F-35 Fleet Unlikely to Reach a Common Configuration

Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, speaks at the Airpower Capacity Crunch panel at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium on Feb. 22, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. Air Force Magazine photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

The Air Force is sticking with a level of about 48 F-35s a year because “that’s the balance point” between the desire to modernize the fighter force and USAF’s other modernization needs, Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes told reporters at AWS18. He added that the expense of modification will likely rule out ever getting the fleet to a common configuration.

Holmes said he’d “love” to buy more F-35s, because the average age of his fighter fleet is about 30 years, and buying at a rate under 60 a year has “no effect on average age, you still have a 30-year-old average fleet.” At 80 a year over 10 years, the average age could be reduced to 20 years, and “if you could get to 100, you could drive that age down to … an age and a capability that we’d be happier with.”

But fighter modernization has to compete with nuclear modernization, ISR, space, and remotely piloted aircraft, among other needs, and after doing those calculations, “that number comes out [at] about 48 [F-35s] a year.”

Holmes acknowledged there are “tradeoffs” between buying new jets now versus waiting for improved blocks of F-35s, because earlier models would have to be retrofitted to a more desirable standard, at a potentially unaffordable cost. “We look forward to getting that increased capability” in later iterations, he said, but it hasn’t been determined “what capabilities do you need to buy back to make those [earlier] airplanes useful against the peer competitor” and what it would take to “make them useful again.”

Asked if the jets that are now used to train aviators learning to fly the F-35 would be brought up to combat standard or left in an earlier configuration—as F-22 training aircraft are—Holmes said “I think it’s unlikely that all the jets will ever be brought up to a common, single standard.” Some of the airplanes “have hardware things that would be really expensive to change, some of them, it might be a matter of software or components. But we’ll work through that.”