While the U.S. Air Force has fielded some 250 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35As, at the current buy rate of 60 per year, it would take until 2048 for the service to field its planned number of 1,763.

That number is in question, as the Air Force and the Pentagon Office of Cost Assessment and Program Assessment (CAPE) conduct a tactical aircraft (TACAIR) study on the service’s future fighter needs–an undertaking announced last month by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown (Defense Daily, Feb. 17).

“There is a need for fifth-gen capability,” Brown said then. “There’s a need for NGAD [Next Generation Air Dominance] and that particular capability to remain competitive against our adversaries, and then there’s a mix for a low-end fight. I don’t know it would actually be F-16. I’d want to be able to build something new and different that’s not the F-16, that has some of those capabilities but gets there faster, uses a digital approach.”

Brown said that such an F-16 replacement could be a clean sheet design.

John Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at The Heritage Foundation and a former F-16C pilot, said that House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) may deserve a pass for his comments this month that the F-35 is a “massive frickin’ failure” due to Smith’s “lack of expertise in airpower,” but Venable said that Brown’s comments on the TACAIR study “are real head scratchers.”

In a March 19th editorial for The National Interest, Venable wrote that the 2018 “Air Force We Need” study under former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson–a report that laid out a need for 386 operational squadrons by 2030, supported the 1,763 F-35As’ requirement. The study called for increasing the number of operational Air Force fighter squadrons from 48 to 55.

“The Air Force chief of staff and others argue there are places in the world where you could save money by flying less capable fighters,” Venable wrote on March 19th. “So what? We have plenty of jets that can fill that role now..Ongoing Russian or Chinese programs that sell or ‘loan’ high-end surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs) to any nation willing to buy them makes fourth-generation fighter employment untenable.  The Russians have already done that in Syria, and those incredibly capable SAMs are proliferating globally.”

Yet, Dan Grazier, the Jack Shanahan military fellow at the Center for Defense Information and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, believes that the F-35 “may be dramatically reduced in scope due to a combination of technological failures and skyrocketing costs.”

“If that does happen, Pentagon leaders owe it to the American taxpayers to study what went so drastically wrong with this program and to not repeat their mistakes,” per Grazier, who added that NGAD could end up going down the same troubled path.

Like Rep. Smith, Grazier suggested curtailing the F-35 buy and replacing legacy Air Force A-10s, F-15s and F-16s with more combat effective close air support and air-to-air fighters “that we could reliably deploy in adequate numbers without breaking the bank for our taxpayers.”

“As long as the F-15 and F-16 designs can continue to perform useful service, they should be kept in the inventory and replaced as necessary with new airframes,” Grazier wrote in a March 22nd email. “The Air Force already has the infrastructure in place to support those programs. To the greatest extent possible, all the services should try to evolve their existing systems to meet their needs rather than constantly designing new weapons and vehicles. If an aircraft has been proven in combat, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to scrap the design just because the individual airframes have reached their limits.”

“Any new program that replaces them should incorporate as much of the existing technology as possible to take advantage of the features that made the F-15 and F-16 so successful,” per Grazier. “Service leaders should then take a very disciplined approach to the new technologies they incorporate into the design. They should avoid adding needless complexity to the new aircraft and produce the most stripped down aircraft possible to accomplish the intended task. Doing so will control costs so the Air Force can buy enough aircraft to meet the service’s needs. It will also greatly speed up the acquisition cycle so we don’t have to endure another two-decade plus development process like we are experiencing with the F-35.”

While the Air Force has paid a past premium for the stealth attributes of the F-35 and the F-22, Grazier said that “stealth characteristics should be incorporated in those future, simpler designs” because of the threat of advanced air defense systems and foreign fighter aircraft, such as the Chinese J-20.

“The services should also be looking at alternatives to flying crewed aircraft into heavily defended airspace,” per Grazier. “There have been vast improvements in long-range precision fires in the past two decades. Technology like that should be improved to conduct the majority of deep strike missions currently performed by aircraft. The services should also work harder to improve our own air defense systems to help deal with the threat posed by adversary aircraft.”

The Heritage Foundation has proposed increasing the F-35A buy rate to 80, 100 and 120 over the next three years, and a Heritage Foundation internal analysis of Air Force requirements determined a need “for just 1,265 F-35As – about two thirds of the planned buy of 1,763 jets,” per Venable, who added that accelerating the F-35A buy to 120 per year would result in an Air Force fleet of 1,265 planes by 2030.

“In discussions with Lockheed Martin, they have conveyed the ability to add a significant number of aircraft to their production schedule, but they cannot shorten the 2-3 year funding to delivery time frame without a near Herculean effort due to the global nature of production,” Venable wrote in a March 22nd email.  “In their words, with a Manhattan Project level of effort and funding, they could cut the funding-to-delivery timeframe in half, bringing it down to 1 to 1.5 years–even in a time of war.  That thought is troubling and makes it even more important to increase the rate of acquisition as much as we can now.”

Venable has said that in fiscal 2022, a fully combat-capable fifth generation F-35A will cost $77.9 million, while a fourth generation baseline Boeing [BA] F-15EX without a targeting pod or electronic self-defense systems will cost $87.7 million

Those shortfalls make the F-15EX “incapable of flying any combat missions,” per Venable. “When you add in the additional systems and equipment required to make it combat capable, an F-15EX will cost $102 million–30 percent more than a stealth fighter able to fight in all combat environments. The F-35A’s cost per flying hour [currently $35,000 to $38,000] is almost a wash with that of the F-15EX, and fighter pilots who have flown the F-35s love them.”