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US Air National Guard Struggles With Fighter Gap

This article first appeared in AviationWeek.com.

"All options are on the table" for U.S. Air Guard officials struggling to fill a gap in the number of fighters available for units in the near term to fly missions protecting the homeland, says Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt, director of the Air National Guard (ANG).

"I am basically platform agnostic," Wyatt says. "I don't care."

This could include stealth aircraft -- more F-22s or earlier fielding of F-35s -- or the purchase of older, fourth-generation aircraft such as F-16s or F-15s. Technologies needed for the mission include an active, electronically scanned array radar (which can be used to detect small and stealthy air threats including cruise missiles), infrared search and track systems and beyond-line-of-sight communications, Wyatt told reporters during a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington this morning.

Congress appears amenable to the president's request to close Lockheed Martin's F-22 production line in fiscal 2010, capping the buy at 187 of the twin-engine fighter. Most observers expect the testing and delivery schedule for the single-engine F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to experience slips, possibly widening the gap for receipt of the new aircraft. F-35s aren't due to the Guard until the middle of the next decade, he says.

Many of the 250 fighters being retired early in FY 10 are F-16s assigned to the Guard, and many of them are apportioned to the air sovereignty alert (ASA) mission. Some of those units will lack a flying mission until the F-35 is introduced into the fleet.

The U.S. Air Force has historically professed a preference to buy only fifth-generation fighters (F-22 or F-35), closing the door to additional procurements of the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Boeing F-15.

While Wyatt says he's open to all options, he says "If you can get stealth [in the F-22 or F-35] at the same price, why not?" The general is not in favor of buying a particular aircraft and dedicating it to the ASA mission; he says the Guard should operate the same platforms as active duty units in order to handle the same missions as their active duty counterparts. Still, however, he says the Air Force is not "there yet" in terms of considering a buy of fourth-generation fighters to fill the gap.

Wyatt says he was incorrectly characterized as an advocate of additional F-22s after sending a June 19 letter in response to an inquiry on the issue from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). F-22s are assembled in Marietta, Ga.

"While a variety of solutions abound, I believe the nature of the current and future asymmetric threat to our nation, particularly from seaborne cruise missiles, requires a fighter platform with the requisite speed and detection to address them," Wyatt wrote in his letter. "The F-22's unique capability in this arena enables it to handle a full spectrum of threats that the ANG's current legacy systems are not capable of addressing."

Read the rest of this story, jump into the controversy over Col. Reese's memo to declare victory and bail, see the new armed Lakotas and check out the Jordanian Falcons from our friends at Aviation Week, exclusively on Military.com.

-- Christian

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