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The Navy's Fighter Gap?

Is there a Navy strike-fighter shortfall? Arguably there is. Right now anyway. But that shortfall could shift to an excess, if, as we have reported, the QDR strategic review changes the force sizing construct from preparing to fight two major theater wars to instead preparing to battle a single peer competitor while simultaneously waging a slow burn irregular war along the lines of Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a discussion this week on the Navy’s “fighter gap” at the Center for National Policy in Washington, one of the defense world’s most knowledgeable sources on all things Navy, CRS’ Ron O’Rourke, tried to put a definitive number on that “gap.” From the Navy’s public statements, O’Rourke calculated the number at anywhere between 125 and 243 aircraft, although some in industry contend it's 300 or more. The peak of this shortfall is projected to occur around 2015; the Navy contends a shortage of strike-fighters could reduce the number of available carriers from 11 to seven around that time.

Driving the shortfall is an aging F-18 Hornet fleet, the A through D models, and the buy rate of the naval version of the new F-35 JSF. The Navy is buying the larger and more capable F-18 E/F Super Hornet; it currently operates some 600 Hornets and Super Hornets and the Marines another 200 Hornets. The Navy planned to retire the older Hornets and replace them with the F-35; the Navy’s projected 2025 air wing calls for 20 JSF and 24 F-18 E/F. There is talk of extending the life of the older F-18 A through D models from 8,600 hours to 10,000 hours, but that SLEP may cost up to $26 million per aircraft, O’Rourke said, in which case lawmakers would choose to buy more E and F models.

Even with the A through D SLEP, and accelerating the F-35 buy, the Navy still projects a strike-fighter shortfall. However, if the QDR changes the force-sizing construct from two overlapping theater wars to a single theater war, then the whole idea of a shortfall will need to be recalculated. I asked O’Rourke what that change in strategy could mean for carrier numbers and he was, understandably, unwilling to go out on that limb. One thing is for certain, it would set up quite a fight between OSD and the Navy with both sides arguing the relative value of carriers in irregular wars, as a deterrent force, in maintaining forward presence/power projection and how many would be needed to battle China.

In calculating Navy strike-fighter numbers, O’Rourke said a couple of things bear keeping in mind. First, that to generate a 44 aircraft carrier strike wing actually requires between 60 and 70 aircraft. Second, any discussion of naval aviation must also include the issue of the affordability of the Navy’s shipbuilding plan. In the current and projected budgetary environments, that plan is suspect. Complicating all this further have been persistent reports from Hill sources that PA and E has done a comprehensive analysis that finds no need for any more carrier-borne F-18 fighters.

One person who says carrier numbers should be rethought is strategist Frank Hoffman, who argued in a recent CNAS paper that at an estimated $11 billion for the new Ford class carrier, large deck carriers are too costly, too oriented towards open-ocean fighting between battle fleets and air wings are too short ranged. The Navy should reduce the number of carriers to no more than 8 and should emphasize long range unmanned strike aircraft such as the N-UCAS and make more innovative use of the aviation-capable large deck amphibious ships for forward presence and power projection, Hoffman said.

The shift away from a two-theater war strategy influenced DOD’s decision on the F-22, according to testimony earlier this month by Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. The potential impact such a change in strategy will have across the force is just beginning.

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