Podcast: A Target On Tactical Aircraft

Aviation Week editors make sense of recommended reductions to the number of F-35 and F-15EX fighters the U.S. Air Force plan to buy in the coming years.

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Rush Transcript

Jen DiMascio:

Hi, and welcome to the Check 6 Podcast, aptly named today because the US Air Force and its future budgets seems to be gunning for both the Boeing F-15 EX and the Lockheed Martin F-35 to make way for development of future fighters that are going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

         I'm Jen DiMascio, the Executive Editor of Defense and Space. I'm here with Defense Editor, Steve Trimble, and Pentagon Editor, Brian Everstine, both of whom have been following this unfolding of the air force's 2023 and beyond budget plans.

         Steve, maybe you can set the stage. Why is this happening? Why is there so much fluctuation going on?

Steve Trimble:

Yeah, sure, happy to. I used to joke that the fighter beat was like the most boring beat in the defense coverage area. Just because really since 2009 when the decision was made to stop F-22 production, from an US Air Force structure perspective anyway, anytime there was a question asked the answer was basically the F-35. No matter what the question was, at least within the future years defense program and that six year long range spending plan.

         So all that's really changed since 2019. And that's when the number of options widened significantly all of a sudden. And then each year now we've seen fluctuations in that plan. Where the overall top line spending doesn't go up that much or pretty much stays about the same. And so then they keep changing what they want to do within that top line, as they shoehorn in something like F-15EX, which for two decades the air force said, we're not going to buy another stealthy aircraft. In 2019, they said, we got to have this non stealthy aircraft that has a lot of other capabilities to replace our F-15CDs.

         As F-15EX is put into the budget, then there is some degradation of F-35 that was supposed to go up to 60 aircraft per year. It stayed at 48, but we saw two years of 12 aircraft per year being inserted into the DOD budget for the F-15EX. So they offset each other.

         Now, F-15EX and this fiscal year 23 request is going up to 24 aircraft from 12. And as a result, we see F-35 come down. In 2023, they're going down from 48 to 33. And then from 33 to 29 in the fiscal 2024 plan. And then it goes back up again after they complete F-15EX.

         So there's all this rebalancing going on. With Next Generation Air Dominance coming into a much sharper focus. And we're going to talk more about that as well as these other things. But from what used to be a pretty static, pretty one dimensional force structure discussion on TAC air for the US Air Force in particular, it's become this multidimensional thing with a lot of different levers to pull. And that's what we're seeing play out as different administrations and different leaderships pull on those levers differently. And that's exactly what's going on.

Jen DiMascio:

One of the most interesting developments this week was discussion of the Next Generation Air Dominance. Brian, what did you hear from Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall on that front?

Brian Everstine:

Yes. Earlier this week, Secretary Kendall in testimony at the House Arm Services Committee shed a little bit of light on what we can expect the cost per copy of NGAD to be. Saying that it'll cost on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars each as it comes into service in what he expects to be the 2030 timeframe. We've seen in the services budget request this year, that they're calling for about 1.6 billion for RDT&E. And that's going to be steady for another year or two before 2025 when you see quite a jump to over three billion per year.

Jen DiMascio:

Thanks. Now that seems like a lot for a fighter. Is it more in line, Steve, with what we see for bombers?

Steve Trimble:

A bit. But it is not unexpected. As Brian mentioned, congressional budget office in 2018 basically put out something that was very similar to this hundreds of millions of dollars number.

         And when you think about the performance that's going to be necessary for a next generation aircraft that is optimized for a Pacific theater scenario versus a European theater scenario, which really the F-35 and F-22 are, that takes you to a totally different aircraft, a much larger aircraft. Something that's going to have range that would be probably much similar to something like an F-111 versus an F-35, so 1500 nautical miles.

         And when you start doing the math on that, how much fuel you need, you need a big aircraft. And not only does the aircraft need to be big, it needs to be just super capable in order to survive in this anti-air, denied access type scenario. Think in aircraft that can operate above 70,000 feet. That is supersonic, maybe Mach two and above at least. That is perhaps daylight stealth, as well as nighttime stealth in the sense that it's obviously stealthy to radar, but also visually that you're not able to see it.

         This all points to very exotic, exquisite perhaps, technologies that cost a lot of money. And so, I guess, it's not so much a surprise, but when you start talking about that and they start talking about fielding that in 2030s, that implies low rate production coming in in the 2030s. Unless there's this huge increase in the TAC air top line in that timeframe, that's going to put a lot of pressure on what else is in the TAC air budget at that time.

         So if F-35A, for example, is still in the TACAIR procurement budget in the 2030s, it's going to have to figure out how to share that with this much more expensive aircraft that's going to be soaking up a lot of the procurement dollars. So, that's something to be thinking about just long term about implications in terms of production hardware that the Next Generation Air Dominance program implies. It is expensive, but that's the kind of scenario that we're getting into is a very expensive scenario.

Brian Everstine:

And going along with this, another big development we've had over the past couple months is the Air Force, especially Secretary Kendall, are looking at the uncrewed family of systems to come along with the NGAD. Now calling it the collaborative combat aircraft. And the services expecting that to cost on order about a half of the NGAD. So you are adding a $300 million NGAD, you're going to have £150 million drone to accompany it, to carry along sensors, weapons, et cetera.

         During the hearing this week, Chief of Staff General Brown said that now that's driving a discussion of what their future fighter squadron could look like. If you break down a squadron, how many aircraft are going to be manned? How many are going to be the uncrewed loyal wing man to go along with the NGAD.

Jen DiMascio:

The reason that it seems like a real cold glass of water in the face is because $150 million a copy aircraft is not cheap either. And I guess I was primed for this low-cost attritable aircraft.

Steve Trimble:

Yeah. So we spent a few years covering the low-cost attritable aircraft technology program, which begat new platforms like XQ58 and now that's migrated into a new platform by Kratos called the Demogorgon. And General Atomics Aeronautical Systems is developing a rival aircraft called Gambit. All in this $8 million range, which was expected to fit this definition of attritable as a low-cost system that could be reusable or could be lost without too much financial hardship on the service or the DOD in the course of a campaign.

         The question that's always hovered over that program is exactly what those aircraft are going to be capable of doing. And they will be easier to lose, but will they be able to actually do things that are useful even for the minor costs that they have.

         And there's still a path for that kind of technology in the force structure, as well as even simpler systems, like what Skunk Works is working on with Speed Racer or the Dynetics Kratos Gremlins type concept, which are even smaller and less expensive, and could also be used in the swarming mass cloud of UAVs.

         But there's also this concept, and this goes back 15-20 years when we were talking about J-UCAS and the future of these very exquisite Flying Wings stealth autonomous aircraft, that went away. With the global war on terror, everything was all about Reapers and Predators, even Global Hawks, basically aircraft that really can't operate in certain kinds of defended aerospace. Although the Bayraktar TB2's performance in Ukraine starts raising questions about exactly how survivable these things aren't. I mean, they actually turn out to be okay perhaps.

         But at the same time, it does look like the air force is looking back at these older concepts of much more expensive, much more capable at the same time aircraft that can fly alongside Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft or a B-21 bomber and have the same range, have the same weapons capacity. And it can be true wing men in that sense. And do some of the more dangerous things and expose themselves in more vulnerable ways than you would ever want to do with a manned aircraft. In that sense they're still attritable arguably in the sense that you're willing to lose them where you wouldn't want to expose a pilot to that same level of danger, but financially you'd rather not is the answer.

Jen DiMascio:

The air force is making another run at retiring legacy fighters in part to help afford all of this. Brian, where does that stand? What did you hear from lawmakers this week? Does the air force have a prayer in that endeavor?

Brian Everstine:

There has been some progress, but I've been joking, budget season on the Capitol Hill is groundhog day when you get the same A-10 questions. The service wants to fully retire its A-10s. Congressman with A-10s in their district push back on it. But we'll see them chipping away at it.

         They're calling for 21 now in this coming year. And the entire fleet to be cut by I believe 2026 or so. And there's a little bit more of a push and understanding of that on Capitol Hill.

         But some of the other shockers that we had heard, that Congress had a lot of questions, was the F-15 plans, the F-15EX. Which we see the jump in initial buys, but the overall program cutting back down to about 80. There's been a lot of questions about that and what it means for the future of the F-15 fleet.

Steve Trimble:

Well, let me add to that because, I mean, I have a lot of questions about why we're doing this in the first place then. Because I remember in 2019, when the F-15EX was inserted in the budget, the whole point was to replace the F15CDs that they said were facing a structural crisis and had to be replaced immediately. And it would be a lot more straightforward to replace those aircraft with F-15EXs, since they were already being ... it's the same airframe, the crews and the maintainers understand how to use the airplane. The transition process is much more straightforward and cheaper than it would be to go to an F-35 type aircraft.

         And now they're only buying three squadrons of F-15EX, three squadrons of 24 aircraft each, that gets you to 72, plus another eight test aircraft. That's 80 aircraft. That replaces a squadron of F-15s as a formal trainee unit at Kingsley Field in Oregon. Adds another squadron at the Portland Air National Guard Base, those have already been selected and announced. And a third at Kadena Air Base where they actually have two F-15C squadrons today. They're going down to one F-15EX squadron. Who knows what's going to happen to their F-15CDs.

         But other than that, the F-15CDs with the Air National Guard in New Orleans and at Barnes and Fresno, there's no replacement plan for them right now. And with F-35As going down, not going up, that's certainly not going to pick up the slack.

         So if the air force was being honest with us a few years ago, and was honest that these F-15CDs aren't going to make it until Next Generation Air Dominance comes, there's going to be a big hole in the force structure by the end of this decade, without either F-15EXs or something else falling out of the sky to replace those aircraft.

         And it makes you scratch your head a little bit about that part of the plan. And that's probably where Congress is going to have most of their questions and perhaps interventions perhaps. We'll see though.

Brian Everstine:

The question did come up a little bit, and Service Official Lieutenant General Nahom said that the service will be forced to keep its Strike Eagles, F-15Es around longer than expected, but that doesn't address the shortfall. He was just talking about the Cs and Ds. We've seen some units, like for example Barnes you mentioned, they're lobbying for F-35s to move on from their F-15Cs, but that's still just a small chunk of what the gap will be.

Steve Trimble:

As you say that Brian, I do think that there is one thing we could see is the F-15E with EPAWSS and with the APG82 radar plus whatever future missiles are coming down the line take over that F-15CD mission in some of those Air National Guard bases. I know of no other way for them to do this. The F-15E isn't completely optimal for that kind of mission. It's not an air superiority fighter, it's a little heavier than what you would get with an F-15CD. But with all those tricks and tools, it could certainly do the job to a certain extent.

Jen DiMascio:

That's really interesting, Steve. One thing we've breezed over here is the discussion of F35s. We did mention that those are going to be cut back from what had been planned. But Brian, maybe you could hit that a little harder on what's been transpiring with the joint strike fighter this week.

Brian Everstine:

Well, it'll be hit back in the near term is what the air force has been saying. They're so committed to the end by 1763. We'll see it further in the out years, because the big question mark is how Block Four, TAC refresh three will come out. Now it's being pushed back to the 2029 and beyond timeframe, costs are going up. The GAO had a huge report out about this. And the service is just waiting to ramp up its buy until that's ready. Steve, I know you covered that well this week.

Steve Trimble:

Yes, yes. In fact, yeah, there's a lot to unpack there as well. As we were mentioning earlier, the F-35A buys are going down for the next two years, and then they pop back up again after the F-15EX is bought out, basically after 2024. They don't go quite up to the 48 aircraft per year threshold, which they were at, which is still inadequate for their force structure plans. But they go back up to somewhere between 43 and 46 or 47 I think over the next '25 to 2027.

         But part of that is because there is this issue with TR3, it was supposed to be ready to insert into lot 15 aircraft supposed to be hitting the assembly line in January of 2023. Now Lockheed has gotten a little bit behind schedule. So the lot 23 aircraft are probably not going to enter the assembly flow until a little bit later that year.

         But they did say at the hearing yesterday that the TR3 hardware, and that brings in this really super new, huge, not huge in terms of size, but huge in terms of computing power, a new integrated core processor with something like 40 gigaflops of instructions per second. I mean, it's a big deal for the fighter community to get a computer of this size. But now they're saying that that's going to be ready to be inserted by the mid 2023 timeframe. So probably a little bit late, they'll probably have to do some more TR2 or technical refresh two kits back from the Block Three standard for the first 20 or 30, maybe lot 15 aircraft if the see no further delays.

         But then the Block Four, as Brian was mentioning, the software and some of the next system upgrades that are coming with Block Four, which are the biggest ones, the big EW upgrades, expanding the bands of the receivers for the EW system and the power and the capabilities of the ability to jam any signals that they see, cognitive EW type stuff, I mean, really advanced stuff. But they've really been struggling to keep the software on time and keep the hardware on time.

         So, another reason why we're seeing this dip in F-35 procurement in addition to what's going on with the F-15EX, is that the air force wants to hedge its bets a little bit to see where TR3 and Block Four goes. And not ramp up those deliveries quite as much until that hardware is available for it. So all that is coming into it.

         And the other part of F-35 that is just also mind boggling. A year ago, if you asked the air force what do you think about re-engine-ing the F-35? Do you think that's a good idea? Every single time you asked that question, the air force said, no, that's a terrible idea. Why would we do that? And believe me, Congress was asking that question. Some of the manufacturers were asking that question. And the answer was always consistently, no, we're not going to do it.

         And that changed. Frank Kendall became Secretary of the Air Force in August, by September he was saying, I think we should get a new engine for the F-35. We've got the adaptive cycle engine sitting on the shelf right now. That's GE's XA100 and Pratt & Whitney's XA100. This would give us a 20%/25% increase in fuel efficiency. It would give us 10% increase in thrust, probably double or more the cooling capacity for the part of the engine that actually cools off the electronics on the jet. That's one of the biggest issues with the F-35 at the moment with the current engine. Just doesn't have enough cooling capacity to the point where as you introduce that super computer essentially in the Block Four, TR3 standard, you're tripling the amount of cooling capacity for a system that's already overwhelmed.

         So Pratt & Whitney says they want to upgrade that engine, the existing engine, and that's the best way to do it. They do also have this adaptive engine, and GE has that as well. And GE's been championing adaptive cycle engines really since the 1980s. So that's a big thing for them.

         And now we're just going to see. The decision hasn't been made. But clearly it's something that Frank Kendall wants to do. I'm not sure how Congress feels about that. There's definitely some people who are for and other lawmakers against it. And we'll just see how it all fits in.

         But I mean, that's another huge cost to come in. And to qualify a new engine, there'll be several billion dollars. Now you got to split your depot network between two different engines. You're going to have some F-35s with this new adaptive cycle engine, that will have significantly better performance than other F-35s. You'll have F-35s in the same squadron with some that just couldn't keep up with the other ones or go as far. Which is going to be interesting to manage even on an operational level. So, we'll see where this goes. But it's going to be a very interesting thing for a long time, this discussion, because it won't be settled the next year or two.

Brian Everstine:

Kendall did say at the hearing this week, it would cost about six billion to get ATP in through development and into production. Still saying, it'd be a few years away. But there's some seed money in the budget that's starting that development.

Jen DiMascio:

So seed money, but not full to take it into production?

Brian Everstine:

No, that's still pretty far off.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, we're running up to the end of our time here. But I just wanted to check in on the Navy, what's going on with the Navy's fighters?

Brian Everstine:

Well, there was a separate TAC air hearing earlier this week where Congress was going back to the discussion on where Super Hornets fit into the Navy, where the strike fighter shortfall is. And some new numbers that we saw was the Navy had said that they expect to be short about 13 strike fighters in 2025. And they're looking for some legislative relief on their strike fighter shortfall. Congress has called for them to have 10 carrier air wings by 2025. But they're looking for some legislative relief to bring that down to nine. And the reasoning there is that the Navy sees that there are very few times that they can have even nine carriers available. So from their perspective, they don't even need to have all 10 carrier air wings if they can't have those carriers out.

Steve Trimble:

And I'd also add to that, I mean, what the air force is doing right now is something that the Navy is going to be doing over the next few years and really jumbling, not jumbling, but shuffling, juggling what kinds of aircraft they're going to get and how many. Just because you've got force design by the Marine Corps that is biasing their fleet away from the STOVL version, the B, to more of the Blue-Water F-35C carrier base, the Marine Corps is buying both of those. But it looks like with force design, they'll have to adjust their planned procurement levels.

         Meanwhile, I mean, the Navy says that they have a goal to have 12 aircraft carriers. Of course that's not funded. But if they had 12 aircraft carriers, they only have nine carrier air wings. And they can barely keep those going. So, if they were ever to actually get the amount of carriers that they say they want, I mean, they'd have to buy hundreds more aircraft in order to fill out those carrier air wings, plus all the fleet readiness squadrons or fleet replacement squadrons, all these support aircraft that would be necessary.

         So yeah, that's a whole other discussion right now that we're not getting a lot of granularity and specificity in what the Navy's really planning to do. I'm not sure they know either. So watch that space and we'll see how that evolves. They also are also going big on Next Generation Air Dominance over the next several years. So that's another dimension to their plan as well.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, thanks to you both. It's been a really interesting discussion and I'll be excited to learn how this all unfolds from here.

         That's all we have time for today. Join us again next week for another episode of Check 6. And until then, why not check out Aviation Week's Window Seat podcast about the pilot shortage US airlines are grappling with. And also our MRO podcast as our Aftermarket Editors report back from MRO America's 2022, where Steve is joining us from that very conference.

         And I have one last request. If you're listening to us from Apple Podcasts and you want to support this one, please leave us a star rating or review. Thanks.


Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen previously managed Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.