Eighty, Maybe

Air Force programmers are struggling to get their annual buy of F-35A strike fighters up to 80 per year, say Pentagon officials. USAF wants to reach that production rate in order to avoid a big bill to upgrade aged F-16s if the replacement F-35s don’t enter the inventory fast enough. Undertaking a service-life extension of all F-16s is deemed unaffordable—Air Combat Command chief Gen. William Fraser noted this Nov. 9 during a speech in Washington, D.C.—and USAF would like to limit such a program to just the youngest Vipers. Moreover, having deferred a decision on whether to do this upgrade for so long, USAF may find itself being too late to launch an F-16 SLEP and head off a serious gap in airframes until F-35s arrive in adequate numbers. One official said there could be “a couple of years” of sharply underequipped fighter squadrons as F-16s age out and F-35s aren’t available yet.