Air Force may expand, speed up purchase of F-35 fighter jets

While senior Air Force leaders are calling for a “fast” pursuit toward production and delivery of its stated F-35 objectives, there are some voices now raising the question as to whether the rates should be sped up even more -- potentially even increasing the overall numbers for the program.

The discussion is centered around several questions currently under consideration. Can the current pace of construction and delivery be accelerated? Can larger numbers of F-35As be moved forward to address nearer-term demand? What kind of industrial capacity might there be if the Air Force, perhaps with Army input, seeks to increase the overall production numbers of the aircraft above and beyond its stated objective of 1,763?

In 2018, Lockheed Martin delivered 45 Air Force F-35As, a 70-percent increase from 2017. This year, however, the plan is to only go up to 48 - en route to 60 per year in the mid-2020s - some say this is simply not enough.

At issue is a key and concerning question raised by expert F-35 observers -- namely that if the U.S. should find itself in a high-end war against a major adversary such as Russia on the European continent, will it simply not have enough 5th-gen aircraft to meet the threat? The Air Force’s stated budget-related decision not to re-start F-22 production seems to only compound this problem.

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“If the Air Force does not accelerate its buy of F-35s, in the year 2030 half of its fighter fleet will still be non-stealthy planes. That could make victory over a China or Russia hard to achieve,” said Loren Thompson, Chief Operating Officer of the Lexington Institute.

Retired weapons developer Lt. Gen. David Deptula, now serving as the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace studies, is among a handful of voices saying “no,” the U.S. would not be prepared should it stay at its current rate of F-35 production.

Deptula is specifically calling for faster production to get to the desired inventory more rapidly.

“Unfortunately, the Air Force has been consistently under-resourced for over 20 years. As a result, the U.S. Air Force is the oldest, smallest, and least ready in the entire history of its existence,” Deptula said. “We are no longer facing near-peers, but peers given the advancements in the Chinese and Russian military.”

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Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s plan to expand the force to 386 squadrons does call for the addition of 7 fighter squadrons but stops short of specifying which aircraft these should be.

What about the Army?

“When you are in a firefight, the first thing infantry wants to do is get on that radio to adjust fire for mortars and locate targets with close air support with planes or helicopters. You want fires. The F-35 has increased survivability, and it will play a decisive role in the support of ground combat,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters last Fall at the Association of the United States Army Symposium.

It is, of course, assumed that, when it comes to a Combatant Commander’s execution of a “Joint” war plan, F-35s would, of course, be deployed in support of ground forces. This has already happened in Afghanistan, as close air support has been, by design, an intended element of the F-35 engineering plan.

“We fight with the Navy, Marines and Air Force. Our soldiers have never heard an Air Force pilot say ‘I can’t fly into that low-altitude area,’ These guys take incredible risk. If there are troops on the ground, they are rolling in hot,” Milley said.

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Upon initial examination, some might regard a stealthy, 5th-gen F-35 as not ideally suited for close air support or certain kinds of high-intensity air-ground missions. However, long-range, computer-enabled F-35 sensors might allow the aircraft to see and destroy enemy ground targets with precision from much higher altitudes and much farther ranges than existing aircraft can; the speed of an F-35 could potentially make it better able to maneuver, elude enemy fire and get into position for attack.

Like the A-10s 30mm gun, the F-35A has its own 25mm cannon mounted on its left wing which could attack ground forces. Given its sensor configuration, with things like a 360-degree Distributed Aperture System with cameras, the F-35 brings a drone-like ISR component to air-ground war. This could help targeting, terrain analysis and much-needed precision attacks as U.S. soldiers fight up-close with maneuvering enemy ground forces.

An F-35 might also be positioned to respond quickly to enemy force movement; in the event that enemy air threats emerge in a firefight, an F-35 could potentially address them in a way an A-10 could not; an F-35 would be much better positioned to locate enemy long-range-fires points of combat significance and destroy hostile artillery, mortar or long-range-fires launching points.

Edward Stevie Smith, F-35 Domestic Development Director, Lockheed - put it this way: “We are still learning new ways to deploy this airplane.”

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There are, however, some unknowns likely to be informing various elements of the F-35’s continued combat performance. How much small arms fire could an F-35 withstand? How low to the ground could it successfully operate? Could an F-35B draw upon its “hovering” technology to loiter near high-value target areas? To what extent could it keep flying in the event that major components, such as engines or fuselage components, were destroyed in war?

Interestingly, some developers, who may not want to specifically address the ability of an F-35 to survive small arms fire for security reasons, do point out that the aircraft “may not ever have to” be in a position to withstand those kinds of attacks. The aircraft is intended to offer precise, maneuverable close air support from much greater stand-off ranges than current air platforms, given its sensor suite. However, the F-35 is not yet combat-tested in this arena, so verification may be forthcoming should it be called upon for future attacks. This being said, there is certainly no evidence or indication that the aircraft would not be able to operate in the most high threat areas - to include incoming small arms fire.

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While Lockheed makes a point to not speak about Air Force objectives or intentions when it comes to F-35 production, they do say that -- if called upon -- they do have the industrial bandwidth to make a substantial increase in pace and numbers.

-- Kris Osborn is a Senior Fellow at The Lexington Institute

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