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The Government Accountability Office has released a report on the US tactical fighter forces, and it does not make cheerful reading. Its main focus is on shortfalls that are expected between now and 2030, despite a 900-plus-aircraft reduction in the planned force size. The reason for the shortfall is quite simple: the services have largely stopped buying new tactical aircraft, aside from the Super Hornet; the expected replacement for most of the current fleet, the Joint Strike Fighter, is late relative to the 2001 plan; and no other aircraft have been acquired.The services are working on plans to mitigate the shortfall in numbers, but some aspects of those plans raise eyebrows. The USAF, for example, projects a shortfall of about 200 aircraft, developing from 2013 to 2017 and continuing to 2030, when all but a handful of F-15s and F-16s are gone. Seriously, what are the chances of those force numbers ever coming back?To mitigate the shortfall in numbers, the USAF is looking at a modernization program for 300 F-16s, at a cost now estimated at $2.6 billion (just under $9 million apiece). The service prefers this option to buying new F-16s or F-15s - an option that it has studied but finds too expensive for the capability provided. However, an essential test - the fatigue testing of a late-model F-16 - won't start until May 2011 and will take three years to complete and report. Also running late is an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar upgrade for the F-15E. The GAO notes that because the USAF has not regarded this as a high priority, parts of the F-15E fleet could be grounded starting in 2013 because of critical reliability problems with analog radars. On the Navy side, the inventory shortfall appears in the early 2020s, The GAO, though, notes that one option - buying more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets - is apparently being ignored, although it appears to cost less in terms of airframe life per dollar and would reduce support costs. Instead, the Navy is pushing a plan to rebuild older Hornets, at a startling $25 million apiece, extending their lives by 1,400 hours. The Super delivers at least 6,000 hours for a $61 million procurement cost, and the Navy expects the jets to make 9,000 hours. But "the Navy does not appear to include [the Super Hornet option] in any of its analyses." And, as the GAO reports, the forward plans all assume a sustained production rate of 130 JSFs for the US services, but that might not be affordable if the DoD's estimates (rather than Lockheed Martin's) are correct. The GAO analysts cite both service and DoD officials as believing that the Lockheed Martin estimates are optimistic.
gao, usaf, usn, fighters
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