Outlook for U.S. military combat aircraft through the next decade

By John Keller

Posted by John Keller

U.S. military leaders will face many hard choices over the next 10 years when it comes to planning for military combat aircraft fleets as we move toward the second decade of the 21st century. Money is tight, the economy is bad, and U.S. bank and industry bailouts are placing more intense demands on the taxpayer's dollar than ever before.

One survivor of the military aircraft budgetary battles to come, I believe, will have to be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter . I know what you're thinking: some aircraft programs on the drawing board will have to go; there just isn't enough money to fund everything in the old reliable run of combat aircraft.

This is all-too true, but the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the hot chick jet fighter that has to be part of the mix. Without it, U.S. air forces will have to come up with brand new designs to streak through the skies like a zipfy , and there just isn't enough time or money left to do that.

I've read speculation that the F-22 Raptor might be the preferred aircraft over the F-35, and that just might turn out to be the case. I have to admit that historically I've been pretty poor at predicting aircraft winners. Granted, the F-22 is one of the most formidable combat jets in the world today, and it's a tempting proposition to transform it from a pure air-superiority fighter into a combination fighter-bomber like the Navy's F/A-18 Hornet.

Still, we've got to take a hard look F-22. It's design is 20 years old, it's a remanent of the Cold War, and it's designed from the ground up to take off and land on long runways. There's no version of the F-22 designed to operate from unimproved landing fields or from aircraft carriers like the F-35.

Moreover, a lot of the Pentagon's aircraft eggs are in the F-35's basket. By 2019 the lion's share of the military aircraft budget will be for the F-35, say analysts at the Government Electronics Industry Association (GEIA) segment of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va. Nothing else comes close -- not the F-22, not the F/A-18, not even the KC-X next-generation mid-air refueling tanker.

By 2019, the F/A-18, and the F-16 will be very long in the tooth. The F-15s will be gone. We've already seen retirement of the Navy F-14 Tomcat fighters. If this country wants to maintain a credible combat aircraft presence in the world, the F-35 will be one of our last options -- that is, unless the U.S. wants to ditch manned combat aircraft altogether and rely on unmanned combat aircraft.

I don't see manned combat aircraft going away anytime soon. We won't see that until all the flag officers in the Pentagon who once were fighter jocks are retired and nestled quietly into nursing homes.

Variants of the F-35 will be able to take off from runways, aircraft carriers, and unimproved landing fields. Some variants will be able to take off and land straight up and down. These aircraft can dogfight other high-performance jets, as well as deliver precision-guided munitions, fly reconnaissance missions, and take out enemy radar and communications.

Do we really want to kill the F-35 and start over from scratch? This aircraft has been in development since the 1980s. If we start over now no new combat aircraft would be ready until probably after 2030. A lot can happen in the world between now and then.

I don't think it's worth the risk.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

January 2014
Volume 25, Issue 1
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