The Cloudy Future of the JSF


So, is it time to significantly cut the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter buy, leave the 2,400-odd airplane program alone or cut it altogether?f16f35.jpg

Thats the quandary a prominent D.C.-based defense think tank wrestled with during a briefing to Hill staffers, reporters and Pentagon officials Wednesday. Researchers with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said the per-plane cost has grown by $20 million since the programs original $60 million per-plane estimate in 1997. In 2008 dollars, the JSF program will wind up costing $242 billion.

Thats certainly a hefty sum.

Read the entire "U.S. Fighter Modernization Plans: Near Term Report"

But the interesting thing is that the CSBA analysts switched their earlier position on cancellation, recognizing that at least some JSFs will be necessary for a future Air Force fighter mix. Additionally, it seems that the cost savings from cutting the 1,763 Air Force buy in half would net about $300-$500 million per year a total cut of the roughly 600-plane Navy buy would save about $500 million per year across the program.

As a RAND aviation analyst stated at the briefing, thats not a huge savings in the grand scheme of Pentagon budgets. And others say it is unlikely the Air Force will want to cut the JSF buy and substitute them with more modern Block 60 F-16s.

One CSBA analyst, former Pentagon PA&E chief and Vietnam-era fighter pilot Barry Watts, claimed that the need for JSFs is shrinking with the demonstrated success of precision munitions and smart artillery. The CAS mission the JSF would largely shoulder, he said, is going the way of the horse cavalry.

While it is beyond the scope of this report to estimate what a sensible F-35A/F-16 replacement ratio might be, it seems clear that one-for-one is too high. Thematuration of guided munitions and battle networks argues that fewer advanced fighters will be needed in the future than were required in the prior era of industrial-style warfare in which most munitions missed their aim-points or targets.

As I am sure many DT readers will agree, if anything, CAS is more important now than ever. Artillery is NOT effective in an urban fight and smart shells are still a ways off for general use. Attack helicopter squadrons and fixed-wing assets are taxed to the max in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of those missions are for close air support and the balance tend to focus on surveillance. So if the argument is that the JSF can afford to be cut because its CAS mission is shrinking, theres not much to stand on.

Now, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne argued that the services TacAir fleet is ageing at a considerable rate airframes now average around 24 years old - and are forecasted to be nearly 27 years old by 2010. So some kind of wholesale replacement needs to occur. And whats the closest program to fruition? The JSF.

One intriguing idea that the analysts didnt hit was instead of buying new F-16s, maybe the Air Force and the Navy, for that matter - could accelerate the development of unmanned combat air systems. Theres been a lot of advancement on UCAVs and it seems to me that might be a more viable option than buying less stealthy, manned, legacy aircraft.

There will be a lot of pressure on Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps budgets in the coming years. Ships are expensive, bombers cost a lot and so does a larger Corps. It seems that the analysts are right in saying somethings got to give and its most likely going to be fighter aircraft buys. Some say the Air Force aimed high on its JSF number anticipating a cut in the future, and everyone knows the Navys less than enthusiastic about the JSF with Super Hornets still coming off the lines. That leaves the Marine Corps, whos technologically complex STOVL fighter has its own road blocks, not to mention that the Navy holds the purse strings for Marine air.

The CSBA logic:

From the standpoint of military necessity, a major concern isthat DoDs current air power modernization plans may be unbalancedin favor of fighters, vice longer-range strike aircraft. In future wars, US aircraft may have to operate at far greater distances than they have in the recent past. In particular, US air forces operating in Asia and the Pacific might well have to travel several times farther than US air forces typically had to during the Cold War. There also appears to be a growing need for aircraft that can loiter over the battlefield long enough to find emerging, fleeting or otherwise time-sensitive targets.

From the Air Force perspective, Wynne can say all he wants, but in the end hes got a lot of big ticket items his service needs to buy: satellites, bombers, tankers, F-22s; and something will surely have to give.

-- Christian

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