July 26, 2019

The Case for Fifth-Generation and NGAD Airpower

BY LT. GEN. DAVID A. DEPTULA, MAJ. GEN. LAWRENCE A. STUTZREIM, AND HEATHER PENNEY

The United States Air Force today is operating a fighter aircraft inventory on the brink of disaster. Most of the service’s air superiority jets were designed at the conclusion of the Vietnam War, produced in the 1980s, and are ill-suited to meet future threats. Making the situation worse, aircraft such as the F-15C Eagle will wear out their basic structural integrity in the early- to mid-2020s. An immediate change in defense policy and resourcing is required to restore this critical component of US military capability and capacity, made even more urgent given the objectives of the new National Defense Strategy and real-world security challenges.   

This was not the scenario the Air Force anticipated. The Air Force intended to acquire more than 750 F-22 Raptors to replace its F-15s, and 1,763 F-35 Lightning IIs to replace its F-16 and A-10 fleets. The F-22 and F-35 were designed to complement each other: The F-22 was optimized for air-to-air dominance, providing the cover for the F-35’s multirole air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Both aircraft designs incorporated stealth technology and advanced fifth-generation sensors, computing power, and secure communications tools to collaborate across areas of operation.    

The end of the Cold War decreased the planned buy of F-22s to just 381, well short of the needed replacements for the F-15.  The F-22 program was then prematurely canceled in 2009 at just 186 Raptors—less than half the Air Force’s last stated F-22 requirement—in order to free up funds for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the time, the expectation was that the Air Force would have hundreds more F-35s by now. Instead, the Air Force has had to extend the life of its F-15 fleet well beyond planned service.  

Delayed F-35 production has also meant extending fourth-generation F-16s and A-10 airframes. The average age of the Air Force’s fourth-generation jets now exceeds 25 years. While they remain flyable (albeit with significant structural limitations), they are not survivable in an advanced threat scenario such as a great power competition. 

What was once “tomorrow’s threat” is now today’s reality.