Air Force Could Ditch Oldest F-35 Jets as Part of Fighter Downsizing, General Says

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F-35A Lightning II Eglin Air Force Base
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class, 58th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron F-35A Lightning II dedicated crew chief, signals to the pilot during pre-flight checks at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, Jan. 25, 2021. (Amber Litteral/U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force could retire some of its older-model F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which are used for training, over the next decade in favor of acquiring the most advanced variants of the jet, according to a top general.

Older versions of the premier stealth jet may be retired instead of receiving expensive upgrades to keep them viable for a future conflict, said Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements.

"It's not in our plans right now, but that would be something that we would have to take into consideration," he said in an interview Tuesday. "Because the big question is, 'Are we going to go back and retrofit [them]?'

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"Retrofit cost is a key consideration for, 'Do we want to take training jets that are older [software] blocks and upgrade them to new blocks?'" Hinote said. "Are we maybe overinvested in training tails? There are some indications that maybe we are."

Hinote was referring to the ratio of training jets to combat-coded jets -- those ready for a wartime mission at any given time -- across the service's seven fighter fleets as it prepares for a near-peer conflict. The Air Force counts the A-10 Thunderbolt II close-air support aircraft as part of its fighter fleet, along with the F-35, F-22 Raptor, F-15C/D Eagle, F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the new F-15EX Eagle II.

For example, one-third of the fifth-generation F-22 fighter fleet is not combat-coded, with most of those jets reserved for training pilots.

"It's true with a lot of our aircraft that we have some they're dedicated solely to training," Hinote said. "We're questioning, in a new era [of great power competition], where training is going to look different. Perhaps we have overinvested in training aircraft, and the ratio of training to fighter aircraft could be improved on the fighter side, i.e. more tails available for combat."

Although the F-35 is one of the Pentagon's newest aircraft, some of the oldest Lightning II fighters in the fleet are used for training purposes. They are part of manufacturer Lockheed Martin's earliest low-rate initial production batches.

As the service considers what kind of fighter mix it wants, it must decide whether it can afford the luxury of having aircraft designated only for training. Several of its fleets, including the F-35 and F-22, include training aircraft that are older and not configured for combat, Hinote explained.

Upgrading them would be expensive and, in some cases, impossible.

In a time of limited resources, the Air Force is reconsidering keeping dedicated trainer aircraft and investigating how much training it can move to high-quality simulations.

"We've been experimenting with pilot training at all levels, and what we are learning has the potential to shift our whole approach," Hinote said. "There may be some that are not upgradeable to the full combat capability and, if that is true, that probably means we need to think about [whether] they are worth flying."

The Raptor vs. NGAD

The Air Force must make key decisions about which aircraft, and how many, it wants to sustain longer term, Hinote said.

During a panel last week, Air Force Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown explained his plan to reduce the service's fighter fleets from seven to four.

Brown calls the initiative "four plus one." The "four" are the F-35; F-16; the F-15EX, which entered the service's inventory last month; and the Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, program, which defies the traditional categorization of a single platform, featuring a network potentially including an advanced fighter aircraft alongside sensors, weapons or drones. The venerable A-10 remains as the "plus one."

Noticeably absent from his list were the F-22 and F-15E.

Over the next five years, the service will establish whether fledgling airframes like the F-15EX can fill the roles of its legacy fighters.

Service leaders have hinted that, while the fourth-generation F-15EX is meant to replace the legacy F-15C/D models, it also could succeed the E Strike Eagle model in the future, given its weapons load. Hinote said the legacy Strike Eagle could stick around longer if the fleet receives needed upgrades; if the upgrades are not cost effective for the service, the EX will take its place.

Hinote said the service will still ask Congress to fund crucial upgrades to the F-22 fleet as part of its fiscal 2022 budget request, including modifications to the fighter's sensor suite capabilities.

But the F-22 "has some limitations to it that you just can't modernize your way out of," he added.

When the F-22 retires will be decided by how quickly NGAD can be fielded, Hinote said.

If the Air Force can secure enough funding for the NGAD in the fiscal 2022 and future budgets, and subsequently prove the technology prior to 2030, F-22s will start heading to the aircraft boneyard, he said.

"All those things are interrelated," he explained.

The F-35 Is a 'Special Case'

Air Force Magazine reported last week that the service is considering a 10% cut in F-35 buys as part of its Future Years Defense Plan, citing a growing need to transition to the most up-to-date jets as they become available.

CNN reported that some Air Force officials have expressed a desire to cap the total number of F-35s in inventory, reducing a projected procurement of 1,763 of the conventional takeoff and landing A-variant to 800 maximum to make room for NGAD.

But Hinote said no decisions have been made.

"The internal talk about the total buy is something we've got to do, but we have not made a decision on that because we don't know all the variables yet," Hinote said, calling the F-35 a "special case" in the jet inventory.

"If we can get to the full buy, that would be the future we'd prefer," he said.

The Air Force now has more F-35s than F-15s and A-10s. At 283 jets, the F-35 fleet is second in size only to the Fighting Falcon; the Air Force has 934 F-16 C and D models.

But "the block that is coming off the line right now is not a block that I feel good about going up against China and Russia," Hinote said, referring to the current Block 3F software and hardware configuration.

Upgrades to Block 4, the latest modernization update for the F-35's avionics and weapons systems, began in 2018. It is meant to expand the type of weapons the aircraft can carry, including Raytheon's Stormbreaker small-diameter bomb, which has the ability to attack moving targets in bad weather.

The Pentagon originally estimated Block 4 modernization could be incorporated by 2024, but the project timeline has been delayed until at least 2027, according to an assessment from the Government Availability Office.

Some F-35s already have elements of Block 4, such as the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System, which helps prevent aircraft from flying into the ground.

Unlocking the rest of Block 4's upgrades will require what is known as "Technology Refresh 3," or TR-3, which will provide the aircraft with prompt processing capability and increased memory, among other capabilities.

While much of TR-3 will be incorporated in the latest batch of aircraft in 2023, its development is still "tracking 7 months later than originally planned," the GAO said.

Both updates will be critical in a conflict against China in the Pacific, Hinote said.

In 2019, the service flew only Block 4 F-35s in a war game because using Block 3F jets "wouldn't be worth it" in a toe-to-toe scenario with China, he told Defense News.

There are other problems with the F-35, including a growing shortage of F135 engines, manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of Raytheon Corp. There is also more work to be done to its comprehensive logistics system, which is used for support operations, mission planning, supply chain management, maintenance, and other processes.

As sustainment and upgrade costs continue to rise, Hinote said capability, availability and affordability all play into the F-35's future with the service.

"We're going to have to make that call one day … but we don't have to make that decision in FY22 and, frankly, we don't have to make it in FY23," he said. "We are flying seven fighter fleets right now. No Air Force around the world can handle that much different demand on its logistics. We need to get down to a smaller number of fighter fleets, simply for the logistical concerns."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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