The F-35: We Need the Numbers and We Need Them Now

By: Gen. Larry O. Spencer (ret.), AFA

I was director of Air Force budget when F-22 aircraft production was cancelled.  The rationale was, it is better to “leap” to the F-35 because it was cheaper and could be purchased in higher quantities.  That decision made the F-35 the single most important defense program in the nation.  That decision declared the F-35 would be crucial to meeting U.S. objectives in the National Security Strategy.

At the time, it was said the Air Force must have the F-35 in sufficient numbers to enable the world’s greatest Air Force to engage around the world, shaping the security environment and maintaining peace and stability. As an expeditionary aircraft, the F-35 would provide the unique capability to deploy around the globe on very short notice.  Additionally, there was an emphasis on having sufficient numbers to allow a rotational base for peacetime training, and if necessary, fight and win a conflict.

During Thanksgiving dinner, my siblings asked me why the U.S. should purchase this new fifth generation aircraft at the numbers requested.  They reasoned, “why not use the aircraft we already have? Wouldn’t that be cheaper?”   My inquisitive siblings were shocked with my answer.  They did not realize that today, the Air Force has a “geriatric” fighter aircraft fleet.  The aircraft are old, tired and no longer hold an unquestioned advantage over potential adversaries.  They were also surprised when I told them many Air Force aircraft would qualify for an antique license plate in most states.  My siblings perked up when I explained the F-35 helps the U.S. to maintain a clear technology gap over potential adversaries and they really got excited when I explained that the best pilots flying the most technologically advanced aircraft may actually prevent a war by providing a clear and unambiguous deterrent.

The other point we discussed was the F-35 would be employed as a lethal package, including the F-22 and the new B-21.  This combination, that no adversary in their right mind would want to oppose, introduces new capabilities as a sensor-shooter enabling a shift to new 21st century warfare like the combat cloud.  Taken together, this package can act as the centerpiece of an ISR/strike/maneuver complex achieving conventional deterrence and, when necessary, provide overwhelming effects to defeat any adversary.

A recent article written by retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who planned the Desert Storm air campaign and orchestrated air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, said, “The requirement for accelerated investment in the F-35 is alarmingly clear.  No military operation can successfully occur without control of the air.  Anyone doubting this conclusion should review pictures from the ‘highway of death,’ where Saddam Hussein’s retreating forces were annihilated from above as they fled Kuwait in 1991.”

We need these aircraft now and in sufficient numbers to do the job.  The fact is, our adversaries are rapidly closing the technology gap we have enjoyed over the past few decades, not only putting our national interests at risk, but also threatening the lives of our airmen, sailors, soldiers, and Marines in a manner not seen since the early parts of the Korean War.

As president of the Air Force Association, I’m deeply concerned. After 26 years of constant conflict, the Air Force is now operating the oldest aircraft fleet in its history. The Air Force cannot maintain its current dominance of air, space, and cyberspace while operating with outdated technologies and systems that are increasing in cost to operate, while their capability relative to modern aircraft is declining.

There is a viable solution: build a sufficient amount of F-35s to offset this challenge and at an economical rate to rapidly replace our aged-out F-15s, F-16s and A-10s. We cannot accept the risk that comes with the current budget plan that has slashed fifth generation aircraft production.  With the current anemic rates of production, we give up the technological advantage the F-35 brings us with insufficient numbers of aircraft to meet our security challenges.  There is no mulligan here.  There will be no second chances.

Once we cancelled production of the F-22, the F-35 became the only game in town.  However, we now find the F-35 being the target of budgetary gimmicks from slowing down the production rate or buying fewer aircraft with a promise to increase production later.  At this rate, we will retire early production F-35s as we accept later production aircraft in the future.  This is no way to run national defense of the greatest country on earth.  This is the only U.S. fifth generation stealth aircraft in production.  The Chinese and Russians, combined, have multiple fifth generation aircraft in production with more on the drawing board. The F-35 program’s importance is unparalleled by anything else in the defense industry. Our enemies are not waiting.

All U.S. forces rely on air dominance to fulfill their missions and win our wars.  Without enough fifth-generation fighters to control the skies in future battlespace, America’s sons and daughters could pay with their lives.  We must keep faith with them. The F-35 is our best solution.

Gen. Larry O. Spencer (ret.) spent more than 40 years in the Air Force. He is now the president of the Air Force Association.

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