Aircraft Recapitalization of the Air Force, Reserve and National Guard

February 21, 2024

Dear Chairman Reed and Ranking Member Wicker: 

The demands of the nation’s combatant commanders for Air Force aircraft currently exceed the availability of those aircraft. It is therefore imperative to solve the capacity crisis facing the Air Force by reducing and eventually reversing the decline in the Air Force’s available combat aircraft inventory. Maximizing the procurement of F-35’s and F-15EXs is key to accomplishing this objective.  

Under current Air Force plans, the service intends to retire over 600 tactical aircraft over the next five years, while only acquiring 246. That is a reduction in the size of the force by almost 350 aircraft. Simultaneously, it has been reported that President Xi of China has directed his military to be able to conduct a successful invasion of Taiwan by 2027.  A threat CIA Director William Burns has publicly warned should not be underestimated. Accordingly, though development delays continue, it is in the United States best interest to acquire as many aircraft as possible to deter this strategic threat.  That includes the only stealth fighter in production: the F-35. Therefore, the Air and Space Forces Association (“AFA”) respectfully requests that the defense committees maximize the number of F-35As and increase the number of F-15EXs to be procured in the FY’25 NDAA.  

The F-35 offers our warfighters extraordinary capabilities. These capabilities are only set to expand as the “F-35 is on the cusp of fielding an extensive array of upgrades via [Technology Refresh 3] TR-3 and Block 4 [upgrades] that range from improved sensors and enhanced electronic attack systems to the added ability to carry a boarder weapons portfolio and connect with more actors across the battlespace.” True, TR-3 is experiencing unexpected delays.  However, the Mitchell Institute reports “the final phases of testing, the program is on the verge of crossing a major threshold into the operational realm.”  

It should also be noted aircraft purchased in the FY’2025 National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”) will be built in two years’ time. Since the manufacturer of the F-35 believes the issues surrounding TR-3 will be resolved by the fall of 2024, reducing the number of aircraft acquired in the FY’25 NDAA will not influence the resolution of the TR-3 issue. Rather, a reduction will only increase the size of the number of aircraft being retired versus purchased just as the Chinese continue with their robust aircraft production. In fact, maximizing the number of F-35s acquired in the FY’25 NDAA is the most effective mechanism to achieve adding the greatest amount of airpower capabilities in the shortest period of time.  

Relying on the previous solution of extending the life of existing fighters is no longer viable. As the Mitchell Institute recently stated: “[f]alling back upon fighters bought in the Cold War is no longer viable because most of those aircraft will not extend into the next decade: they are not viable from a threat perspective, relevant from a mission execution perspective, or structurally sound given the decades of hard use.” In addition, the Mitchell Institute argues: 

“[i]t is important to highlight that 4th generation aircraft… will lack survival attributes necessary to send them into zones of the highest, densest threats. While advanced electronic warfare systems will help them better survive many lower and mid-tier threats, the most challenging environments the U.S. will face in a competition with China demand a combination of stealth, high situational awareness, and electronic warfare to stay alive.”   

With only one fifth generation fighter in production, that leaves as Air Force Chief of Staff CQ Brown has stated, the F-35 as the “cornerstone of the fleet.” However, certain operational advantages can be gained by also continuing the production of the F-15EX.

The F-35s maintenance and sustainment costs, as calculated as cost per flight hour, remains an issue of legitimate concern. However, the Mitchell Institute points out that the “F-35s ‘cost-per-tail-per-year’ declining 37 percent from 2015 to 2021 and officials are aiming to net an additional 25 percent reduction by 2026.” 

Finally, as many of the aircraft slated to be retired in the coming years are from the Guard and Reserve fleets, special emphasis should be placed on directing new F-35As and F-15EXs to Guard and Reserve units.    

However, the Mitchell Institute argues that the fundamental corrective action to ensure sufficient numbers of aircraft is to purchase TR-3 and Block 4 aircraft because only these aircraft “can accept the rolling set of capability upgrades [provided by TR-3 and Block 4 aircraft] in a minimally invasive fashion.” “…Even with the most recent delays factored in the program now stands at a point where any dollar budgeted, authorized, appropriated, and obligated for an F-35 will secure a TR-3 and Block 4.”

Therefore, the AFA respectfully requests that the defense committees maximize the number of F-35As and increase the number of F-15EXs to be procured in the FY’25 NDAA.


Bernie Skoch, Brig Gen, USAF (Ret.)

Chair of the Board

Bruce A. Wright

Bruce “Orville” Wright, Lt Gen, USAF (Ret.)

President & CEO