By Marina Malenic

The Air Force is analyzing what mix of modernization efforts will best suit its legacy fighter fleet in case further delays to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program materialize, the service’s chief airpower provider said yesterday.

“If indeed what we’re hearing is right [regarding F-35 development delays], we’ll have to make some of those decisions to extend some of these F-16s a little bit further and possibly make some upgrades in both avionics and structurally,” Gen. William Fraser, the head of Air Combat Command, said during a breakfast in Washington sponsored by the Air Force Association.

“We are…doing some prudent planning within ACC,” Fraser added.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was briefed last week on new cost and schedule assessments for the F-35. Sources say that delivery of the fighter could be delayed by another one to three years and cost $5 billion more than estimated (Defense Daily, Nov. 3).

Lockheed Martin [LMT] is building three versions of the F-35 for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as several foreign militaries. The A model, to be flown by the Air Force, takes off and lands conventionally; the Marine Corps’ B model is a short take-off/vertical landing variant; and the C model is to be flown from carriers by Navy fighter pilots.

Fraser revealed in February that F-35 development and testing delays assessed in 2009 had caused Air Force officials to doubt that the A model would be ready for deployment by 2013 as was planned at that point (Defense Daily, Feb. 22).

Sources now say that the A and C models could be delayed by yet another year, while the B could be slipped three more years.

Fraser and other Air Force officials have said this month that they are carefully examining their legacy fleet to choose specific upgrades on a case-by-case basis.

“Everything does not need to be the same,” Fraser said yesterday. “If I have aircraft back here that are principally flying air sovereignty missions, they do not need to be exactly the same” as aircraft deployed to a war zone, he explained.

Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the service’s deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, said last week that Block 40 and 50 F-16s are being examined “on an almost tail-by-tail basis” to decide which planes will get communications, radar and navigation updates. Breedlove said that almost all of the F-16s in service will need at least some structural modifications to keep them flying.

The Air Force has already made decisions on which upgrades are needed for the Block 30 and earlier-model F-16s, according to Breedlove.

The F-16 modification effort is in addition to a plan being formulated for F-22 modernization. Fraser has said ACC experts are studying how many Raptors should be modernized to full combat capability over the next five years (Defense Daily, June 22).

In 2001, the first Raptors flew with the Block 3.0 software–the first combat-capable avionics version. In 2009, Increment 3.1 was tested at Edwards AFB, Calif. That upgrade provides a basic ground-attack capability through Synthetic Aperture Radar mapping, Electronic Attack and integration of the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb. Operational testing of 3.1 is scheduled for later this year, according to the Air Force.

Air Force documents detailing the F-22 program of record show that the modernization plan is expected to yield 34 Block 20 F-22s for test and training; 63 combat-coded Block 30s with Increment 3.1 software; 83 combat-coded Block 35s with Increment 3.2, and three Edwards AFB-test coded aircraft. The service will also have to decide whether to upgrade the Block 30s to the Block 35 configuration.

The Air Force had initially planned to purchase 381 of the Lockheed Martin-built stealth fighters.

Timelines for the software drops are contingent on the program objective memorandum, or POM, talks, which will determine the service’s proposed five-year spending blueprint beginning in Fiscal 2012.

The service will have to spend approximately $8 billion for the Block 3.2 software upgrade, then-top Pentagon weapons buyer John Young said in late 2008 (Defense Daily, Nov. 21, 2008). In May 2009, Air Force leaders told Congress that retirement of legacy fighters would be the cost trade-off for the effort (Defense Daily, May 16, 2009).