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Air Force official cautions against increasing F-35 buy rate

February 17, 2017 (Photo Credit: US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — A sharp hike in the number of F-35As purchased in the near term could increase the overall price of the program, a US Air Force official warned Congress on Thursday.

Buying more F-35As over the next few years — while the program is still undergoing its development phase — could lead to higher than predicted retrofit costs in the early 2020s, when the Block 4 follow-on modernization program starts, said Maj. Gen. Jerry Harris, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategic plans, programs and requirements.

“If we were to procure at higher than planned rates” over the next five years, “the Air Force would have to retrofit aircraft already delivered to the fleet with Block 4 hardware and software modifications,” he said in written testimony delivered Thursday to the House Armed Services Committee.

“Once Block 4 delivers” beginning in 2021, “we should examine the option of accelerating the F-35A program above the current procurement rate to meet the 5th generation requirements necessary to balance the Air Force ability to fulfill national security objectives.”  

The Air Force’s current budget plans call for buying an average of 48 F-35As per year from fiscal years 2018 to 2022, Harris notes. The fiscal 2017 request, which projects estimated procurement until 2021, shows the service buying 60 jets in 2021.

That plan could drastically alter under the Trump administration, which has called for an expansion of the service’s fighter force but also at times sharply criticized the joint strike fighter itself.

Top Air Force brass — including Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein and former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James — have been circumspect with regards to a higher F-35 buy rate, stating that the need for additional combat air power will have to be weighed against the service’s other requirements. However, other influential leaders, including outgoing Air Combat Command head Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, have said the service should ramp up to 60 planes a year as quickly as possible.

Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon’s F-35 program executive officer, did not comment specifically on whether a faster procurement could increase program costs.

Rather, Bogdan said Harris’ reluctance to increase the buy rate likely revolves around a planned upgrade of the aircraft’s main computer processors during Block 4 modernization, which the program refers to as Tech Refresh 3, or TR3. That new equipment will enable greater software and weapons integration capability, but increasing F-35A procurement now could complicate the transition from TR2  to TR3.

“By the time we get TR3 in the field, we'll have hundreds of airplanes that are in the TR2 configuration,” Bogdan said. “That means that those airplanes, until they get to TR 3, might not be able to add some of those future capabilities that are needed.”

The Joint Program Office and services are working together on a retrofit plan that will spell out which Air Force and Marine Corps planes should be upgraded to TR3 first to enable operations and training, Bogdan said.   

One idea involves putting together a TR3 hardware kit that would allow maintainers to swap computing gear in the field rather than having to send those assets to the depot, something  Marine Corps aviation chief Lt. Gen. Jon Davis said he would like to avoid.

"How do we best do that?” he said. “What can we do at the local level to make those modifications so I don't have to mail it off someplace?”

The full suite of Block 4 modifications are still yet to be determined, but will include additional weapons and upgraded electronic warfare systems, radars and communications. The program office envisions starting upgrades in 2021 and adding new capabilities every two years.

In his testimony, Harris voiced concern that Congress had already started cutting funding for Block 4. Lawmakers had carved out about 60 percent of requested funds in fiscal 2016 and are on track to extract a similar amount in 2017, he wrote.

"I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that we fully fund Block 4," he stated. "We are at a crucial stage where we must begin the developmental work to ensure we have these capabilities available to meet a 2025 need."
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