WASHINGTON — The F-16 Fighting Falcon was the backbone of allied air power in Europe for a generation.
Three squadrons on the continent fought over Serbia during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s, repeatedly deployed to the Middle East and Afghanistan during the last two decades, and served as a deterrent to keep Russia from making moves in Eastern Europe.
Today, however, the fourth-generation fighters are aging: The average Fighting Falcon is more than 30 years old, and some started flying in the early 1980s. While the Air Force tries to breathe new life into some F-16s in hopes they’ll keep flying into the 2040s, the general in charge of planning for the service’s future knows a replacement is inevitable.
What makes that equation a problem for Lt. Gen. Richard Moore is that replacement fighters, particularly F-35As, aren’t arriving fast enough.
Top Air Force officials have long said the service should buy at least 72 fighters each year. Moore said funding such procurements would help the service both modernize and lower the average age of the fleet. Today, the average fighter aircraft in the service is about 28 years old.
The original budget request for fiscal 2023 called for nearly $7.2 billion to procure 57 new fighters: 24 F-15EXs and 33 F-35As. The Senate’s version of the annual defense policy bill could add another seven F-35As for the Air Force, which the service said could cost another $921 million.
“That’s a long ways from 72,” Moore said during an August interview with Defense News.
With China and its advanced military as the “pacing threat” the Air Force is readying to face, Moore said, the need to modernize its fighter fleet is urgent.
The Air Force is approaching its 75th anniversary, and for roughly half that time the F-16 has been a stalwart. But, Moore said, the time will come when the service is without it, and the United States must get serious about funding fighter procurements to face that future.
But cutting checks isn’t enough, Andrew Hunter, who oversees Air Force acquisition, explained during a roundtable in Ohio last month, given the service will be unable to modernize properly if Congress doesn’t approve the retirement of older airframes, which would free up airmen and maintenance resources to direct at the new aircraft.
“Money alone does not solve our problem,” Hunter said. “There are key constraints on people and infrastructure as well.”
Planning for the future
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall earlier this year detailed his top priorities, which he dubbed “operational imperatives” for how the service needs to modernize. Moore said his office is building a resource plan that will outline a path toward those priorities.
Putting together that plan is a two-phase process — one that requires projecting what the Air Force needs to look like three decades into the future. In the near term, that means producing the five-year Future Years Defense Program, which informs budget proposals that go before Congress.
Long-range planning takes over from there, beginning in fiscal 2029 and projecting out the next 25 years, to look at the capabilities the Air Force will need in 2054.
The planners then work backward, identifying how long it will take to develop and field capabilities, which allows them to determine a timeline. Moore’s office also determines what resources the service needs to develop those capabilities.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upending the European defense environment and China launching missiles near Taiwan in August after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit, the Air Force is under pressure to determine its future force posture in Europe and the Pacific.
The size of the fighter fleet is a major part of that question.
In Europe, the Air Force plans to have two permanent F-35A squadrons with the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath in England. The Valkyries of the 495th Fighter Squadron received their first fighters last December, and the Reapers of the 493rd Fighter Squadron will follow. Within a few years, the Air Force expects to have 54 F-35 fighters stationed at Lakenheath.
As more F-35As come into the Air Force, Moore said, the aircraft type will increasingly serve as the “cornerstone” of the U.S. fighter fleet in Europe. The variant’s interoperability with other F-35s flown by allies and partners in the region, such as the U.K. and Italy, increases their usefulness, he added.
But the long-term picture of that fleet in Europe is undetermined, Moore said, and will depend on several factors — most significantly, the security conditions in Europe in years to come, and how many new fighters the Air Force can buy.
“The conditions in Europe right now are extraordinary,” Moore said. “How long does it persist? We don’t know. And what does our posture need to be when we get to the point where we make these decisions? We don’t know.”
Moore said the Air Force’s F-16s stationed at three squadrons in Europe — two in Italy and one in Germany — will eventually require replacements, likely F-35s the service is yet to procure.
Asked if that meant a one-for-one replacement of an F-35 squadron for each retiring F-16 squadron, Moore said that will depend in part on local conditions at the time. The Air Force will also likely continue temporarily rotating fighters such as F-35s through Europe to respond to emerging conditions.
Ultimately, the decisions on what to do with those F-16 squadrons and the time frame for making those choices will depend on how fast the Air Force can bring on new fighters.
Heather Penney, a former F-16 pilot and senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, and Heritage Foundation aviation expert John Venable each noted the Air Force in recent years hasn’t met the 72-fighter threshold. And Penney said the Air Force needs to bring on more than 72 to both lower the average age of the fleet and grow it.
Under the Air Force’s FY23 budget proposal, retirements of older F-15s, F-16s and F-22s would more than offset growth in the F-35A and F-15EX fleets, bringing the total number of fighter aircraft from the more than 1,850 it now has in its fleet to about 1,770 next year.
“It isn’t just about stabilizing the fleet,” Penney said. “We need to not only meaningfully decrease the age of the fleet; we need to grow the fleet in terms of total numbers for fighters because we’re looking now at a totally new global security environment where we need to be able to deter and prevail in the Pacific [and] Europe.”
In a report, an advance copy of which was provided to Defense News, the Mitchell Institute blasted what it sees as a chronically underfunded and atrophying Air Force fleet — one that won’t be ready for a fight against China.
The report, by the institute’s David Deptula and Mark Gunzinger, argued that decades of the service having to “do more with less,” amid about 20 years of nonstop war in the Middle East, has worn out the fleet. Simultaneously, the report read, critical modernization needs were put on the back burner for so long that the Air Force’s ability to fight and win a high-end war is now in jeopardy.
The report also found the fighter fleet is less able to fight a war than overall numbers suggest, with hundreds of those aircraft meant for training, testing or other noncombat roles. This means the Air Force has about 1,200 fighters that can fight; and when non-mission-capable aircraft are considered, the number drops below 1,000.
“This is the force that can fly and fight today, a force that is wholly inadequate to simultaneously defeat peer aggression, defend U.S. sovereign airspace from enemy attacks, and deter threats in another theater as required by the National Defense Strategy,” the report stated.
The Mitchell Institute recommends the Air Force dramatically increase its purchases of F-35As to 60-80 per year. The report does not put a price tag on this, but such a move could at least double the $4.5 billion requested to buy 33 F-35As in the FY23 budget.
Old iron, hard choices
The Air Force has long fought with Congress over retiring older airframes. When the service is forced to hold onto planes it wants to retire, such as the A-10 Warthog, airmen must work to maintain those aircraft instead of focusing on newer airframes entering the fleet.
Year after year, divestments emerge as a sticking point between the Air Force and lawmakers. The service’s FY23 budget proposal outlined plans for cutting 150 aircraft in all, including 15 of its E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system planes and 33 Block 20 F-22 fighters now used for training purposes that aren’t combat capable.
The House’s version of the authorization bill would require the Air Force to keep and upgrade those F-22s, and would also block the retirement of five E-3 Sentry AWACS the Air Force wants to send to the so-called boneyard — where the service stores retired military planes should it need to harvest parts.
At last month’s roundtable, Hunter said the inability to shift aircrews and maintenance personnel to next-generation capabilities would hinder the Air Force’s effort to deliver unmanned, autonomous aircraft to accompany its sixth-generation fighter family of systems. This effort is known as Next Generation Air Dominance.
If Congress bars the service’s planned retirements, Hunter said, then Kendall and other top Air Force leaders would have to figure out “what tradeoffs we would make.”
Can drone wingmen broaden reach?
Kendall and other senior leaders are hoping technology could help solve the problem.
In a roundtable with reporters at the Pentagon last month following a trip to the Indo-Pacific region, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said the service views these kinds of autonomous drones — which it now calls collaborative combat aircraft, and which could team up with F-35s — as a way to extend the reach of manned fighters.
This concept could prove particularly helpful in the Pacific region given the long stretch of airspace over water, he said.
“It can be a sensor, it can be a jammer, it can be a shooter, it could bring additional capability,” Brown said. “And you don’t put our aircrew at risk as well. Because you get a lot less land, a lot more water and you get great distances you’ve got to travel, it does provide us a few more options than it would if you were operating in another part of the world.”
Moore said the Air Force is “fairly far forward on the cutting edge of what is possible” for collaborative combat aircraft, which the service wants to be at least somewhat stealthy to survive in a high-threat environment. The aircraft also need the speed and range to keep up with the manned aircraft they’d fight alongside. And they need the autonomous capability to successfully team up with a manned aircraft and operate on their own when necessary.
Kendall’s “goal is not for this to live in the labs for decades,” Moore said. “His goal is to turn it into something that can become warfighting capability as quickly as possible. And we’ll see what the technology supports.”
Nevertheless, the service plans to keep its F-16s flying. Col. Tim Bailey, F-16 program manager for the Air Force, told reporters last month that the service life extension program now underway could keep hundreds of them in the air for 20 more years.
The Air Force is also upgrading F-16s with improved capabilities such as the active electronically scanned array radar and a new electronic warfare suite.
“We need … lots of fighters to cover all the different combatant commander needs,” Bailey said. “And the F-16 has to be relevant in that kind of environment.”
However, Penney said, challenges facing the fighter fleet are emblematic of broader problems across the service caused by decades of delayed modernization.
“The Air Force has deferred meaningful recapitalization [and] modernization for well over 30 years,” Penney said. “Because we’ve been mired in low-intensity, permissive conflict over 20 years, the Department of Defense and Congress really [haven’t] prioritized ensuring that the Air Force is capable of operating in a highly contested environment.
“The Air Force is being put into a position where it’s having to cannibalize its current fleet … to hedge risk in the near- to mid-term. But they’re [creating] even bigger capability gaps because they’re trying to get to the fleet that they should have been allowed to invest in for the last 30 years.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.