Tactical Aircraft: Air Force Fighter Reports Generally Addressed Congressional Mandates, but Reflected Dated Plans and Guidance, and Limited Analyses
Source: Government Accountability Office
Ref: GAO-11-323R
Issued: Feb. 24, 2011
13 pages in PDF format

The U.S. Air Force expects to invest over $230 billion to operate, maintain, modernize, and recapitalize its tactical air forces during fiscal years 2011 through 2015. This makes up nearly 70 percent of the Department of Defense's (DOD) total expected tactical aircraft investment over that time.

Despite this large investment, the Air Force continues to project that its inventory of fighter and attack aircraft will drop below required levels and that those shortfalls will persist through at least 2030. However, the timing and magnitude of projected shortfalls continue to fluctuate. In April 2008, senior Air Force leaders testified before Congress that they expected the Air Force fighter shortfall to peak at about 800 aircraft in the mid-2020s.

Since that time the Air Force has reduced its overall requirement and adjusted its assumptions about Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) procurement and the viability of legacy aircraft. As a result, the Air Force now expects its shortfall to peak at about 200 aircraft.

Still, this poses a challenge as the Air Force must effectively balance its investments between the JSF program and efforts to keep legacy aircraft viable for longer periods than originally planned.

In 2009, Congress directed the Air Force to provide three reports addressing the service's fighter force structure plans in light of its projected fighter aircraft shortfall.

The Air Force concluded that: (1) It could reduce its total fighter and attack aircraft inventory by about 250 aircraft and still effectively perform its missions with slightly increased risk; (2) Effective management of the JSF program coupled with investments in modernizing and upgrading legacy F-16 aircraft would mitigate the projected shortfall; (3) Procuring 4.5 generation aircraft to mitigate the projected shortfall would not support the Air Force's overall fleet modernization plans for an all-stealth future fighter force and therefore is not supported; (4) Extending the service life and upgrading current fighters would be 10 to 15 percent of the cost of procuring new upgraded legacy aircraft and provide essentially the same capability; and (5) The Air Force would still be able to perform its homeland defense mission.

GAO found that the robustness of the analyses done to support the conclusions in the reports was limited by JSF program instability and the absence of F-16 durability and fleet viability data.

The Air Force's conclusions were also dependent on assumptions about JSF program performance and the feasibility of extending the life of legacy F-16s beyond 8,000 hours, but key data were either in flux or were not available when the reports were prepared.

Since then, JSF costs significantly increased and its schedule slipped; important data regarding the feasibility and cost of extending the F-16's service life are still not available.

In other words, the US Air Force has no idea whether its tactical aircraft plans are realistic or feasible, but is nonetheless optimistic things will work out and will happily spend $230 billion on this premise.

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