Alternatives for Modernizing U.S. Fighter Forces

May 13, 2009

The United States Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are in the process of replacing most of todays fighter aircraft with new F/A-18E/F, F-22, and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft. Although procurement plans call for purchasing about 2,500 aircraft over the next 25 years, the services are projecting that those purchases will be unable to keep pace with the need to retire todays aircraft as they reach the limit of their service life.

TodayCBO released a study of U.S. fighter forces that compares the size and capability of todays forces with the forces that would be fielded under the Department of Defenses (DoDs) modernization plans and several alternative plans that would offer varying levels of capability and require varying levels of budgetary commitment. CBOs analysis of DoDs plans and the alternatives included comparisons of the number of aircraft in each force, the types and technological sophistication of those aircraft, and their aggregate capacity to carry air-to-ground and air-to-air weapons. Using those criteria, CBO found the following:

  • Under DoDs procurement plans, fighter inventories are likely to fall below the services stated goals in the coming years. Nevertheless, many military capabilities would remain equal to or improve relative to todays capabilities because of the enhanced performance that is expected to result from the technological advances that have been incorporated into the latest generation of fighters. Some of those improvements might be offset by the increased capabilities of potential adversaries, however.
  • Alternative approaches to modernization that included purchasing less advanced but less costly fighter aircraft could avoid inventory shortfalls, achieve long-term cost savings, or both. They would not offer the same capability improvements (especially in terms of the ability to evade an adversarys air defenses) that would be realized by purchasing JSFs, although they could maintain or improve upon todays level of capability.
  • Force structures in which some fighters are replaced with smaller numbers of attack aircraft possessing longer ranges, larger weapons loads, or both, could be fielded at costs similar to current plans. Compared to forces equipped with fighters alone, forces equipped with a mix of fighters and such attack aircraft would offer improvements such as increased basing flexibility and persistence over the battlefield but would have decreased air-to-air combat capabilities.

The study was written by Dave Arthur and Kevin Eveker.