Trump’s F-35 tweet hits Air Force’s aging fighter fleet
By TARA COPP | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 13, 2016
WASHINGTON — When President-elect Donald Trump attacked the F-35 fighter jet this weekend over the plane’s high costs, it added another element of uncertainty to the Air Force’s plan to reconstitute a fleet that has aged faster than expected after 15 years of war.
“We’re really in a pickle right now,” said Lt. Gen. John Cooper, who oversees the Air Force’s aircraft maintenance and logistics needs. “The F-16 is 26 years old… No one would think we would be flying … F-16s at 26 years,” Cooper said. It’s even “longer for the F-15C, about the same for the F-15E.”
The Air Force has 1,971 fighter jets in its inventory, according to the Pentagon’s annual aviation inventory report released in March. According to the Air Force, 1,225 of those fighters are F-15s and F-16s.
Air Force leadership is counting on the F-35 to replace the aging F-15s and F-16s.
“The F-35 will be the core of our fighter force,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a Washington, D.C. conference in August. The service plans to buy 1,763 of the 2,457 F-35s that the Pentagon plans to acquire.
The F-15 and F-16 have been on constant rotations to the Middle East for decades, starting in the 1990s for Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch, which monitored Iraq after the first Gulf War. Then Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom increased demand on the Air Force’s fighter jets. When those operations ended their combat phases, the service “planned on coming home,” Cooper said.
“But things like [the Islamic State group] popped up, Russia resurgence, China resurgence,” he said. As a result, “we’re as deployed now as the height of the Iraq conflict.”
The heavy use on both aircraft have caused structural issues in the F-15s canopies and in both jets’ wings.
“It’s showing itself in the metal,” Cooper said.
Over time, metal cracks on the jets’ canopies that enclose pilots in the cockpit and have required replacement. More so, structural problems in the wings have required the Air Force to replace hundreds of sets of fighter jet wings, he said.
“The F-16, its service life was 8,000 hours,” Cooper said. “We’re now flying it to 12,000 (hours) and we’re looking to go to 16,000 (hours.)”
But extended use of the older jets also can be attributed to the F-35 program being plagued with delays in development and subsequent cost overruns.
Over the weekend, Trump told Fox News Sunday, and reiterated in a tweet Monday, that “the F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th,” when he takes office. The plane’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, lost $4 billion in its stock value Monday.
A restructuring of the F-35 purchase could add to the numerous other setbacks the program already faces.
In August, the Air Force announced its variant of the F-35 had reached initial combat capability. But the aircraft has not been deployed to combat. A month after the Air Force made the announcement, an internal Pentagon test and evaluation memo leaked to the media showed that despite the declaration, the department knew the aircraft still had numerous technical issues and that it was “not suitable ... for currently fielded threats.”
Dan Grazier, a senior defense fellow at the Project for Government Oversight, an independent nonprofit government watchdog group, said Trump’s scrutiny could destabilize the F-35 program, but he welcomed the renewed review.
“I’m sure any kind of renegotiation would create some uncertainty in the program,” Grazier said Tuesday. “[But] I absolutely believe the F-35 program should be reviewed by fresh eyes. Renegotiating the program may be what it takes to recover something useful from all the money and time sunk into it so far.”
Instead of buying the F-35s, Grazier said the Air Force could purchase additional F-15s, which are still in production through 2019.
The F-35 has been developed in Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps variants, for conventional runways, aircraft carrier-based takeoffs and vertical lift takeoffs. Based on current plans, the Pentagon will spend an estimated $400 billion to purchase all 2,457 aircraft, according to the Government Accountability Office, a government watchdog agency. Through 2016, the Defense Department has spent $56 billion fielding the first 285 aircraft, the agency found. Those costs don’t include another $1 trillion that the GAO estimates the Pentagon will need for the lifetime operations and maintenance of that fleet.
The Pentagon estimates it will be able to procure all of the replacement F-35s by 2038.
That means for many of the F-15s and F-16s in the Air Force’s fleet, “We’ll keep them another 15 years,” Cooper said. “We’re talking 40-year-old airplanes, as we grow the F-35 and others over time. We have a plan to get there, but we’ll be flying this legacy fleet for a long time.”
Staff Sgt. Erin Diaz and Senior Airmen Dakota Tabler and Logan Helle, 455th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron engine technicians, conduct an augmentor operations check on an F-16 Fighting Falcon Dec. 4, 2016 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The operations check was conducted after installing a new engine component.
KATHERINE SPESSA/U.S. AIR FORCE