U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz announced today that the USAF has begun stress tests on the F-16 fleet in hopes of prolonging their life until the delivery of the (still delayed) shiny new F-35s. Promised in 2008, the Joint Strike Fighter has been delayed for two years so far, and it will be another two years before the Marines get their first batch. Faced with tough decisions from all angles as to what to do while they wait, the Air Force has been squeezed especially tight. Though far from losing its preeminence as the world’s foremost air power, the service prides itself on having the best technology in the best condition. Thus, many lawmakers (with a significant stake in the issue) have seized on this delay to demand that the USAF fund a 4.5-generation fighter series, one that will prevent a “fighter gap.”
The Air Force has resisted this pressure, however, for months now and today’s statement from Schwartz seems to make it clear that the service does not intend to get pushed around.
“I think it’s pretty clear that our strategy is to pursue service-life extensions [SLEPs] to the extent that is affordable rather than purchase new generation four-and-a-half aircraft while we’re working hard to bring on F-35. I do not think it is wise to dissipate the limited pool of resources available for F-35.” In short: the USAF will stretch the lives of the existing fleet as far as they will go (some with expiration dates as early as 2020).
Though the focus has been on the Air Force to call for the controversial production of planes to fill the gap, the F-35 is one of the rare pieces of machinery that is to operate for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Therefore, it stands to reason that the Air Force’s decision to hold out for the F-35 and rely on their older F-15 and F-16s could markedly impact the fleets of the other two services as well. It is highly unlikely that one or both of these traditionally maritime services would override the decision of the USAF to call for new planes while they wait for one that functions for them all. I find it interesting then, (though not altogether surprising) that this decision was left to the Air Force alone, and the Air Force alone was pushed to fund new designs for an intermediate generation of fighters.
This displays an insightful point about the interactions of those services and about the plane they eagerly anticipate; though there have been recent rumblings about the necessity of the Air Force as an independent military branch and/or their future in terms of manned fighters, it is clear that those within the military establishment (including those in the Navy and Marine Corps) and those in Congress see the USAF as the unquestioned head of air power decision-making in this country, even when it comes to issues that span branches (and make no mistake, these new planes are just as important to the missions of the Navy and Marine Corps as they are to the Air Force). So, is the Air Force on its way out? Based on this, I seem to doubt it.