F-35 Still the ‘Cornerstone’ Fighter, Top Air Force General Says
After calling for a new fighter, Gen. Brown clarified the F-35 is alive and well while a new study reevaluates fighters and drones for 2036.
The U.S. Air Force’s top general said the service is committed to the F-35 stealth fighter following comments and headlines in the past week that suggested the demise of the aircraft may be near.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown said on Thursday the U.S. could end up buying fewer than the 1,700-plus jets it envisioned when the project began more than two decades ago, but rejected recent high-profile reporting portraying the aircraft as a failure.
Pentagon officials are currently reviewing the mix of manned combat jets and drones needed to win a war 15 years from now, Brown said. That study is looking at not only the number and types of manned aircraft, but also drones that the Air Force wants to team with fighter jets in the coming years.
“What I've asked the team to do is … provide me options on how to take a look at this because I want to make sure we have the right capability,” Brown said during an online press conference during a virtual conference hosted by the Air Force Association.
Among the options, Brown said, is continuing to buy 1,763 jets. But that number came out of a May 1997 Pentagon strategy review and has not changed since.
Brown sparked some alarm when he first discussed the tactical aircraft review with reporters last week, In that meeting, the general raised the possibility of buying a newly-designed fighter jet to replace old F-16 fighters — a job the F-35 is supposed to be filling.
"I want to be able to build something new and different that's not the F-16, that has some of those capabilities, but gets there faster and features a digital approach," Brown said at the time.
Some viewed Brown’s comments as confirmation that the service is abandoning the F-35, a plane that has taken nearly two decades to build and, although already seeing combat and being delivered to allies overseas, still faces developmental hurdles before the Pentagon considers it is fully combat ready. “The U.S. Air Force Just Admitted the F-35 Stealth Fighter Has Failed,” read a Forbes headline on Tuesday. NBC News anchor Brian Williams said “the Pentagon may scrap the F-35 program” in a nearly three-minute report on MSNBC this week.
Brown, when asked Thursday if the F-35 program is a failure, said that is “nowhere near” the case.
“The F-35 is a cornerstone of our [tactical aircraft] capability and for our fighter capability,” he said.
U.S. and allied F-35s have already seen combat. The U.S. military has deployed the stealth jets to Europe, the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. This week, Air Force leaders said they are experimenting with new ways to deploy the jets from separate airfields in the Pacific.
The latest round of questions about the F-35’s future arose in September when the Air Force revealed it had secretly built and flown a new type of combat aircraft called the Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD.
“As far as NGAD versus F-35, we’re not going to take money from the F-35 to [fund] the NGAD,” Brown said. But, Brown said the Air Force will look to take money from “other parts of the fighter force” to “help fund” the NGAD project.
The F-35 price tag has declined significantly in recent years, but the program still faces a $12 billion bill to develop updated hardware and software. At the same time, the Pentagon and F-35 maker Lockheed Martin are in the midst of negotiating a five-year maintenance contract for the hundreds of jets already in the military arsenal.
“We're gonna do our best to make sure ... that we are this airpower solution for Gen. Brown in terms of capability and affordability, so that we can tackle not only today's threat, but more importantly, the threat of the future,” Bruce Litchfield, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics sustainment vice president, said during a Tuesday press briefing.