Warplanes: March 8, 2002


: The US is going to face two crisis points in the future: 2010 when the F-16 starts retiring in large numbers and 2018 when the F-16 will be totally phased out of the force. The root of this problem is in two decisions, one (made decades ago) to use the F-16 for "numbers" (being cheaper, it could be bought in relatively vast quantities) and the second, more recently, to delay the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (which has experienced repeated delays in its development program). The current fleet of US combat aircraft will suffer a shortfall of about 100 aircraft during 2009-2012 and about 400 after 2018 as the JSF cannot replace the F-16 as quickly as the venerable Falcon retires. The pace of operations (the ten-year air war over Iraq, the Balkan No Fly Zone, the Kosovo War, the long-range Afghan War, and the near-constant fighter patrols over US cities for the last five months) has conspired to wear out the US tactical fighter force faster than anyone expected. The Pentagon has decided to accept the risk of the smaller force. The first (and smaller) risk period can be, they feel, covered by the increased capabilities of the F-22 Raptor and improved weapons. While there is something to be said for "pure numbers" in war, the shortfall is only about 4 percent and new capabilities should cover it. The deeper shortfall in 2018 is a concern, but is, frankly, so far in the future that nobody can be sure what kind of fighter force we will need anyway, and a decade from now there should be a better view of the mission and still time to deal with it. While production of the F-22 and F-36 cannot realistically be increased, the last of the F-16s and F-15s could be kept in service a few years longer (even if that requires expensive overhauls and mid-life update programs). --Stephen V Cole


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