Getting $1.53 out of every dollar bill

For fighters, a moment of truth

This article, from Air Force Magazine via USAF AIMPoints, is a must-read for those at all interested in the future of the US Air Force. It spells it all out. I’m going to excerpt liberally and toss in a few comments here and there. I encourage you to put in your two cents, as well, in the comments section.

Defense leaders have long postponed decisions about whether the bulk of USAF’s fighters should be replaced or, alternatively, rehabilitated. They can’t delay much longer, however. Unless USAF takes decisive action–and soon–the capability of its fleet will suffer, and the Air Force may not be able to discharge its commitments.

The Air Force wants 381 F/A-22 Raptors as its high-end fighter element and about 1,700 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as its backbone force. At this point, however, Pentagon officials have declined to approve more than 179 Raptors, meaning that F/A-22 production would come to an end in 2008. Meanwhile, production of the F-35 would not start until 2011, so there would be a three-year gap in fighter-building.

While I don’t believe that the three-year gap is anything to worry about, I’ll start to worry if the F-35 gets pushed back any farther for budgetary reasons or if development problems delay it.

In the meantime, the age of existing–that is, “legacy”–fighters is creating serious problems. Fleet maintenance not only grows costlier each year but also puts more and more strain on ground crews, which are chronically overworked. Additional repairs mean more money must be diverted from enhancements such as targeting systems, affecting capability. And there are only so many times a tired fleet can be patched up before even bigger problems set in.

Mindful of the great gap in capability between fourth and fifth generation fighters, the Air Force had planned to replace more than 800 F-15Cs, F-15Es, and F-117s–all fourth generation aircraft–with 381 F/A-22s, the first of the fifth generation types.

Wouldn’t it be more fair to say that, mission-wise, most F-15Es and pretty much all of the F-117s are going to be replaced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? Yes, the high speed and extreme stealth of the F-22 will cause it to be used for some attack missions against the most sophisticated defenses, but once the tip of the spear has struck the stealthy F-35 will carry out virtually all the ground attacks.

At some point in the near future, long-term decisions need to be made. The point at which the Air Force must decide to either count on new F-22s and F-35s or to begin expensive upgrades to existing planes is fast approaching.

They have been hit by a double whammy of a stretched-out Quadrennial Defense Review and the base realignment and closure process. Initially, plans called for the Pentagon to wrap up its QDR this fall, but now the actual end point has been pushed off to February. The review is supposed to confirm or recast service roles and missions, set priorities for the acquisition of new capabilities, and establish military paths for carrying out national strategy.

Few expect the QDR to specify exact numbers of F/A-22s and F-35s, but officials anticipate that it will yield clear guidance that will help determine the sizes of these inventories.

Supplementing the QDR, however, will be an “optimization” review of fighter aviation, set in motion by Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England. (See “Washington Watch: England Launches New Fighter Review,” October, p. 12.) Though it may influence the upcoming Fiscal 2007 budget, this review technically won’t be finished until next September.

That date comes very close to the point when Lockheed Martin will have begun accepting the last long-lead parts for the 179th Raptor.

At that point, the Air Force cannot just up and decide to build more Raptors because it will take too long to get the parts. You don’t just call up your local 5th Generation Fighter Parts supplier and order some more to be delivered next Monday by noon. Building these things is a massive undertaking and with leadership (both military and civilian) waffling, it’s nearly impossible for production planners to, well, plan. If you’ve ever worked in a materials planning department for a manufacturer in the public sector, you know how hard it is to get anything. Multiply that by a thousand or more when you’re talking cutting-edge aerospace manufacturing for the government.

ACC has discovered wing cracks in some of its A-10 attack aircraft. Cracks have formed in some of the “thin-skinned” models that comprise 242 of the 356 A-10s in the inventory. (Later versions have a thicker wing skin.) According to [Air Combat Command (ACC) Commander Gen. Ronald E.] Keys, the problem is serious enough to require him to reassess whether to go forward with a long-planned upgrade for the A-10, one that would include the addition of precision engagement systems and a possible re-engining.

“If I have to reskin the wings [as a result of the wing crack], that takes money away from precision engagement,” warned Keys.

The ACC commander said he’s worried that the situation could affect his training fleet. “What do you do with the training fleet if you take all the really good airplanes and make them operational?” he asked. “We have to make that determination now: Do I want to reskin those wings? … How much would that cost? … I’ve only got X amount of money, and every time I do something, now I have X-minus.??

Alternatively, the Air Force might try to solve the problem by accepting two different types of A-10s–one that can “go to high altitude, … work at high temperatures, etc.,” and one that can’t. Keys would prefer that whatever stays in the fleet be similarly configured “all-up” aircraft.

I keep worrying that that A-10, sort of the ugly red-headed step-child of the Air Force, is going to get left out. And that will leave the men on the ground in a world of hurt.

He also acknowledged that there are flight restrictions on his F-15Cs and F-117s, as well as some of his bombers. A flight restriction means the aircraft is prohibited from performing to the limits of its design because of some structural weakness that could cause catastrophic damage. For example, F-15Cs may not fly at maximum speed because of the fear that their elevators and stabilizers might become delaminated and rip off in a dash. Such an accident has already occurred.

The cost of keeping the aging machines going is getting higher and higher. As they exceed design lives, they experience failure in their “life of the aircraft” parts and systems–such as wiring bundles and stringers. To maintain the airplanes, fighter squadrons now routinely practice cannibalization, Keys reported.

Worse, ground crews are putting in very long days to keep the force flying. As a result, costly maintenance mistakes have begun to increase. “They’re working very long hours, very hard, just to hold things together,” Keys continued.

This sort of thing is a big part of why our beloved F-14 Tomcats are being retired soon. The F/A-18 Super Hornets, being newer, are just so much cheaper and easier to keep in the air.

“Cannibalization is sort of a way of life in our Air Force right now,” Keys asserted. “Every time I deploy, if I’m going to take six airplanes, I might take a seventh or eighth airplane, and one of them is going to be a cann bird [that is, kept specifically to use for cannibalized parts]. As soon as it gets there, I start taking pieces off of it.” When new parts arrive, they are put on the sacrificial airplane, but the replacement process itself is risky. As Keys noted, “The probability of breaking it when you take it off is high.”

Ground crews are somehow turning airplanes that, given all their maintenance problems, shouldn’t be able to fly, he went on. There’s “no way” that USAF should able to sustain a fleet with the age problems of today’s fighters.

The numbers tell the story. Keys reported that, since 1990, maintenance man-hours per flying hour have increased by about 34 percent.

When you take this 34% increase per hour and then figure in all the additional hours to train for and to fight World War Four, this becomes a massive resource pit.

Each year, said Keys, USAF will retire the equivalent of a wing or two of older aircraft and replace them with newer ones, but not on a one-to-one basis. The first aircraft selected for the boneyard will be those with chronic maintenance problems–those “possessed by evil spirits,” Keys said. Next in line will be those about to enter a long and expensive programmed depot maintenance, the avoidance of which will save money.

Most likely, F-16s will be the main aircraft taken out of service, said Keys, “just because we have so many of them.” The F-15Es, being among the youngest fighters in the inventory, are “probably going to stay with us the longest,” while it’s still uncertain how many F-15Cs will be retained, although Keys mentioned 170 as a ballpark figure.

The F-15Es will get a new core processor, Keys noted, because “we’re about out of memory and processing power, and we need to update the avionics.” This upgrade is called the “Golden” F-15E. The increase in reliability that will ensue from the new equipment is more attractive than the increase in capability, he said.

“I don’t see that we’re going to run into any problems there,” Keys said. Some number of F-15Es will get an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. This will improve both targeting and mapping capabilities, but it’s not been established how many will get this aspect of the upgrade.

For more on the AESA radars, see this C4ISR article. Good stuff.

The Air National Guard has expressed interest in getting new AESA radars for their F-15Cs, but Keys said it will take a lot of analysis to see if that is justifiable. ANG wants the radar to increase its homeland defense capability–not only against aircraft but also against cruise missiles, which the current version of the F-15C cannot easily defeat.

Keys pointed out this problem: Once these aircraft are designated for homeland defense, it will be tough to call on them for an overseas deployment. “Then, … we’re back in the days of Air Defense Command,” he said, when such aircraft would be committed solely to sitting on alert in the continental United States.

Recall that the F-15 pilots who scrambled on 9/11 were thinking “cruise missile”, especially after they were routed toward the coast. Diesel subs with cruise missiles might be a major threat at some point. Mot sure how you’d have fighters in position to intercept a surprise launch anyway, but it becomes moot if they aren’t even capable of intercepting when in the right place at the right time.

Keys said he doesn’t think there will be a fighter shortage in the next decade. The technology of the F/A-22, now being delivered to operational service, and in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, scheduled to begin deploying in seven years, is so good that each will be worth two or three of the ones it replaces, he said.

He discounted the prospect that there will be a dangerous “fighter bathtub,” a shortfall of fighter tails predicted for the period 2008-18. (The term stems from the use of a USAF line chart, widely distributed in the last five years, showing the number of fighters in USAF service dropping, bottoming out, and then slowly rising again in the out-years as replacement fighters enter the force. The dip in the shape of the trend line–the bathtub–was identified as a period of potential risk as USAF may have more commitments than aircraft to meet them.)

“Frankly, when you’ve got an F/A-22 that’s 15 times better than the F-15, … and JSF that’s certainly going to be three [to] … 10 times better than an F-16, … you really can’t make a case that you’ve got to have a one-for-one or even a one-for-two” replacement rate, Keys asserted.

He wisely admits that fewer planes doing the work means that there aren’t as many to spread around when needs are spread out geographically.

It has become fashionable in QDR-related studies and analyses to assume that the Air Force, having helped “win decisively” in one major theater war, will simply “swing” to another for a “swift defeat.”

“That’s pretty … bold talk,” Keys said. “People who say, ‘Just swing the force’ have never swung a force.” There are always difficulties pulling up stakes and redeploying swiftly, especially from one war zone to another, he said. It would help to have more than a minimal number of aircraft.

He went on, “Anything I put in my budget is less than I need.” Keys added that, given unlimited funds, he would first buy 381 F/A-22s; second, give money to Air Force Space Command to “fix up” a “couple of space capabilities”; and third, give more money to maintenance accounts, “to get all my legacy airplanes up and fixed, once and for all.”

Maybe some of the petty cash fund can be invested in Powerball tickets. If the USAF hits a couple biggies, they can start thinking about these three steps.

The article ends with repeat of the 381 Raptors for 800 other fighters claim. The reason I don’t think we need 381 Raptors is that they’re not really replacing all those 800 other fighters. We need Raptors, and at this point it would be stupid to abandon the program anyway. 179 might not be enough. But I’d hate to cut too many F-35s.

Despite the extensive quotes here, there’s a lot more. Go read the whole thing.

UPDATE: And there’s this in the Forth Worth Star Telegram: Version of JSF may be spared.

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, in an interview with Bloomberg News, said Pentagon budget-cutters are leaning against a proposal to eliminate one of three versions of the next-generation warplane after concluding that the cost savings would be minimal.

There had been talk of eliminating the Air Force version, which is the cheapest and highest-performance model. The Navy and Marine versions, due to their particular requirements, are more expensive. The idea had been to have the Air Force use the Navy version, but that just plain seems bass-ackwards.

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics envisions the joint strike fighter as the key to its long-term future, with plans to build a total of 2,443 planes over more than two decades. The Air Force currently plans to buy 1,763 conventional takeoff models, but Thompson said the service’s total purchase could fall to about 1,100 under the emerging Pentagon recommendations.


  1. Why not just replace the legacy fighters, which have been holding their own for decades, with new build legacy fighters. If the Israelis think the F-16 is good enough for their future frontline fighter, why not the country that builds it?

  2. Mike: That’s a good question, and it’s one that’s been asked here many times previously. If building new F-16s and F-14s was an option, I’d say cancel the F-35. I *do* believe that the F-22 is important enough and good enough to warrant not trying to get by with new F-15Cs, though. New-built F-14s for the Navy, new-built F-16s and A-10s for the Air Force. Give the Marines some A-10s, too. Chop the F-35, buy some additional F-22s. Give them all electronics upgrades and better engines as needed. Murdoc’s sold, in priciple at least. Unfortunately, that makes too much sense.

  3. I was going to say something similar about new-build aircraft. I like with Murdoc’s proposal, but I think it would be wise, if possible, to put the F-35 on the backburner at the same time. It will be needed eventually. I’d keep the F-22 in low rate production, so as not to shut down the production line but save money. I thought the new build F-14 was a good idea but I think the Navy missed the last chance. Grumman’s survival was riding on getting the project to build some new, upgraded F-14s and when they went with Boeing instead that was it. Was it Boeing who bought them? If so, would Boeing cannibalise their own sales?

  4. First off, NO WAY. Secondly, NO WAY. Thirdly, I wouldn’t mind keeping the F-35 on the back burner at all. But I was trying to be an eensy weensy bit realistic in my unrealistic proposal. Fourth, NO WAY. Fifth, I love the Tomcat, but even with the Tomcat-21 it’s showing its age. If only there were, say, an F-23 out there. Sixth, NO WAY.

  5. Blah. Question – assuming the F-22 can have its software upgraded so that it can launch the most pieces of air-ground ordinance, is there much advantage to having F-35s until the existing aircraft are too old to fly? In other words – what can the F-35 do that the F-22 can’t, other than costing less per unit?

  6. IMO – There is only on variant of F-35 that is worth building. That is the marine version, VSTOL. The harrier needs to be replaced. The only other use for the F-35 is that the lift fan drive shaft can be used to generate 1MW, enough to power a high end solid state laser. 100kw range Other then that I do not see much use for the F-35. Existing aircraft can perform the ground attack role better then the F-35 in nearly all conditions where stealth is not a prime requirement. Those conditions where stealth is a prime requirement, the UCAV’s put the F-35 to shame.

  7. James – you have a good point. Problem is, if you cancel or delay all the rest of the F-35s, you effectively drive the price paid to acquire the few Marine aircraft into the stratosphere. That’s something a lot of people don’t seem to ‘get’ (I’m sure you and Murdoc do, as well as other regular commenters here, but others don’t). If you originally plan to buy 380 aircraft and you cut the purchase to 190, you don’t save 50% of the money. You end up making each aircraft more expensive (by about 50%). The development costs for the F-22 are about $40b and each aircraft costs about $100m to make. So, the total cost of each unit is around $200-250m. BUT each additional unit you want to get beyond those planned, costs about $100m. So, cutting acquisitions really is a pretty big waste of money. While you pay less overall, you pay more per unit. It’s pretty bad when cutting the F-22 purchase in half nearly doubled the cost per unit. If the decision was get more F-22s vs. develop the F-35, it seems to me more F-22s would make a lot more sense, since the development cost is already sunk. Then again, the F-35 saves lots of money ($10 billion or more) by re-using the engine which was already paid for by the F-22 program. Since the F-35 development costs are now also sunk, it makes more sense to compare how much it costs to BUILD an F-22 to how much it costs to BUILD an F-35 if you’re going to make a decision about it. From what I can tell, the figures are F-22 $100m, F-35 $37-48m depending upon version. So yeah, it’s about 2:1 as Murdoc mentioned a while ago. (Sunk costs for the F-35 seem to be about $25b, compared to the $40b for the F-22). The $35b or so which the US will end up spending on the F-35 program could have bought 350 additional F-22s. That much money will buy around 250-350 F-35s. Hmmmm. There IS the international aspect of the program to consider, though. Other countries are going to help defray some of that cost. The only way the F-35 will be cost effective compared to the F-22 is if they’re produced in the thousands, I think.

  8. This really put into perspective the logic behind the Air Force’s desire to make the F/A-22 do everything. Maybe they want to use the aircraft as a ‘stop-gap’ so they can retire aging, maintenance-heavy aircraft.

  9. Nicholas – Good post. However, while I understand the logic of mass production and amotoziation of R&D costs – making 1000 aircraft for which you do not have a miliary requirement for, in order to drop the unit cost for the 200 that you need, is a tad off. Each version of the F-35 needs to be able to justify its existance on its own, without respect to development of other variants of the F-35. If you cannot independantly juistify its cost, then it should not be built. That said, your post did point out some procurement quirks that should be develeoped. 1- Avioncs- should be built in modular units, where we would have a common avionics package that can be modified with compatable modules. This would eliminate alot of cost redunencies as we have to invent new avoionics with each new fighter build.(A real world example is the basic PC computer) 2- Engines – when possible planes should use a common engine. Fighters (F-22, F-15, F-15, F-18) should use a common engine. The cargo, tanker & B-52’s should use a common commercial engine.

  10. Yes, those are all points. Obviously, making aircraft you don’t need to drop the unit price is pointless, BUT, if you can find export customers, that has the same effect without costing you anything extra. Which is obviously a good thing. Unfortunately, even though we (Australia) want F-22s, I don’t think we’re going to get any because of the reluctance to export the technology. That’s fair enough, but I wish there was some way we could show we’re not going to let anyone steal the secrets so we can buy some – it would be good for our defence, and save money for you. (Frankly, I can’t see any other aircraft smaller than a B-52 replacing our F-111’s capabilities.) If the AF can give the F-22 full attack capabilities, I’d say it’s up to them to decide what they want more, x F-35s or x/2 F-22s. Since both will be developed and built, the split is fairly irrelevant. Export orders will probably flesh out F-35 sales nicely anyway. [Deleted some Super Hornet rantings – basically wondering why it would have been so hard to modernise the F-14. Gotta get over it…]