The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies is recommending that the U.S. Air Force accelerate production of the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35A fighter to counter China and Russia.
“There are no other credible fifth-generation fighter aircraft currently in production anywhere in the free world to manage the increasingly dangerous risks posed by China and Russia,” according to an Oct. 26 report by Heather Penney, a senior resident fellow at the institute. “The Air Force should aggressively ramp up F-35A production now while it solves the challenges of capability, availability, affordability, and program management. These are indeed important issues for the Air Force to solve, but they should not drive procurement decisions. Force sizing for strategic demands and recapitalization requirements should be the primary considerations for F-35A buy rates.”
“Given strategic realities, a peer-threat environment, and production practicalities, ramping up F-35A production is the Air Force’s only viable option for recapitalizing its fighter inventory,” Penney wrote.
The report said that the F-35A production ramp up would offset the Air Force’s retirements of F-15C/D, A-10C, and F-15E, provide advanced Block 4 capabilities, and provide a cushion, if the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) sixth-generation fighter program sees delays.
Closing the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), as the Senate Armed Services Committee is recommending in its version of the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill, would allow program authority to shift to the Air Force for the F-35A and the Navy for the F-35B and F-35C and “enable the Air Force to better achieve its F-35 capability, availability, and affordability objectives,” the report said.
Over the last month and a half, Pratt & Whitney [RTX] and the U.S. Air Force Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex have reduced the number of unavailable F135 engines for 297 F-35As from 46-48 to below 40, Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, the head of Air Combat Command (ACC), said this week (Defense Daily, Oct. 25).
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said last month that he is examining ways to reduce F-35A sustainment costs, and such methods look not to involve buying more F-35As than the 1,763 Air Force objective number–a figure that the Air Force is likely to reduce. Sustainment costs have become a major barrier for the program.
The Mitchell Institute report also advises the Air Force to retain and modernize the Lockheed Martin F-22, accelerate NGAD, and terminate the buy of the Boeing [BA] F-15EX “to begin a new, stealthy, general-purpose fighter design.”
“The Air Force accepted the F-15EX not because it will be relevant to future warfare, but because of its desire for an alternative to a single fighter production line,” per the report. “The Air Force should seek the soonest termination point for the F-15EX and redirect that funding to increase F-35 production and begin the development of an affordable, general-purpose, stealthy fighter program that will be relevant to the threats of the future.”