‘Fighter Gap’ Now a Problem

Testifying before a Senate panel April 9, two Air Force generals said the service faces a “fighter gap” in the years ahead that could leave it drastically short of its requirement for 2,250 fighters in its force structure. Based on the current program of record, the Air Force anticipates “a shortage of over 800 aircraft,” beginning in 2017 and running through 2024, Lt. Gen. Daniel Darnell, deputy chief of staff for air, space, and information operations, plans and requirements, told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s AirLand Subcommittee. Darnell noted, for example, that the F-35 does not go into full production until 2015—reaching rates of 48 per year—yet the Air Force already is retiring F-15s and F-16s and will continue to do so through the out years. And before the JSF achieves full production, manufacture of the F-22 will be over, based on the current production cap that limits USAF to 183 Raptors. Following the hearing, Lt. Gen. Donald Hoffman, the Air Force’s senior uniformed acquisition official, told reporters that the current cap on F-22 production, which falls far short of the 381 F-22s that it maintains it needs, is a big part of the problem. But the real issue, he said, is the production rate for F-35s and how fast the new fighters can replace retiring iron. Aircraft, such as older F-16s, F-15s, and even some A-10s, may not last as long as it takes to get enough F-35s on the ramp, Hoffman said. (For more on the fighter gap, read “Fighting for Air Dominance” in the April 2008 edition of Air Force Magazine.) The Air Force is not the only service with a looming fighter shortage. Navy officials present at the same hearing said they anticipate about a 70-airframe gap in their fighter structure in roughly the same time frame.