U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. John Aquilino, who has piloted F/A-18 and F-14 fighters, did not specifically defend the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 during his confirmation hearing to head U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on March 23, though he did say that fifth generation and sixth generation aircraft are needed to deter China.

“As a fighter pilot, kind of explain why the F-35, as a fifth generation fighter, is so critical to deterring, and, if necessary, defeating China’s use of military force, and, in your opinion, why it’s important for the ability to fight and win inside the first and second island chains,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) asked Aquilino. “Our competition has fifth generation fighters. What are your thoughts on that?”

Aquilino did not offer a full throated defense of the F-35 but instead referenced the need for advanced aircraft to counter Chinese efforts to field anti-access, area denial systems.

“Fifth generation airplanes and beyond are required to be able to generate a lethal force and postured in a place where it’s needed to generate deterrence,” Aquilino said.

“Are your concerns like mine, in terms of the attacks on the F-35, and what our capacity would be, if we became weak in that area?” Inhofe asked

“Yes, senator. I would be concerned, if we lessened our capacity for fifth-generation airplanes. I think they’re needed to win,” Aquilino replied.

“Mmm-hmm,” said Inhofe, who then moved on to another question.

In response to a question from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) on Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), which the Navy and Air Force are developing separately, Aquilino said that Navy NGAD, which is to replace the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, “is our next step…to operate in those contested spaces” for the Navy’s Air Wing of the Future.

“I think they are looking at [Navy NGAD] IOC [initial operational capability] in 2030-31,” Aquilino said.

While the U.S. Air Force still is officially committed to buying 1,763 F-35As, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) this month called the F-35 “a massive frickin’ failure” and said that he favors curtailing the buy and pursuing less costly options to deter China (Defense Daily, March 5).

An internal Heritage Foundation study found that the Air Force needs just 1,250 F-35s and advocated that the service double annual production of the F-35 to 120 planes per year to field 1,250 by 2030. Under the current buy rate of 60 per year, the Air Force would not field 1,763 until 2048.

Such problems, in addition to subsystem and cost concerns, have led analysts to propose substituting for the F-35 long-range precision fires, unmanned attack aircraft, and simpler aircraft designs that draw upon legacy F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s but incorporate stealth technology.

Adm. Phil Davidson, the current commander of INDOPACOM, told lawmakers this month that fifth generation fighters, such as the F-35 and Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22, are vital to respond to future crises in the region.

“Certainly, fifth gen fighters, I would tell you, are the backbone of any of our planning for a crisis forward in the theater and would be needed at dispersed locations within the first and second island chain,” he said during a March 9 posture hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in response to a question from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).

The first island chain runs from the Kuril Islands through Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines to Borneo, while the second island chain runs from Japan south to the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Micronesia, Palau and Papua New Guinea.

Sullivan’s office said that U.S. Alaskan Command has said that there are 54 F-22s at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, Alaska (JBER) and that there will be 54 F-35As at Eielson AFB, Alaska for a total of 108 fifth generation fighters in Alaska. The Air Force has said that Eielson will have 54 F-35As by the end of this year.

In response to a question on the F-35 from Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) during a March 10 posture hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Davidson said that “fifth gen fighters, the F-35 and the F-22, are critical to any future war fight we might have in the theater.”

“Or adversaries are fielding already fifth gen fighters themselves,” Davidson said. “To go backwards into fourth generation capability as a substitute broadly would be a mistake in my view and would put us at a severe disadvantage over the course of this decade.”

As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conducts a Global Force Posture Review, the U.S. Air Force and the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) will run a tactical aircraft (TACAIR) study to inform needed fighter capabilities and numbers for the Air Force fiscal 2023 budget submission, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown said last month (Defense Daily, Feb. 17).