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Fighter Gap 'Shrinks' To 100 Planes

The much-debated carrier fighter gap stretches about 100 planes wide in 2018. That is what Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the House Armed Services Committee today. That is less than half of the Navy's estimate, given to Congress last year.

The Navy has pretty much stuck with a figure of 243 aircraft or, as some lawmakers have it, 48 planes a year. OSD's old PAE shop performed an analysis last year that concluded there was in fact no fighter gap, if you took into account capabilities beyond those planes based only on US carriers, but that study was never publicly released.

So, ever eager to keep the F-18 line -- and its workers (aka voters) -- fat and happy, congressmen like Rep. Todd Akin, (R-Mo.) have been pushing Gates to build more attack aircraft, and not ust the E/A-18G electronic warfare planes that are receiving considerable funding in the 2011 budget.

Akin, who is the ranking member of the House Armed Services seapower and expeditionary forces subcommittee, pressed Gates on why the Pentagon wasn't using the multi-year authority Congress had granted him to buy F/A-18 E/Fs. Gates was characteristically blunt. He said the department found that multi-year would save 6.5 percent. But "we have a threshold of 10 percent" so they eren't going to use it.

Then Adm. Mullen, chairman of th Joint cdhiefs, administered the coup de grace. "It's a great airplane (the F/A-18 E/F/)... but the JSF is the right answer for the future, from the warfighters' perspective, from my perspective."

And that was the end of Rep. Akin's five minutes at the hearing.

After the hearing, Akin issued a statement, saying he remains "concerned that the Department of Defense is not taking the Navy’s strike fighter shortfall seriously, nor are they honestly looking at an obvious solution. The Super Hornet is an active production line, and is dramatically cheaper than the JSF, which may not deliver anywhere close to on time.

“The only real option is to buy more airplanes, and the only Navy fighter currently in production is the F/A-18 Super Hornet. If we are going to buy anything, we should do so in a way that is most responsible for taxpayers. In this case, a multi-year procurement could save hundreds of millions of dollars, but the DoD seems to have their head in the sand.

“Secretary Gates mentioned that he thinks we need to have a 10 percent savings before we use a multi-year agreement. However, the Congress already gave DoD the authority to use a multiyear in this situation, even if the savings is less than 10%. The DoD should buy additional F-18’s and should use a multi-year agreement." He estimated that using the multi-year auhtority "could save nearly half a billion dollars over the next few years. To not pursue that savings is just irresponsible."

But, as Akin said, and Gates agreed, the numbers for how many fighters are actually needed is "slippery as an eel." And that savings, of course, presumes that those pesky warfighters actually want to buy the planes made in Missouri.

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