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Navy Fighter Gap: Which Way Obama?

The fighter gap. Sounds scary, doesn't it? If things go as they are, the US will not have enough air-to-air attack aircraft to deploy the full complement required for its aircraft carriers.

The numbers were summarized in a study by the Congressional Research Service's naval analyst, Ron O'Rourke. "The Navy projects that a current DON strike-fighter shortfall of about 15 aircraft will grow to about 30 aircraft in FY2009, to more than 50 aircraft in FY2016, and to more than 90 aircraft in FY2017-FY2020, before declining to more than 50 aircraft in FY2021 and to roughly zero aircraft by FY2025. At its peak in FY2017, the Navy states, the projected DON strike-fighter shortfall will be 125 aircraft, of which 69 will be Navy strike-fighters," O'Rourke wrote.

Boeing is making a valiant effort to convince the Pentagon and the public that the Navy's fighter gap should be closed using F-18 E/Fs. These planes are cheaper than F-35s, are already available in production models and they meet the service's current operational requirements. That was the basic argument offered by Bob Gower, Boeing's vice president for all variants of the F-18 program

"The issue for the Navy is, how do you make sure the carriers are out there and can defend the fleet and help with the battle," Gower told me in an interview. I asked him about discussions among senior Defense Department people to cut the oldest carrier. That would, in a stroke, eliminate the fighter gap. But it would also violate statute requiring 11 carriers. And, Gower argues, "if you go down by one carrier I'm not sure you go down by one carrier air wing. Right now there is a carrier wing without any airplanes. That is causing the Navy to cross-deck aircraft now, taking aircraft based on one carrier and putting them on another."

Complicating the debate is the fact the early versions of the F18 Hornets are beginning to fade as the enormous stresses of carrier landings and take-offs take their toll. And at the macro level of the Department of Defense, there is also the much larger fighter gap facing the Air Force. The OSD budgeteers will have to choose between closing the substantial Air Force gap of several hundred planes or the much smaller Navy gap. It also has to choose between the different capabilities of the F-18 E/F and the JSF carrier version or some mix of the JSF and unmanned aircraft.

The 2010 Program Objective Memorandum from the Navy does not include any funding to close the Navy fighter gap, but Gower says that the service did not have all the data on the costs of the Service Life Extension Program for the older Hornets and so did not decide. I understand from a source who follows the Navy closely that the service did not want to offer a plan until the next administration came in.

Gower said, the "data that is coming out of the SLEP program is not optimistic about at what costs they can replace" the older Hornets. He said it looks like it will cost $7 million to $10 million to upgrade each aircraft. And costs do not answer the question of how long those planes will last or perform once they are upgraded. "The conclusion that they are coming to is, even if we spend the money updating them the utility is not worth what we have to spend," Gower said.

One fact in favor of the F-18 E/F is that the carrier version of the JSF is expected to reach initial operational capability in 2015. By that point, assuming the JSF program remains on schedule, there will be a projected 50 fighter shortfall. But the complicated calculus of what mix of planes, capabilities and cash will best fit the country's needs is just another decision the Obama administration will have to make.

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