House Appropriators Scrutinize Air Force Fighter Plans

F-35A Lightning II fighter jets assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing's 4th Fighter Squadron taxi during Red Flag 19-1 at Nelllis AFB, Nev., Feb. 6, 2019. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw.

House appropriators this week are using the 2020 budget cycle to weigh in on the Air Force’s future force plans, calling into question the service’s fighter procurement strategy and arguing Congress needs a bigger say in the process.

“The committee does not view ‘The Air Force We Need’ analysis as a definitive solution to the Air Force’s requirements under the National Defense Strategy, or as a firm goal to guide immediate resourcing decisions, but rather as the first step of an iterative analytical, programming, and budgeting process to be undertaken in dialogue with the congressional defense committees,” according to the report accompanying the House Appropriations Committee’s fiscal 2020 defense spending bill.

Still, lawmakers concluded that the Air Force’s planned investments largely fall in line with the “Air Force We Need” blueprint, which DOD submitted to Capitol Hill earlier this year. Buying seven fifth-generation fighter jets for every one fourth-gen fighter strikes a “reasonable balance” between pursuing more capable aircraft and maintaining the size of the F-15 fleet, they added.

While an “unanticipated” request, recapitalizing the F-15C/D fleets with F-15EX would preserve Air National Guard units in California, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Oregon, and would make “critical contributions” to carrying out the NDS, lawmakers wrote.

The HAC bill, released May 20, recommends the Air Force purchase 68 new fighters in 2020, including eight F-15EXs from Boeing for $985.5 million and 60 F-35As from Lockheed Martin for $5.1 billion. The Air Force asked for 48 Joint Strike Fighters in its budget request—plus another 12 in an unfunded priorities list—and eight F-15EXs.

HAC’s suggestion totals four fewer fighters than the 72 jets a year the Air Force says would achieve the goals of the National Defense Strategy and shrink the average fighter age from about 27 years to 15. The “Air Force We Need” envisions growing the department from 312 to 386 squadrons, including seven new fighter squadrons.

But the budget doesn’t reflect that ambition, appropriators said.

“The resources to initiate and sustain such growth simply do not exist within the fiscal year 2020 budget request or future years defense program, nor does the Air Force’s five-year plan for fighter procurement achieve 72 new aircraft within any year,” according to the report. “The plan that has been submitted to the committee requests 48 F-35A aircraft in fiscal year 2020 and every year thereafter through 2024, a reduction of 30 aircraft compared to the 2017 Selected Acquisition Report profile for the F-35 program.”

When 18 F-15EXs are added to the mix each year, total fighter procurement would grow to only 66 jets annually—still six short of where the service says it needs to be.

“The Department of Defense, and the Air Force in particular, have sent conflicting and confusing signals with respect to the F-35 program,” appropriators continued. “The fiscal year 2020 request repeats a pattern of shifting aircraft quantities to future years, reducing the planned procurement from 84 to 78. Further, the Air Force submitted a fiscal year 2020 budget request that flattens F-35A procurement at 48 aircraft per year through the future years defense program despite the F-35A program of record remaining stable at 1,763 aircraft.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in February the service can’t afford its 72-jet goal. Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper also noted in early May the F-35 buy plan shrinks over the next few years “in order to align the procurement timeline with capability development and reduce retrofit costs.”

The bill agrees to fully fund a $728.7 million request for spare parts for Navy and Air Force F-35s, even though lawmakers say they aren’t convinced the military will use the money or the parts efficiently.

DOD is still waiting on a proposal from Lockheed Martin that specifies which data is needed to run an organic supply chain and track all F-35 parts in the Pentagon’s inventory, as well as how much it would cost to own that information, according to appropriators. Getting the cost and technical data for spare parts is a crucial piece of improving supply issues.

“Currently the F-35 enterprise is unable to comprehensively and accurately inventory parts, efficiently move parts between locations, accurately match deployable spares packages to deploying units, or capture cost information for all the parts that are procured,” the report noted.

The F-35 fleet, set to more than triple around the globe by 2023, is falling short of its availability targets and mission-capable rates in large part because of its spare parts pipeline problems, according to the Government Accountability Office. As of February, Roper said, combat-coded F-35s at Hill AFB, Utah, were 64.5 percent mission capable; the service is working to get all combat-coded Joint Strike Fighters to 80 percent MCR by the end of September.

And while lawmakers acknowledge Pentagon officials’ concerns about long-term operation and sustainment costs, the committee wants to add 12 F-35As on top of the Air Force’s request as well as fully funded Block 4 development, spares procurement increases, and depot activation.

Half of F-35 funding in 2020 will be unavailable until 15 days after the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office certifies to Congress that Lockheed submitted its cost proposal for obtaining supply chain data. Appropriators also told the Air Force to send them more details about the F-15EX’s acquisition strategy, fielding timeline, cost, and testing at least one month before it issues a final request for proposal or a procurement contract.

In addition to fighter jet procurement, the House Appropriations Committee in 2020 backs the “Air Force We Need” proposal by fully funding the B-21 development program, the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon and Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon prototypes, and advanced engine development. Lawmakers also want to boost directed-energy prototyping by $20 million, add $75 million to speed active electronically scanned array radar upgrades on the F-16, increase the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology program by $50 million.