To discuss the future US Air Force (USAF) fighter force requirements, the basic strategy for future air support of major combat operations (MCO) conflict needs to be understood. The USAF has to be ready to prosecute air superiority missions in an environment where adversary’s modern air defense systems and fighter aircraft could deny the US the ability to operate its 4th generation fighters. The future fighter force has to be capable of eliminating that threat. However, once the air defenses are eliminated there is no need for the 5th generation aircraft to conduct missions. Without air defenses, a 4th or a 3rd generation fighter aircraft can be effective, especially when combined with precision weapons. Similar to what is currently happening in Iraq and Syria where the 4th generation US fighter aircraft dominate. What the USAF needs is a mix of very capable and moderately capable aircraft. The future composition of USAF fighter force should consist of the minority of very capable “day one” of the war platforms and the majority of still capable but less expensive “day one” plus platforms. That is, a platform to kick the door down by destroying the adversary’s aircraft and air defense systems and then a platform to bring the majority of the firepower to battlefield after the air defenses have been destroyed or degraded. Additionally, the less advanced and less expensive to operate fighter platforms could also be used in other conflicts such as counter-insurgency or any other operation short of full scale MCO not requiring a 5th generation fighter.
It is not news that the USAF needs a replacement for the aging fighter aircraft that compose the bulk of its frontline fighters. The current fighter fleet is old, with many fighters dating back to the 1980s. The F-35 program which was initially conceived for all three services to replace the aging fighter fleets does not appear to be the answer. There is an example, 40 years in the past, of a program that produced a similar outcome, the F-111. Just as the F-111 was initially conceived as a multi-service platform, the F-35 is one as well. However, that same mix of differing requirements is what limits its performance. At the base of it, the F-35 is not as good of an airplane design as other current fighters because of multi-service compromises. The F-111 experienced similar problems, which was one of the reason the US Navy bought the F-14 instead. However, as the F-111 transitioned to the electronic warfare (EW) platform the EF-111, the F-35 can transition to a similar platform, the EF-35. The F-35 aircraft is well suited for that role and has inherent self-defense capabilities for Beyond Visual Range (BVR) engagements that the EF-111 lacked, such as the AIM-120 internally carried air to air missile. Its EW mission will also keep it outside Within Visual Range (WVR) engagements of adversary aircraft, the engagement range where it appears to perform worse than the currently fielded F-16. The F-35 can transition to become the EF-35, a fighter EW aircraft, possessing a capability the USAF does not currently have but could definitely use in the future.
So what is the exact mix of fighters that the USAF should possess? The two aircraft needed are the upgraded F-22 and the upgraded F-16. To remain as a viable form of US instrument of power, the USAF has to plus up the F-22 fleet with upgraded F-22s, and completely replace the current F-16 fleet with an upgraded one. Both aircraft are a good fit because both are inherently well designed airplanes. The F-22 is a 5th generation aircraft without equal and performs well both in BVR and WVR engagements. While the F-16, if upgraded to the F-16 E/F+ level, can become a lethal 4.5+ generation fighter aircraft capable of surviving in a modern air defense environment and still perform well in BVR and WVR engagements. The F-16 E/F+ would be the US version of the United Arab Emirates F-16 Block 60 aircraft. That model is the best F-16 design to date and, if updated, would provide an equivalent upgrade of an F-16 from a 1990s cellphone to a today’s smartphone. Both upgraded aircraft would complement each other, with the F-22s capable of destroying or disrupting the most capable air defenses, while the F-16s would provide support and the bulk of ordinance. With modern and integrated avionics the F-16E/F+ would be capable of supporting the F-22s even on “day one” of MCO, especially combined with EF-35 electronic warfare support.
To be even better, both F-16 and F-22 airplanes could be redesigned with ease of maintenance and upgrades in mind because at any given time a certain number of fighter airplanes are down for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. The benefits in reducing the number of hours the airplanes are unavailable and the number of maintenance personnel required for their servicing could be immense. The savings in maintenance personnel will also result in the corresponding savings in support personnel, leaving more funds available for training and platform upgrades.
So what about the numbers? The number of F-22s should be increased from the current sub two hundred to at least five hundred. Some of which could be stationed in the Pacific theater to deter China and some in European theater to deter Russia, with the rest located in the US and available for either theater support. The new F-16s would completely replace every US active duty, reserve, and guard squadron F-16, which according the F-16.net is about 1,000 aircraft. Combined together the future fighter force would be ready to handle any contingency from MCO to counter-insurgency. The total price for the F-22 and F-16 buy would also be less compared to the current projected F-35 program price. Given the F-16 estimated price of approximately $50M per aircraft, the total would come out to $50B dollars. The F-22s, using the $187M per unit price would come out to $53B dollars, for a combined total of $103B, which is much less than the estimated $300B plus budgeted for the current F-35 program.
The future of USAF fighter force, and by extension the US military’s ability to project power, is at stake. Without adjustment the Combat Air Forces are on the way to equipping their fighter units with an airplane that is less capable of WVR combat than the existing platforms. As more and more studies are coming out showcasing the F-35 limitations, USAF has a choice. It can continue with an airplane that has demonstrated limitation in multiple areas, or change direction and create a fighter force which will secure air dominance for the US well into this century. Without air superiority nothing else the USAF does or any of the other Services do will be possible. The reason for the dominance of the US military as an instrument of power is the ability of the USAF to assure complete air dominance anywhere in the world. Such will only be possible in the future if the US is willing to invest in the fighter force of the future which is capable of destroying adversary air defenses and engaging the adversaries both in BVR and WVR combat. For that, a mix of upgraded F-22s and F-16s would ensure US air supremacy anywhere in the world.
Update of the previous post “F-35 – The Echoes of F-111”