Future U.S. Fighter Force to Include UAVs

Amy Butler abutler@aviationweek.com

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the current Pentagon tactical aircraft force structure "is significantly [in] excess to the requirement," a factor leading to decision to retire 250 of the oldest legacy fighters in its fleet in Fiscal 2010 and halt F-22 production at 187 aircraft.

This force structure plan was proposed by the U.S. Air Force, Gates says. Yet recently, Gen. Norton Schwartz, USAF chief of staff, told reporters as many as 60 more F-22s could be required. That position changed in the course of Gates' recent review of defense programs.

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, says the new tactical aircraft force structure will be a high-medium-low mix of F-22s, F-35s and, perhaps, a surprise to some in the defense industry: the USAF's Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. Both officials made their comments April 7 during a roundtable with trade reporters at the Pentagon.

As part of his alterations in defense spending, Gates announced April 6 that 250 aging USAF fighters would be retired in next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Many of those will be F-16s and A-10s, according to defense and industry sources.

They will be replaced partly with General Atomics Reapers, Cartwright said. "Heretofore, they were not included in the analytic side of the mission space that the F-16, F-15 and F-15E were occupying," he explains. "Given the conflicts we are in and are likely to be in the next couple of years are conflicts in which being on station for a long period of time and not delivering maximum loads every sortie - those platforms do, in fact, give you a qualitative edge."

If so, the continued production of new F-35s - made by Lockheed Martin in Ft. Worth, Texas - and new Reapers will shape the near-term industrial base workload for tactical aircraft, since Gates has sidelined acquisition of a new bomber pending results of a Nuclear Posture Review this year. Boeing's St. Louis facility, which builds the F/A-18E/F, E/A-18G and F-15 families, can expect 31 new Super Hornets bought by the Pentagon if Gates' plan is approved by Congress.

Some in industry take this as a nod for what could be the first year of a forthcoming multiyear acquisition of F-18s for the Navy, which along with the Marines has declared a future fighter gap in force planning.

Buying in quantity - for example with the F-35 or the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship - is part of a strategy to provide stability for the industrial base, Gates and Cartwright say.

Part of what makes the force structure's top-line possible is the force mix of F-22s and F-35s, Cartwright adds.

"They don't do the same thing, but the pairing of the F-35 and the F-22 gives you something significantly better than the pairing of the F-22 and the F/A-18, F-16 or F-15. And so if we can get numbers in one - a niche capability that the F-22 brings - and the F-35ýýýthe modeling tells us that the against the threats that we believe we have today and the threats that we believe will emerge in the future, then that mix - numbers in the F-35 and the qualitative edge in certain areas of the F-22 - that was the mix that came out."

Meanwhile, to shore up the F-35 program, the vice chairman says the Pentagon plans to buy more test assets to allow additional simultaneous testing of air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities and to avoid the possibility that a snag in one area could create a logjam for the test program. He did not say how many additional test assets the F-35 is expected to buy in Fiscal 2010.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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