Anyone paying attention to the recent Senate Armed Services Air Land Subcommittee (see previous blog post “Highlights from Yesterday’s Air Land Subcommittee Hearing) heard numerous mentions of the U.S. military “fighter gap.” It is a hot topic because many elected officials are realizing what military leaders have been warning for years – many of the aging fighters will have to be retired before their new replacements are ready to go.
And more people are drawing the conclusion that the alternate engine program for the F-35 Lightning II is making a bad situation worse.
Let’s take a look at the fighter gap situation. It spans U.S. military services, negatively affecting the Air Force, Navy and Marines and Air National Guard:
- Air Force – According to news reports, the Air Force faces a shortage of more than 800 fighter aircraft by 2020.
- Navy – At the recent hearing, Navy and Marine officials said they will see a gap of 243 fighters by 2017 at the latest, and probably earlier. That represents 20 percent of the fleet. Aging F/A-18 Hornets are already reaching 8,000 flight hours, the milestone after which they must go in for a meticulous inspection to determine if they can continue operating.
- Air National Guard – In a recent opinion article, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords detailed how the guard’s increase in operations in recent years has resulted in aircraft burning out faster than anticipated. In just eight years, she writes, 80 percent of all National Guard aircraft will become unusable. Giffords is member of the House Armed Services Committee.
(It’s worth noting that leaders of the Air Force, Navy and Marines – services affected by the fighter gap – all went on record during the recent hearing that they agreed with the President's decision to cancel the alternate engine.)
As you would imagine, there are a number of factors contributing to the fighter gap. They include budgeting considerations and decisions on the numbers of fifth-generation fighters that the government will ultimately order.
Lawmakers are faced with the decision of whether to make expensive upgrades to existing fighters to coax a few more years of service out of them, buy new models of those aircraft or speed up the rate of getting the fifth-generation fighters deployed.
But it’s clear there’s one thing they can do immediately to make the situation better – stop funding the extraneous engine for the F-35.
The unnecessary alternate engine is costing billions of dollars that could otherwise be applied directly to replacing the aging fighters. At a June 9 hearing before the Senate Air Land subcommittee, Air Force General Mark Shackelford testified that the second engine program will result in funding 53 fewer F-35s over the next five years.
That’s worth repeating – the unneeded alternate engine will cost us more than four dozen of some of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world. Defense acquisition is often a complicated business. But it’s not hard to see that this situation just doesn’t make sense.