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Washington Prepares for a Heated “Fighter Gap” Debate in the Fall

Some Washington observers are saying that without some change in administration policy, there will be separate “fighter gaps” in the U.S. Air Force and the U. S. Navy that will hinder America’s defense and warfighting efforts.

The fighter shortfalls will directly affect the air sovereignty alert mission (the air defense of the United States) and the readiness of Navy carrier strike groups. They’re the result of delays in the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) coupled with the administration’s plan – closely identified with Defense Secretary Robert Gates – to retire some Air Force fighters without replacing them.

Administration critics on Capitol Hill believe a fighter shortfall can be averted only by halting plans to retire “legacy” aircraft or by re-opening production lines for fighters like the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. Service life extension programs (SLEPs) can also mitigate the expected “gap,” lawmakers say, but only if planned fighter retirements are halted.

The Air Force has 2,200 fighters, almost half its inventory of 4,242 during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Administration policy calls for retirement by October 1, 2011 of 259 fighters, including 112 F-15s, 138 F-16s, and nine A-10 Thunderbolt IIs. Officials say none of these aircraft needs to be put out to pasture because of structural or fatigue problems. Most F-16s, for example, are a couple of thousand hours shy of their intended 8,000-hour service life. The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve operate 18 sites for the air sovereignty mission, fully aware that an American fighter pilot could well be called upon to shoot down a hijacked airliner, killing innocents on board, in order to save a larger number of innocents on the ground. This grim prospect, among other possible threats, is what makes the fighter inventory crucial.

An F-15 Eagle from the 12th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base flies next to a Russian Tu-95 Bear Bomber during a Russian exercise that brought the Bear near the west coast of Alaska. The Eagle took off as part of North American Aerospace Defense Command’s reaction to this training opportunity provided by the Russian 137th Air Army. Russian flights that intrude on European and North American airspace have increased over the last two years. U.S. Air Force photo.

The Navy has 1,180 fighters but is supposed to have 1,240, an existing shortfall of 60 aircraft that is likely to increase in the period ahead. The Navy maintains eleven aircraft carriers and ten carrier air wings. The fighter force consists entirely of “legacy” F/A-18C/D Hornets and newer F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, with a “requirement of record” for 515 of the latter, which is still in production. By 2012, many Hornets will begin to reach the end of their service lives. The shortage is expected to peak in 2017 to approximately 177 aircraft without mitigation efforts, according to Rear Adm. Michael C. Manazir, acting Director of Air Warfare in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

Gates isn’t buying “fighter gap” talk. “Before making claims of requirements not being met or alleged gaps – in ships, tactical fighters, personnel or anything else – we need to evaluate the criteria upon which the requirements are based in the wider, real-world context,” Gates said in a May 8 speech.

Taking a different view, Reps. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz) and Frank A. LoBiondo (R-NJ) started a “fighter gap task force” in 2009. Giffords and LoBiondo, each of whom has a home-district Air National Guard F-16 fighter unit, have inserted language in the House of Representatives’ version of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill to halt fighter retirements. “You need to look at the service life of the F-16C/D block 30s,” said Ryan McKeon, military legislative assistant to Giffords. “We’re harder up than we thought,” he said, in terms of fighter numbers. Several legislators now say there will be a “fighter gap” debate when the fiscal year 2011 defense appropriations bill is considered this fall, and that arguments will be heated on both sides.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...