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U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Charles Q Brown sent shockwaves through the fighter aircraft community in February with his comments about a possible requirement for a “clean sheet” fighter aircraft design that could replace some of the service’s oldest F-16s. His words immediately threw USAF Lockheed Martin F-35A procurement numbers into question — in previous years the air force has only sought to buy the fifth-generation stealthy jet to equip its fighter squadrons. The USAF program of record calls for 1,763 F-35s, a type that has roots in the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter that evolved into the Joint Strike Fighter — and was ultimately designed to replace all USAF F-16s, along with A-10s and other “legacy” types.
Speaking to reporters on Feb. 26 after the Air Force Association’s Virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium, the chief of Air Combat Command (ACC), Gen Mark “Grace” Kelly, addressed some of the recent F-35 concerns, but he also put the spotlight firmly back on the future of air dominance and the kind of high-end, sixth-generation capabilities desired by the USAF. The USAF has been tight lipped on its so-called Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter since the service sensationally revealed last September that it had flown a full-scale demonstrator of the new fighter. “I for one am confident that the technology and the test points have developed to where NGAD technology will get fielded,” Gen Kelly said. “I’m confident that the adversaries [who] are on the other end of this technology will suffer a very tough day and tough week and tough war.”
Gen Kelly remarked that he was surprised none of the journalists in the session had asked him about NGAD. The USAF has said nothing new about its top secret development program since then-Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Dr. Will Roper’s comments last year regarding the demonstrator activity. “If you think we don’t care about physical world results, we do,” Roper said during a speech. He added that NGAD “has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world. It’s broken a lot of records in the doing.”
To date, NGAD has received limited support from lawmakers, with funding of $904 million out of the USAF’s $1.044-billion total request for the project in fiscal year 2021. This followed $905 million that was allocated to NGAD the previous year. “What I don’t know, and we’re working with our great partners, is if our nation will have the courage and the focus to field this capability before someone like the Chinese fields it and uses it against us,” said Kelly, adding that NGAD is a “keen focus, it’s a keen capability — we just need to make sure we keep our narrative up and articulate the unambiguous benefit we’ve had as a nation to have leading edge technology, ensuring we have air superiority for the nation and the joint force.”
NGAD is designed to be a system of systems, with a manned fighter as its centerpiece. The aircraft will complement and potentially replace the F-22 Raptor, possibly also the F-35 in the long term. Gen Kelly endorsed the USAF’s strategy when it comes to the Lightning II, calling it the “cornerstone of any future fighter force.” He elaborated: “Our investments in the capabilities of the F-35… it’s going to be around for a lot of years serving the nation as well as all our partner nations for a long time to come. We need to make sure that the calculus of the capability and capacity of our F-35 fleet goes into the Tacair study as we figure out what’s going to round out the rest of our stable.”
The announcement of a Tacair study by the USAF chief Gen Brown is what sparked headlines during the early part of the AFA symposium. Gen Kelly was able to give more details on what this project actually entails. “The Tacair study . . . is really an outlook 10 to 15 years from now, what’s going to be the capability and capacity requirements for the air force to do what the nation needs it to do.” He added: “You know, every day we have tasks — like a lot of other partner nations have tasks — whether it be alert missions for defense of the national airspace, or whether it would be other missions over in CENTCOM [Central Command], etc., that require a significant amount of capacity, high utility capacity; but they don’t require a fifth- or sixth-gen capability, which is a significant jump in investment as well as cost per flying hour. So, at the end of the day we spend a whole [lot] of time on that capacity/capability mix.”
Employing a single, expensive-to-operate, stealthy fighter across all mission sets appears to no longer be an acceptable or affordable model for the USAF. It now recognizes the need for a force mix that is suited to meet low and high-end missions. “The challenge to do it with a high-end F-22/F-35 fifth-gen aircraft when you can do it with a $12 to $15,000 per flying hour airframe is stark,” Kelly endorsed. “So we have to balance our capacity — which needs to be high — our capability needs to be high, and the F-35 plays in both of those in terms of numbers and the capability that we bring.” Referring to the F-35, he added “it’s still going to be the centerpiece of much of what our air force does for decades to come,” adding that the need to look at other, more suitable platforms for some missions is “a reflection of [the fact that] we’re still going to have to do some lower end tasks, and we need to make sure we have the right capacity in cost to handle all that.”
The need to send the F-35A’s Pratt & Whitney F135 engines to the Oklahoma City depot at Tinker Air Force Base for deep maintenance, at a rate not previously envisaged, is causing real-time headaches across the USAF F-35A enterprise. Higher use F135 engines are failing regular inspections, which is increasing the burden on the depot. Citing high use rates and back-to-back combat deployments to the Middle East, Gen Kelly said: “We end up putting a few more hours on the airplane than originally had planned, and that got a little bit ahead of our stand up of our full rate depot throughput. At the end of the day, we end up using the airplane and therefore using the engine, a little bit faster than the depot capacity was prepared for.” He said boosting capacity at the Tinker depot will help to ensure throughput can catch up with consumption rate.
Gen Kelly said that the “capability, the availability, and the affordability” of the F-35A are the three elements of the program that consume most of his time and focus. “We’re not exactly where we need [to be] on target with affordability,” he said, calling this a “lead topic.” Referring reporters to the F-35 Joint Program Office for specifics, Kelly guessed that the F-35A was running at a cost per flying hour (CPFH) of approximately $35,000 at present. In terms of confidence level of getting to the target of $25,000 by 2025, he said: “I’m not brimming with confidence.” He stated that there was a big ongoing effort to reach the target, but acknowledged, “as I sit here today, I’m not overly confident we will get there.”
It wasn’t long ago that the F-35 was the one and only fighter the USAF wanted to procure. The aircraft has sold well internationally, and remains in high demand from allies and partner nations. Domestically, the USAF now has F-15EX aircraft on order to replace its F-15Cs — which was previously a requirement of the F-35 — and it is now looking at alternatives for replacing its oldest F-16s. Commenting on the change in stance, Gen Kelly said: “I’d say one of the bigger impacts of the rationale [on the F-35] is just geopolitics changes faster than our programs of record. We need a significant capacity, and in a perfect world a budget unconstrained environment would have a huge number capacity of huge capability fifth-gen airframes for every squadron in the combat air forces. The challenge with that is a reality of fiscal requirements of a nation that’s coming out of a pandemic, and the impacts of it and the demand signal of being really busy around the globe.”