Air Forces Acquiring Fewer Fighters As Prices Rise

By Bill Sweetman
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

However, a senior JSF program manager told the conference that he is “cautiously optimistic” that the project will get better grades in the next report from Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation, due early next year. Gilmore warned in June that software was behind schedule and that most of the schedule margin for weapons integration had been consumed (AW&ST July 1, p. 23).

Capt. Paul Overstreet, JSF weapon systems program manager, acknowledges some risk in on-time delivery of Block 3F software that meets the initial specifications for the aircraft. The program office is confident that the interim 2B and 3I software will arrive in time for the Marine Corps and Air Force to declare initial operational capability, but the 3F package remains “highly dependent” on performance in the interim packages. At the same time, the program is still “playing catch-up” on its vital Autonomous Logistics Information System, offboard mission-planning system and the aircraft's health management system. Overstreet concedes that operating cost estimates are “not affordable,” but he adds that a high-level effort to reduce costs is underway.

JSF schedule performance is important to the Royal Air Force, which is approaching a 2015 decision date on the retirement of its final three squadrons of Tornado GR4s, according to Air Commo. Dave Waddington, Tornado force commander. Two out of five 12-aircraft GR4 squadrons retire next year, and “there is a plan for Tornado out of service date” as the RAF adds numbers and capability to its Typhoon force, but that plan will be “validated or adjusted” in the next U.K. strategic defense review, due in 2015.

The RAF's migration from a Tornado/Typhoon force to a Typhoon/JSF force will be managed “to retain sufficient quantity while retaining key [Tornado] capabilities until they exist on other platforms,” Waddington says. While there is “more we can do” with the Typhoon, he stresses that it is “a superb air-to-air platform,” while the JSF will be “our top-end capability in transforming the RAF, able to access and serve the full range of targets.” This suggests that the service may shift Tornado missions to the JSF rather than expanding the Typhoon's air-to-surface capability.

The challenge, Waddington adds, “is that we are not buying very many F-35s, at least for a while.” The U.K. is acquiring an initial batch of 48 aircraft, equipping an operational conversion unit and two squadrons that will have “the same training and embark [on the new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth] for the same amount of time,” he says. With one operational squadron embarked, this would leave one land-based squadron for deployment.

The complementary nature of the Typhoon and JSF is also the key to Italy's plans, according to Col. Vito Cracas, commander of the air force's 36th Fighter Wing. “The JSF does not have a high-end air-to-air capability,” he told the conference. We need to have both aircraft.”

Smaller air forces do not have that option. The Netherlands' Court of Audit noted in a recent report that the nation's planned force of 37 JSFs will, according to the defense ministry, permit the sustained deployment of only four aircraft to support coalition operations while defending domestic and allied airspace. This, the court adds, assumes that the Netherlands shares responsibility for air defense and policing with Belgium, subject to current negotiations.

Belgium itself plans to issue a request for information for a new fighter in early 2014, with the aim of retiring its F-16s starting in 2023, according to Col. Fred Vansina, chief of staff of the Belgian air component. The service has 54 active F-16s and five aircraft in reserve. The minimum number of aircraft “depends on which aircraft we choose,” Vansina says, and the ability to share operations, as with the Netherlands, “could and should impact the numbers.”

Delegates from smaller air forces—including Colombia and Ukraine—were even less sure how they would replace their aircraft. Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the USAF 3rd Air Force and U.S. air forces in Europe, suggested a harsher solution: Under a “smart defense” concept, “not every nation needs a fighter force,” he said.

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