Retired Gen. John D.W. Corley and retired Gen. William R. Looney III of the United States Air Force have a powerful opinion piece in the Washington Times detailing the consequences of delaying high-rate production of the F-35 fighter jet. They argue that the F-35 is vital to the future of air combat as fourth-generation fighter jets continue to age; we need to provide American troops with the best technology possible to ensure future air dominance.
From their Washington Times op-ed:
Although American warriors have returned from Iraq and many are re- turning from Afghanistan, our nation still faces serious and continuing security threats. The return - and painful loss - of U.S. combat troops should serve as a reminder that as a nation, we have a solemn duty to provide our military professionals with the best tools available to accomplish their missions at the lowest possible loss of life. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter falls squarely into that category.
Simply put, the multirole F-35 is a critical element in the struggle to safeguard national security. The most technically advanced multirole fighter aircraft in the world today, it represents an indispensable leap in capability and survivability over the current generation of fighters it is designed to replace. With advanced stealth and fully integrated avionics systems, the F-35 will enable pilots to penetrate into hostile territory, secure vital airspace or support ground forces with precision strike capabilities and then return safely.
Gen. Corley and Gen. Looney go on to point out the age of the current fleet of fighter jets in use today:
Many of today’s pilots are flying multirole fighters that were designed - and in some cases built - before they were born. While these aged aircraft were the most capable of their generation, their airframes are wearing out, and they cannot be retrofitted to equal the F-35’s stealth and avionics capabilities. Worse is that these fighters can only be operated at increasing cost - in force size and support assets - all while raising a conspicuously high level of risk in the threat environments of today and tomorrow. Continuing down this path will not only seriously increase taxpayer expenditures, but also cost the lives of numerous pilots and compromise national security.
The F-35 program, from its inception, was designed to strike an appropriate balance on concurrency that enables the fielding of needed fifth-generation capability at an affordable cost. Noteworthy development to date, combined with multiple reductions in production ramp rates, already have reduced the concurrency risk. But continuing to suppress the production rates will - without question - increase unit costs in the near term and drive potential international customers toward “cheaper, later” production models down the line. It will delay delivery of the critically needed operational F-35 and further aggravate total force-structure shortfalls for active, National Guard and Reserve forces and their old, less capable legacy fighters.
Bottom line: Department of Defense-directed F-35 concurrency is a good idea that can drive down cost. Currently, nothing in F-35 flight test, software development or factory production indicates a necessity to further hold back production at low rates. Fielding the F-35 sooner rather than later is crucial to the security of United States and our allies.
Retired Gen. John D.W. Corley served as the U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff, commander of Air Combat Command and senior uniformed acquisition official. Retired Gen. William R. Looney III commanded the U.S. Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command and the service’s Aeronautical and Electronics Systems Centers. Both are consultants to Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for the F-35.