As it reorients towards new adversaries, the US Air Force wants to right-size their fighter fleet.
Officials from the Air Force claim that the current seven fighter aircraftframes of the service are too costly to maintain.
Officials claim that the plan is to reduce the fighter force to just four aircraft in the next decade.
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Two of the Air Force's most senior officers in September warned that there is not enough time for the development of new assets and capabilities to keep up with emerging threats.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr. called on the service to respond to China's strategic competition, calling it "one of the greatest challenges facing our nation."
We cannot wait for a sudden or insidious crisis to bring about change for the Air Force, and the Joint Force. Brown stated at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber conference that if we don't, it will be too late.
Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote was the deputy chief of staff to strategy, integration, and requirements. He expressed concern at the conference, saying he was concerned about the direction our force is heading.
Hinote stated, "I am worried that tomorrow's airmen won't have the resources they need to defend our nation in their time if there isn't any change." "We are running out of time."
Officials stated that the Air Force must make changes in order to retain its dominance around the globe for the past decades. Restructuring the fighter fleet of the Air Force is one example.
Change is necessary
A Chinese air force J-16 fighter aircraft performing in Jilin province on October 17, 2019. STR/AFP via Getty Images
The Air Force, like the rest of the US Military, is moving away from counterinsurgency operations over the past two decades and into competition with other militaries.
Despite the fact that US officials frequently mention Russia, there is no doubt who is considered the greatest threat.
Brown stated that China is the pacing threat and actively works to undermine our competitive advantages. He cited China's rapid expansion and development in its military. China now has the largest air force in the Indo-Pacific and the largest navy anywhere in the world.
China's military and economic might will be a challenge to the US, Brown stated, echoing past comments on future air warfare.
To address these new challenges, the Air Force is working on a variety of modifications and upgrades. The Air Force has focused on streamlining and modernizing the fighter fleet.
"We will have to get out the business of maintaining seven fighter fleets in active all the time. Hinote spoke to reporters during the conference. It's too costly. It has too many fleets.
Air Force plans to retire its F-15C- and D-models, which have outlived their useful life. Hinote stated that they are becoming less flyable. "That means that we have to ground many of the ones we send to the depot."
The Air Force hopes to retire the A-10 ground-attack plane by 2030. F-22, F-35, F-15E, EX and F-16 will remain in service.
Hinote stated, "We're going from seven to four." Hinote stated, "We will go to a modern fighter force that has four distinct platforms."
F-22, NGAD and F-35
The F-22 fighter and F-35, which are both fifth-generation fighters in the US fleet, are the two most advanced. The F-22 was introduced in 2005, and the F-35 in 2016.
They were originally meant to work together the F-22, an outstanding air-superiority fighter.
F-35s can still be built but F-22 production has ceased in 2011 due to budget constraints and the absence of sophisticated aerial threats.
Air Force cannot restart F-22 program so plans to upgrade and maintain its approximately 180 F-22s until 2030. Then, it will replace them by a Next Generation Air Dominance fighter (NGAD).
Hinote described NGAD not as "just a platform, but a set of capabilities and programs that will allow us to ensure our air superiority."
Already, the Air Force has flown a full-scale NGAD demonstrator. At the conference, Lt. Gen. Duke Richardson of the Air Force, was the top acquisition official and stated that the program is "progressing as planned."
Hinote stated that the F-35 "has to be our cornerstone fighter force." It will be the fighter force with the most platforms.
F-15 and F-16
Front view of an F-16 and F-35. Jim Hazeltine/US Air Force
The F-15 family remains one of the most successful and capable jets in the world. The F-15A and F-15B models have been retired by the US, while the F-15C- and D models are being retired by the US. Air Force plans to keep its upgraded F-15EX and F-15EX models in flight.
The F-15E is an extremely capable fighter, both air-to air and ground. The F-15EX (also known as Eagle II) was recently upgraded and now features an extensive suite of electronics including a radar, mission computer and cockpit displays. It also includes the Eagle Passive/Active Warning and Survivability Systems.
Air Force will purchase at least 144 F-15EXs. Officials from the Air Force say that they will increase the number of F-15Es in the fleet without sacrificing quality.
Hinote stated that the F-15EX is "open to producing good, capable fighters at an accelerated rate to recapitalize the F-15C fleet." He likened the F-15EX as a "4.5- or 4.6-generation fighter."
An F-15EX at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, March 11, 2021. US Air Force/Samuel King Jr
Longtime Air Force favourite, the F-16 will continue to serve but be refocused on a new role. Hinote stated that the F-16 fleet will be able to support missions such as homeland defense. However, they won't necessarily require high-end survivability. But, it is necessary for a reliable, good fighter.
Other changes could be made to the fighter fleet, but they are not the Air Force’s primary priority. It plans to replace the aging Minuteman III ICBM and improve its aerial-refuelling fleet. It hopes to purchase modern, long-range air–to-air missiles.
The Air Force must improve its culture and collaborate better with its industry partners to continue its efforts in addressing new threats.
Brown stated in September that "if we don't get our relationship right with industry, we'll end-up with fifth-generation fighters firing fourth-generation weapons against the sixth-generation threat."