During the recent presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Barack Obama stressed in his principle defense position paper the need to preserve our military's "unparalleled air power" and capacity for "power projection at sea." Mr. Obama cited a few of the programs he was inclined to support, such as the C-17 cargo plane and the Littoral Combat Ship, but he was silent on fighter modernization -- the one category of aircraft where air power and sea power intersect.
Perhaps he felt no need to state the obvious: the future of America's fighter fleet is the F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. F-35 was created by the Clinton Administration to provide a low-cost, highly survivable fighter for three of America's military services and at least eight overseas allies. The price-tag for building 3,000 aircraft looks huge -- about $300 billion over 30 years -- but any alternative approach that can meet the diverse needs of so many different users is likely to cost much more. With cold war fighters aging fast, F-35 must be kept on track.
Since F-35 appears to be progressing smoothly, the main question tactical-aircraft planners need to ask themselves today is how to maintain fighter fleets until the new plane becomes available. And there, the Navy has a problem. Its cold-war inventory of F/A-18 Hornets is beginning to experience all the age-related problems you would expect from planes that are catapulted off aircraft carriers on a daily basis and then must use arresting cables to stop when they bounce back onto the deck a few hours later. Twenty years of absorbing such stresses would wear out any plane.
The F-35 is expected to begin replacing Marine Hornets in 2012 and Navy Hornets in 2015, but by the latter year the sea services will be suffering a shortage of over a hundred fighters on carrier decks. And that's the optimistic scenario. If plans to extend the service life of Hornets from 6,000 flight hours to 10,000 hours don't work out, the shortfall will be greater. If F-35 joins the fleet later than expected, or is bought at a slower rate than planned, the shortfall will be greater still. And if all of these problems occur in an environment where there is attrition due to combat, the Navy could be short well over 200 fighters.
The sea services could just cross their fingers and hope nothing much will be demanded of them over the next two decades. But if a major conflict arises, they will be unprepared. So the best option the services seem to have is to buy more of the planes they already operate -- not the Hornet, but the vastly improved Super Hornet, 340 of which have already been built on budget and on schedule. Although legacy Hornets and the newer Super Hornet both share the F/A-18 designation, the latter plane is far more capable. It flies further, carries more ordnance, has some stealth features and is equipped with a state-of-the-art radar.
The cheapest way to buy more Super Hornets is using a multiyear production contract, rather than ordering small batches each year. Under a multiyear contract, the government commits in advance to purchasing aircraft for several years, in return for which it is charged a lower price on each plane. All of the Super Hornets to date have been bought that way, saving taxpayers over a billion dollars. A side benefit is that by committing to a multiyear buy, it becomes economical to introduce improvements into the plane that would be too costly if it were ordered in small lots. With Super Hornets likely to remain in the fleet for 25 years, any upgrades that bolster reliability or maintainability will pay for themselves.