By Marina Malenic

LANGLEY AFB, Va.— The Air Force is studying how best to mitigate the approximately three-year slip before the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be ready for deployment by the service, its chief airpower provider said last week.

“We continue to look across all of our platforms and look for how best to employ those aircraft,” Gen. William Fraser, the head of Air Combat Command, told Defense Daily in a June 18 interview here. “As we look across legacy platforms such as F-15s, F-16s and A-10s, we see that we need to stay on track to complete their upgrade programs.”

Pentagon officials announced early this year that the system design and development (SDD) phase of the F-35 program is now 13 months behind schedule following a program restructure. The SDD phase will now continue until 2015–two years after the Air Force had originally planned to declare initial operational capability (IOC) for the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) A-model of the aircraft.

Unlike Navy and Marine Corps plans for the C-model carrier variant and the B-model short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant, respectively, the Air Force is unwilling to redefine its criteria for combat deployability of the A-model. The air service will wait until a sufficient number of pilots is trained on a large enough fleet of aircraft equipped with Block 3 software, Fraser said.

“The analysis continues to unfold,” he explained. “Based on all that and the new schedule, I see [IOC]…to occur in the 2016 time frame.”

He added that he is “not as fixated on a date” as he is on the program delivering a product that meets the air service’s capability standards.

Asked what would have to change to move the date back, Fraser said SDD would have to be completed at a faster than planned pace and software development would have to be sped up.

“It would take coming out of SDD earlier, allowing you to develop and fully complete the Block 3 software so that we can then get into” initial operational test and evaluation, he said. “Because it’s that…completion that really informs us of the full range of capabilities that we’ll have at that time. That would have to come back to the left because that’s the key touchstone that I see out there.”

The Defense Department, meanwhile, is expected to conclude negotiations on the price of the next 32 F-35s it will buy from prime contractor Lockheed Martin [LMT] later this month. Company executives insisted last week that the Pentagon’s latest cost estimates for the airplane are overly pessimistic (Defense Daily, June 18).

The projected cost of the F-35, expected to replace the majority of the Pentagon’s aging fighter aircraft, has reached $112.4 million per airplane–approximately 81 percent over the 2002 baseline, Defense Department officials have told Congress (Defense Daily, June 3). The Pentagon now estimates the total cost for the program at $382 billion– 65 percent higher than the $232 billion estimated when the program started in 2002, according to documents provided to lawmakers on June 1. The figures are all in 2002, inflation- adjusted dollars.

The Air Force is now examining how the new acquisition timeline will alter aircraft production numbers, spare parts and training capacity. Delivery of new F-35 aircraft to the Air Force under the revised testing and acquisition schedule will come just in time as the service plans to divest itself of aging F-16s. Officials have described the pending replacements as “nose to tail.”

Fraser said his command is preparing options for a service life extension program (SLEP) for a certain number of later-model F-16s.

“It may be necessary to do a service life extension program from both a structural and an avionics perspective that we’re looking to bring in possibly in the [program objective memorandum] POM 2012 budget,” he said, referring to the service’s next five-year spending blueprint. “But we’re early in our process.”

Officials here said the cost difference between targeted legacy SLEPs and bringing in a new fleet of 4.5 generation fighters would be “eightfold,” taking into account the support infrastructure that would be needed to maintain new aircraft models.

“Other than a full cancellation of the F-35 program, sustaining current fourth-gen is the answer to any capability gap that develops,” said one official who asked not to be identified.

Officials said the Air Force has been presented with ACC analysis on a potential F-16 SLEP. The services are expected to submit their FY ’12 budgets to the Defense Secretary in August.

“Our mitigation strategies are being implemented in that ’12 POM,” the official said. “There are several options, and it’s up to the Air Force leadership to decide which one to pick.”

Fraser said ACC is also studying the “synergy” between legacy and fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 and F-35 and how they might be used in different ways to mitigate for lower than expected aircraft numbers.

“We’re relying on the agility of our airmen to think differently in meeting the needs of combatant commanders,” he said. “We can mix formations of different capabilities to get more out of those platforms.”

“If you mix platforms, you can actually enhance the capabilities across the spectrum,” he added.

Fraser noted that technological enhancements such as advanced targeting pods, precision weapons and next-generation radars have also bolstered the fleet’s overall potency.