23 mars 2020 | International, Aérospatial

As USAF Fleet Plans Evolve, Can The F-35A Program Survive Intact?

Steve Trimble

Original estimates for costs, schedules and quantities of the Lockheed Martin F-35 upon contract award in October 2001 proved highly unreliable over the fighter program's nearly two-decade life span, but one critical number did not: 1,763.

That four-digit figure represents program of record quantity for the U.S. Air Force—the F-35's largest customer by far—accounting for more than half of all projected orders by U.S. and international customers. The Navy and Marine Corps, the second- and third-largest buyers of the combat aircraft, respectively, downsized their planned F-35 fleet by 400 aircraft in 2004. But the Air Force's quantity never budged.

Although the Air Force's official number remains unchanged, the F-35A is facing a new credibility test after a series of public statements made by Gen. Mike Holmes, the head of Air Combat Command (ACC).

  • Air Force will consider UAS to replace some F-16s
  • ACC sets 60% goal for fifth-gen mix in fighter fleet

In late February, Holmes suggested that low-cost and attritable unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) might be considered by ACC as a replacement for F-16 Block 25/30 jets (also known as “pre-block F-16s”) within 5-8 years. In congressional testimony on March 12, Holmes added that ACC's goal is to achieve a fighter fleet ratio of 60% fifth-generation jets, such as F-35As and F-22s, to 40% fourth-generation aircraft, including F-15s, F-16s and A-10s. He also said a recent analysis by the Office of the Secretary of Defense recommends an even split between fourth- and fifth-generation fighters.

Barring a significant increase in the Air Force's authorized force structure, both statements appear to jeopardize the mathematical possibility for the F-35A to achieve the full program of record.

As fleet acquisition plans stand today, the F-35A program of record appears sound. Lockheed has delivered at least 224 F-35As to the Air Force so far. The public program of record calls for the F-35A to replace A-10s and F-16s, which currently number 281 and 1,037, respectively, according to Aviation Week and Air Force databases. In 2010, Lockheed and F-35 Joint Program Office officials also confirmed that the F-35 would replace the F-15E fleet after 2035, which currently numbers 228 aircraft. Adding the number of F-35As already delivered, the Air Force has a replacement population of 1,770 aircraft.

But Holmes' statements could significantly alter the equation. The service's latest budget justification documents show about 325 of the 1,037 F-16s now in the Air Force fleet form the “pre-block” fleet that could be retired by attritable UAS instead of F-35As.

Holmes' goal of a fighter fleet with a 60% share of fifth-generation jets also complicates the forecast for the F-35A. Including the F-22 fleet's 186 aircraft, as well as 234 F-15C/Ds, the Air Force today operates a total fleet of 2,190 fighters. A 60% share of the fleet results in 1,314 total fifth-generation aircraft. After subtracting the numbers of F-22s, the Air Force would have room for only 1,128 F-35As, which implies a 34% reduction from the program of record of 1,763.

The head of the Air Force's F-35 Integration Office acknowledges the numerical disparity implied by Holmes' statements, but he stands by the F-35 original program of record.

“The program of record for this aircraft is really long,” Brig. Gen. David Abba said on March 9, referring to the Air Force's plans to continue F-35A production into the mid-2040s. “I understand that's a natural question to ask, but I don't think anybody's ready to make that sort of a declaration.”

Altering the program of record would not change the steady, downward trajectory of the F-35A's recurring unit costs. Last year, Lockheed agreed to a priced option for Lot 14 deliveries in fiscal 2022, which falls to $77.9 million. But changing the overall procurement quantity does have an impact on the program acquisition unit cost (PAUC), which calculates the average cost per aircraft, including recurring and nonrecurring costs. In the program of record, the PAUC estimate is currently $116 million each for all three versions of the F-35.

Noting the forecast length of the F-35 production program, Abba recommends taking a long-term view.

“I would focus less on the program of record element,” Abba said, and more on the Air Force's plans “to keep options open.”


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