July 9, 2009
By Mackenzie Eaglen
Since World War II, the U.S. military has used air power to
dramatically increase the effectiveness of all other forces. In
fact, American ground forces have not come under attack from enemy
air forces since the Korean War. Yet the ability of America's
Air Force to dominate the skies is under attack from a different
kind of enemy: a long-standing and widening fighter aircraft gap,
which President Obama's fiscal year (FY) 2010 defense budget fails
The President's budget request continues the F-35 Joint Strike
Fighter (JSF) program but would end production of the F-22A Raptor
at 186 fighters while retiring 250 legacy fighters. These changes will
result in what is essentially a deficit between the services'
fighter aircraft inventories and their operational requirements
based on emerging and possible air threats to U.S. security.
Finally, the budget request will have a disproportionately negative
effect on the Air National Guard--particularly its ability to
continue air sovereignty alert missions. As the U.S. Senate
prepares to debate the FY 2010 defense authorization bill, Congress
must put the military's requirements first and override the
President's budget request by:
Budget Restrictions Driving Air Force
Members of Congress and numerous military and defense officials
have warned for years of an impending "fighter gap" and its
implications to U.S. national security. In April 2008, Lieutenant
General Daniel Darnell testified before the Senate Armed Services
Committee that the Air Force could have a requirement gap of over
800 fighters by 2024. During the same hearing, Rear Admiral Allen
Myers projected a "most-optimistic" deficit of 125 strike fighters
for the Navy, including 69 aircraft for the Navy and 56 for the
A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report in April unveiled
a potentially larger gap, citing a briefing to House Armed Service
Committee staffers in which the Navy projected that its strike
fighter shortfall could grow to 50 aircraft by FY 2010 and 243 by
FY 2018 (129 Navy and 114 Marine Corps fighters).
However, after release of the President's FY 2010 budget
request, Air Force leaders announced a combat Air Force
restructuring plan to "eliminate excessive overmatch in our
tactical fighter force and consider alternatives in our
capabilities." The Air Force believes that retiring over
250 legacy fighters can save $3.5 billion over the next five years,
funds that can then be reinvested to reduce current capability gaps
elsewhere. Yet Air Force leaders have made it clear to Congress
that budgetary restrictions--not a changing threat
environment--are driving this fundamental shift in security
While both Republican and Democratic Members of Congress have
expressed concern about projected gaps in America's strike fighter
inventory, the Obama Administration has thus far deemphasized the
relevance of these gaps by insisting that a smaller, more capable
force with "limited resources" can remain effective and continue to
meet services requirements. The requirements for, and analysis of, U.S.
fighter forces did not change between April 2008 and April 2009,
but the Pentagon is now dangerously altering its policy as though
they had. The long-standing requirements for fighter fleets have
been laid out, but rather than take the necessary steps to
alleviate the strain, the Pentagon is scaling back the requirements
in order to meet present capability levels.
This move reflects Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's desire to
"reform" and "balance" Pentagon priorities by accepting more risk
in the conventional military sphere. Although the upcoming
Quadrennial Defense Review may reduce Air Force and Navy strike
fighter requirements, both services will experience significant
shortages for the coming decade under the current procurement
program. But with General Darnell and Admiral Myers publicly
affirming the troubling data identified by the CRS, Congress should
act to mitigate and correct the fighter gap that is already
hobbling the American military.
Unless Congress Acts, the Fighter Gap
Will Only Get Worse
After proposing to end production of the F-22, Gates announced
that he was prepared to recommend to the President procurement of
2,443 F-35s, including 513 frames in the next five years. However,
this will leave the U.S. without adequate numbers of fighters
designed specifically for achieving air superiority. While peer
competitor states like Russia and China bolster their air
superiority fighter capabilities, the U.S. is not allocating
resources to sustain its own. For example:
Navy. Since the end of the Cold War, the Navy has reduced
both the number of aircraft carriers and the number and quality of
its sea-based air superiority fighter force. Between 1991 and 1999,
the Navy's air superiority fighter force was reduced by nearly 40
percent and the carrier force was effectively reduced by
one-third. The Navy is scheduled to order 25
carrier-versions of the F-35 each year for the next t10 years, but
this is still not enough to address the Navy's air superiority
fighter shortfalls. The Navy F/A-18E/F was designed more as a
bomber, and the F-35 was designed "to be the world's premier strike
aircraft through 2040" with an emphasis in internal payloads and
greater internal fuel capacity to maintain radar stealth. Both
the F/A-18 and F-35 will have difficulty engaging the
high-performance, air-superiority fighters both Russia and China
Air Force. The F-15 and F-16 have been the backbone of
the Air Force's fighter fleet for the past 30 years. However,
modern fighter technologies have surpassed these planes and the
current fleet is insufficient to meet the possible challenge from
fifth-generation foreign fighters. The service life of the F-15 has
also been extended from 8,000 to 10,000 hours, resulting in
increased structural failures. The Air Force grounded over 300 of
the aged fighters after an F-15 "broke in half" during a November
2007 training mission in St. Louis, Missouri.
President Obama's decision to cap F-22 production at 187 will
also negatively impact the Air Force. According to Air Combat
Command General John Corley, a fleet of only 187 F-22s places the
"execution of our current national military strategy at high risk
in the near to mid term."
Air National Guard. In 1999, the Air National Guard had
nine F-15 squadrons; in 2009, it has only five squadrons.
This constitutes a 44 percent reduction in critical air sovereignty
aircraft, which serve the vital mission of patrolling the homeland.
Further planned reductions of the F-15 would mean the phasing out
of all F-15A/Bs, including those attached to the Air National
Guard. This will leave the Guard with only 48 F-15C/Ds for air
sovereignty missions until 2025 unless F-22 fighters are assigned
to the Guard or additional fourth-generation fighters are
Congress Must Remedy the Fighter
Thankfully, there has been a strong show of bipartisan support
in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate Armed
Services Committees for closing the fighter gap, despite the
troubling opposition from Gates and Obama.
In response to the President's veto threat concerning F-22
funds, Representative Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) responded that such a
veto "would be overridden in a nanosecond." Accordingly, H.R.
2647, the FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, approves a
multi-year procurement contract for additional F/A-18E/F and EA-18G
aircraft and advanced procurement funds for 12 F-22s in 2011.
The Senate Armed Services Committee's draft authorization bill
provides $560 million for 18 more F/A-18s for the Navy
and allocates $1.7 billion for the purchase of seven more F-22s in
2010. The Senate version also takes the right steps to begin
exploring the possibility of exporting a modified version of the
F-22 to allies, which, if successful, would ensure that the
production line remains open.
Congress should continue its commitment to closing the fighter
gap for the Navy and Air Force, including the Air National Guard.
In the final FY 2010 defense authorization bill, Congress
Otherwise, America's military--as well as the National
Guard--will be unable to complete their mission: protecting
M. Eaglen is Research Fellow for National Security in the
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a
division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
Show references in this report
Force Association, "Threats to Air Supremacy," at http://www.afa
.org/MPEG/Air_Supremacy.asp (June 24, 2009).
Robert M. Gates, "Defense Budget Recommendation
Statement," U.S. Department of Defense April 6, 2009, at http://www.defenselink.mil/
speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1341 (June 15, 2009).
Hearings, Hearing to Receive Testimony on
Navy and Air Force Aviation in Review of the Defense Authorization
Request for Fiscal Year 2009 and the Future Years Defense
Program, Subcommittee on Air and Land, Committee on Armed
Services, U.S. Senate, 111th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 16.
/Airland/08-36%20-%204-9-08.pdf (June 4, 2009).
Ibid., p. 7.
Christopher Bolkcom, "Navy-Marine Corps
Strike-Fighter Shortfall: Background and Options for Congress,"
Congressional Research Service, April 10, 2009, at /static/reportimages/D3045C57ADA50A7E3C88B720C90D37C1.pdf
(June 12, 2009).
Michael B. Donley and General Norton A.
Schwartz, "Fiscal Year 2010 Air Force Posture Statement,"
presentation to the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, May
International Institute for Strategic Studies,
Military Balance 2009(Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press,
2009), p. 34.
Garamone, "Lockheed-Martin Team Wins Joint Strike Fighter
Competition," DefenseLink News, October 26, 2001, at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=44605
(June 24, 2009).
Associated Press, "Missouri Air National
Guard Pilot Sues Over F-15 Crash," KY3.com, May 25, 2008.
Gordon Lubold, "U.S. Needs More F-22 Fighters
than Gates Wants, Says an Air Force Commander," The Christian
Science Monitor, June 18, 2009, at http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0618/p02s09-usmi.html
(July 8, 2009).
International Institute for Strategic
Studies, Military Balance 2009, p. 39.
William Matthews, "F-22 Fight Divides Gates,
U.S. Lawmakers," Defense News, June 18, 2009, at http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=4146850(July
Press release, "Senate Armed Services
Committee Completes Markup of National Defense Authorization Bill
for Fiscal Year 2010," Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate,
June 26, 2009, at http://armed-services
.senate.gov/press/10mark.pdf (July 6, 2009).
The ability of America's Air Force to dominate the skies is underattack from a long-standing and widening fighter aircraft gap.
Research Fellow for National Security Studies, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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