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Congress Fights Back Over Fighter Force

The Obama Administration got their wish with the end of F-22 production in the 2010 Defense Budget. Originally both the House and Senate proposed continuing production beyond last six funded with the 2009 budget. The White House threatened a veto of the ultimate defense budget if the money remained to buy more of the advanced aircraft. Congress blinked and removed the funding leaving the Air Force with a fleet of only 187 F-22 aircraft.

The key to the restructuring of the U.S. fighter force as planned by Secretary of Defense Gates is to accelerate production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). This aircraft is planned to replace the low end of the U.S. fighters. There have been concerns that the JSF may not be able to support this schedule already seeing significant delays in development and production and further delays are certainly possible as there is with any large acquisition program like this.

Worries about this possible gap as the F-15, F-16 and F-18 aircraft age and get retired has made Congress add language into the 2010 bill to require delaying the retirement of F-15 aircraft as planned until a study is done on the effects of the draw down and restructure of this aircraft inventory. This is only in the House version and would have to be included in the Senate or Conference bill for final passage.

The Air National Guard who provide most of the air defense of the United States proper are also concerned that they will see a decline in their aircraft numbers at least for a few years as the F-35 makes it into production. The Air Force is planning on retiring a large number of F-16 aircraft in 2010 that may leave units short until newer aircraft are available. These plans may leave a gap in the air defenses of the nation.

Normally as new equipment is deployed older gear is retired. The cost of maintaining this aging inventory is usually high and the services cannot afford much overlap. Unfortunately if the new equipment is not ready on schedule then the retirement plans are disrupted and either the older aircraft must keep flying at increased cost or units must be stood down temporarily until the new planes are available. With the end of the F-22 and limited numbers of the F-35 in the short term that might be the issue the U.S. Air Force and Navy will face. The continued production of the F-22 and keeping up F-18 quantities might have provided a bridge to the F-35 force.

It is obvious that Congress will not necessarily roll over on all proposals of the new Administration. The Guard is a powerful lobby and it is easy for members to add money to upgrade their equipment. It might be that the savings of ending the F-22 will be eaten up by keeping older equipment flying and increased quantities of other existing production aircraft; or the U.S. may have to accept a gap of less aircraft providing less capability.