Part 1: Q&A with Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom on the Future Fighter Fleet

Air Force Magazine Editor in Chief Tobias Naegele and Pentagon Editor Abraham Mahshie sat down with Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, for an exclusive interview that touched on everything from the the Next-Generation Air Dominance platform to the Air Force’s plans to replace the aging AWACS fleet.

This is part one of that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Lt. Gen. David Nahom: Even though there’s a lot of money at play, these are resource challenge times. … There [are] some significant investment items the Air Force has to make, and we have some significant things weighing us down, No. 1 of which is the nuclear recapitalization. 

We’ve been talking about, for years, what a nuclear bow wave is going to look like. Well, it’s here. And, you know, it’s not just RDT&E money anymore, it’s procurement of the nuclear articles that are inside the FYDP—so GBSD and B-21, and LRSO, associated NC3, as well, including the E-4 recap. And these are some significant budget items that are zero fail, and they’re 100 percent funded, and they should be; Our nation needs that. 

The Air Force is old. [Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.] will talk about an aging fleet of 30 years plus, and I’ll tell you, an aging fleet comes with challenges. It gets very expensive; Our … weapon system sustainment costs go up in excess of inflation every year. And it’s money that we struggle every year to make sure that, not only can we meet the WSS that we have, but meet the WSS as it increases. And every year, that’s a challenge. 

Aging and excess infrastructure—we as an Air Force have gotten smaller over the years, but our infrastructure has stayed relatively static, and that certainly comes with a bill. So there’s challenges.

The Air Force has never been more in demand. And you look at what the combatant commanders ask of our Air Force around the world, it’s flattering, because they actually see what work we do and our Airmen do every day. But I’ll tell you, it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting on our airframes, exhausting on our people. And it not only affects the ability to recapitalize our assets, but also certainly works against our readiness. And so those are concerns going forward. 

… I think if you look at some of the big things that you expect an Air Force to do—air superiority, I think we’re heading in the right direction. I really do. The Secretary outlined his operational imperatives, and you talk about the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems, and where we’re going with that, I think our strategic direction is in the right place.

There are going to be some funding challenges along the way. But it is exactly what is expected of our Air Force and I think we’re on a path to make sure we can secure air superiority at a time and place of our choosing against any adversary worldwide. … The Chief outlined last year a 4+1 [approach], we’re kind of talking four right now. Because we can talk about the A-10, but when you talk about the Next Generation Air Dominance and the family of systems associated, certainly the F-22 in the meantime until that’s ready, the F-35, the F-15 platform, and then the F-16 low-cost platform. I think we could talk about each one of those individually. 

The nation also expects global strike. I think not only with B-21, but with some of the advancements in the F-35, certainly the F-15EX, many of our advanced weapons, the Air Force is going to continue to make sure that we can strike any point on the planet at a time and place of our choosing. 

And the last big category I’ll say is rapid global mobility. What happened in Afghanistan over the summer was not by accident. And no other Air Force could have pulled that off. …

The one question you may have is on the tankers. We are committed to recapitalizing the tanker fleet, the KC-46, and ensuring we eventually get the older tanker platforms out of service. Right now, you’re seeing us starting to divest the KC-10s to make room for the KC-46. And obviously we’re going to continue to chip away at the KC-135s, many of them that were built in the early 60s. So they’re aging platforms, and we need to recapitalize. The KC-46 is a wonderful jet. It’s developing well. We’ve still got some work to do with the Remote Vision System, and we’re working very closely with the manufacturer on that. ..

Air Force Magazine: Let’s do a two-minute elevator speech on the five-year defense program. So we understand that we’re going to bring down the F-35s, we’re investing in NGAD, and we’re paying for nuclear, and so on. But some of that, … like the F-35, we can’t see, where does that go in Year 2, 3, 4, 5? … We’re not asking you to go line item by line item.

Nahom: Yeah, in general, the F-35 is gonna be a big one. Because, as you saw, the number is a little lower than it was last year. 

Air Force Magazine: A lot lower.

Nahom: I will say, though, … we have not backed off our investment in the F-35. … When the F-35 was first brought on as a developmental program 20-plus years ago, there was a different threat. And as the threat has evolved, the systems that we need to put on the F-35 have evolved. And there’s a cost there. When you talk about getting to the next block of the F-35, and the systems we need for a peer fight, we are investing quite a bit of money on the F-35, and we intend to get not only that capability, but eventually get the capacity we need too. There are limits though. Would we have bought more F-35s if we had more resources? Yes, absolutely.

The Chief has been very consistent, and going back to [former Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein] too, we’ve said we seek 72 new fighters a year. And what does 72 new fighters a year do? … Our fighter fleet age continues to rise. When you get to 70-plus fighters, we actually start taking the age down, and we start getting some of these older platforms [out]. 

I tell you, we never intended for some of these platforms to be in service this long. I mean, there’s no reason F-15Cs—and I grew up in the F-15C—there’s no reason we should still be flying it right now. We should have recapitalized those squadrons with new airframes by now. So we’ve got to get to the numbers.

Now, the threat says we’ve got to get to the [future] capability. In a perfect world, would I like the capability and a lot more F-35s—and [F-15]EXs? Absolutely. But, right now we’ve got to concentrate on making sure we get the F-35 we need. We continue the development, and then we buy as many as we can. And if we can get more, then there’s some goodness there.

Air Force Magazine: Do you anticipate that we get to 72 at the end of the FYDP? I mean this year, you’re at 57, so you’re nowhere close. The last few years you’ve been at 60 … So when do we start seeing 72?

Nahom: We’re going to get as much as the resources allow. We know we need the numbers. If you look at our fighter fleets right now, we’re trying to get the F-15Cs retired as quickly as possible. We can talk about the A-10s later. There’s certainly some older block F-16s and older lot F-15Es and older Raptors.

Air Force Magazine: Are you going to divest?

Nahom: We have to, because if you keep them, you’re going to spend some money. And we have to make sure that we’re not only getting the capabilities we need with some of the modern systems, but we also can’t waste money on aging systems that are not going to give us the years and the capability we need. And so there’s a balance there. 

Air Force Magazine: So that’s why you’re looking to divest those F-22s?

Nahom: There’s just not a payoff. Now, I will say there’s a lot of money invested in the F-22, because we’re modernizing the F-22 in many ways, because it’s going to be our air superiority hedge for our nation for the next decade. It just is. And we have to make sure we modernize that appropriately. 

So there is good money invested in the Raptor program, as well as modernization in F-16s, to get certain systems on the F-16s. There’s money still in the F-15Es, and certainly the F-15EX and associated systems with that. So we have a lot of investment in our fighter portfolio. Do I wish there was more numbers? Absolutely. I tell you, if you look at the average age of our fighter fleet, and you look at the average age of other fighter fleets around the world, including our Navy and our Marine Corps fighter fleets, and some of our closest allies, we’re nearly twice the age of all those fleets. And it’s just, it’s not where we want to be right now. And the only way to do that is to buy new—or have missions go away. But going back to that conversation about the combatant commanders and what they need out of the Air Force, we can’t reduce the size of fleets.

Air Force Magazine: So in one sense, you’re stuck kind of saying the only way to do that is buy new, and we’re buying less new?

Nahom: There’s a balance there. Because, should I just buy all new and then not modernize the F-35 systems to where the threat is telling us we have to modernize it to? Well, that wouldn’t be smart either. 

The problem is when you look at our budget, especially with many of these upgrades and systems that are of the classified nature and we don’t discuss them openly, they’re very critical to make sure we can meet the threat. And we are very well invested there. So there’s a balance there. Again, do I wish we were buying more new fighters? Absolutely. But I think given the resources that we had in this POM cycle and where we invested, we’re pretty comfortable with where we invested.