The Buzz

The U.S. Military's Fighter Aircraft Crisis: What Comes After the F-35?

Earlier this year, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said that he believed that the F/A-XX, the Navy’s planned eventual follow-on to the F-35C, would be "optionally manned". On April 15 at the Sea-Air-Space conference, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus leaned further forward, noting how he believed that "the F-35 should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.” At the same time, Mabus announced that he would be establishing a new post of deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems—a secretary of drones, so to speak. That evening, Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain said that “I hope the sentiments expressed by Secretary Mabus… will be reflected in the Navy's future programmatic decisions.” For as the senator knows, that’s where the actual plans depart from the strategic narrative. The program is still focused on manned aviation, and that questionably supports future strategic needs.

Maybe drones can’t do everything. The US Air Force is mostly enthused about drones, with a corporate position that long-endurance surveillance should be automated. The service is replacing U-2 Dragon Ladies with MQ-4 Global Hawks, and reducing its fleet of MC-12 Liberties, while continuing to buy MQ-9 Reapers. This drone strike-fighter business, though, USAF Chief of Staff General Mark Welch might call a bunch of hooey. At Defense One’s event last Wednesday, the chief insisted that the USAF’s follow-on to the F-35A would absolutely be manned, as “having the human brain as a sensor in combat is still immensely important.” As Sam Lagrone noted, while the SecNav mentioned strike—attacking targets on land or on the waves—he pointedly did not address combat in the air. But John Stillion of the CSBA has recently argued that even beyond-visual-range (BVR) aerial combat can be partly automated, with hunting-dog drones scouting and shooting for manned fighters coming up from behind. 

Let’s get back to those manned fighters for a moment. With several wars underway for over thirteen years now, the Navy has been flying its Hornets, As through Fs, far more than planned—about 350 hours annually. The A through D early-model Hornets are thus wearing out faster than planned—about 40 aircraft annually. The Navy is not buying F-18Es and Fs at nearly that rate, so the number of all Hornets in combat service has been dropping—to now only 44 aircraft per ship. Production of those F-35Cs—expressly meant to replace the F-18As through Ds—has of course been delayed. Worse, at the prices charged, the Navy would need to raid the Air Force’s budget to fill its decks with even as many planes as it has now. (Lockheed Martin insists that the price will eventually close on that of the Super Hornet, but is providing no guarantees.) Thus, the Navy wants to continue buying Super Hornets for a few more years until the C-model of the Lightning II is actually at full-rate production.

In short, the Navy believes that it needs long-range drones in the long run, but more short-range manned strike fighters in the short run. Maybe that's not cognitive dissonance, but it’s still a problem.

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As I heard a retired carrier admiral say recently, with squadrons of J-20s coming eastbound, a supercarrier in the China Seas might need all 44 of those F-18s just to defend itself. In most models of modern aerial combat, a friend at Lockheed Martin once told me, “everybody dies.” Stealth or not, it’s hard to hide jet exhaust, the skies are pretty open, and infrared search-and-tracking systems are improving. While all-aspect BVR missiles worked very badly in the Vietnam War, they now account for most of the air-to-air kills. There's hardly any opportunity these days to merge to dogfight, or even disengage. So carriers might blow through fighters and pilots pretty fast. If the ships can stay afloat through such a bloody battle in the western Pacific, they’d need replacement aircraft pronto. 

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