s more quickly. Instead of a short-term solution that presents a new long-term liability, accelerating the shift to 5th generation aircraft improves the long-term outlook for the fighter fleet.

The alternative is not viable. Do we really want to rush into an age of great power competition buying airframes conceived 50 years ago that will stay in our inventory for the next 40 years? That’s like fighting the air war over Bosnia with the Wright Flyer. That air war was hard enough on then-state-of-the-art F-16s. We even lost an F-117 stealth jet. Whose sons and daughters are we dooming to such a fate

China and Russia continue to advance their anti-aircraft defenses. They are developing long-range, hypersonic missiles designed to threaten US aircraft carriers and push them father and farther away from China’s shores. In time, they will sell those capabilities to allies, undermining US air superiority around the world. To counter and deter Chinese aggression, the US needs the kind of deep penetrating capability that only comes with low-observable technology.

Critics will counter that stealth is expensive and the cost of operating low-observable aircraft remains too high. That’s only true if you look at airplanes as one-for-one replacements. In reality, stealth reduces the number of aircraft needed to accomplish the same mission.

1 F-35A 1 F-15EX

When one plane can do the job of six or eight or 12—depending on the mission—the cost per desired effect declines precipitously. That single plane, pilot, and maintainer crew will never be as costly as the dozen legacy aircraft and all the people needed to support them.

Air Force Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein knows too well the cost of flying into a sophisticated air defense system. His 4th gen F-16 was shot down over Serbia in 1999. He celebrates his rescue annually.

Would he want to fly similar technology into the teeth of a modern Chinese air defense system today? How about 20 years from now? How about 40

Here’s his answer: “In a perfect world, where we’d have the resources available to us, the 72 fighters a year would be F-35s, because an F-15, or any variant, will never be an F-35.”

Indeed, buying more F-15s was not the Air Force’s idea. Secretary Wilson made that clear Feb. 28: “Our budget proposal that we initially submitted did not include additional 4th generation aircraft.”

Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made that call, having decided the Air Force needed an alternative source of fighters to counter Lockheed’s position as the sole supplier of 5th generation fighters.

Mattis was a fine Marine general, a great leader, and steward as Secretary, but this decision missed the mark. It doesn’t even make economic sense. The F-15EX will cost no less to acquire than the F-35A, which Lockheed says will cost $80 million a copy by 2020. With increasing production, it should grow less expensive. By contrast, F-15s are selling for closer to $100 million each and building just a dozen a year reflects far smaller economies of scale.

More importantly, if America has to go to war against China in the next 40 years, this plane must be left at home. Our Air Force needs planes it can take to the fight now, and for decades to come. It needs planes that adversaries find sufficiently threatening to deter them from provoking a US response.

The difference between the Air Force “we have” and the Air Force “we need” boils down to this: The Air Force needs 72 new fighters a year to sustain a lethal, fighting force. Until something better is developed, the F-35 is the best plane for the money. Expressed mathematically, we can say unequivocally:

F-35 > F-15EX

Fortunately, the Pentagon does not get the final word. Congress has a chance to do the right thing: Say, “no” to F-15EX. Say, “yes” to more F-35s.