Today's F-35As Not Worth Including In High-End War Games According To Air Force General

Comments from one of the Air Force's top officers adds fuel to a newly-swirling and already fiery debate about the future F-35 program, as a whole.

A US Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.
USAF

A senior U.S. Air Force officer has said that there is no value in including the service's current fleet of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters in tabletop wargames simulating future high-end conflicts, such as one covering an American military response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. That same individual also called into question how relevant any of the service's existing examples of these fighter jets would be for conducting combat operations near or over the territory of a near-peer adversary, including China. This all comes at a time when the F-35 program, as a whole, is facing a new surge of scrutiny, including from members of Congress.

Air Force Lieutenant General Clint Hinote, the service's Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration, and Requirements, made his remarks regarding the F-35A in an interview that Defense News published today focusing on a wargame last year that simulated an attempted Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Defense News described the outcome of that wargame as a "pyrrhic" victory for the U.S. military and one that was only achieved by the employment of capabilities that are not yet actually in service.

USAF

A US Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.

Those capabilities include F-35As equipped with the full suite of upgrades enabled by the still-in-development Block 4 software package. Block 4 F-35As are set to feature enhanced radar and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as the ability to carry new weapons. This particular wargame also featured notional stealth combat aircraft developed through the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, a multi-faceted project that you can read about in more detail here, as well as non-stealthy F-15EX fighters able to carry long-range hypersonic weapons, cargo aircraft reconfigured as flying arsenal planes, and a swarm of low-cost drones providing a distributed sensor network across a broad area of the battlespace, among other things.

The entire Defense News piece on this wargame is worth reading in full, especially given growing concerns within the U.S. military, as well as among experts and observers, that a Chinese military intervention against Taiwan may be increasingly inevitable in the near term. The outcome of the scenario, which Yahoo News previously reported also involved a Chinese biological weapon attack against American forces across the Indo-Pacific region, is also notable in contrast to a similar 2018 tabletop simulation.

“After the 2018 war game I distinctly remember one of our gurus of war gaming standing in front of the Air Force secretary and chief of staff, and telling them that we should never play this war game scenario [of a Chinese attack on Taiwan] again, because we know what is going to happen," Lieutenant General Hinote had told Yahoo News earlier this year. "The definitive answer if the U.S. military doesn’t change course is that we’re going to lose fast. In that case, an American president would likely be presented with almost a fait accompli."

At the same time, Hinote's comments about the F-35A are notable in their own right. “We wouldn’t even play the current version of the F-35," Hinote told Defense News.

“It wouldn’t be worth it," he continued. "Every fighter that rolls off the line today is a fighter that we wouldn’t even bother putting into these scenarios."

Hinote further explained that survivability was only one factor in his assessment, though he did not name any particular existing or emerging threats that would limit the combat utility of current generation F-35As. China is notably developing and fielding an increasing number of advanced manned and unmanned aircraft, including growing numbers of J-20 stealth fighters, along with new weapons to go with them, as well as new ground-based air and missile defenses and associated sensors. Russia, another potential high-end adversary, is doing the same, albeit to a more limited degree.

The Lieutenant General also cited the F-35As limited range in the context of an Indo-Pacific scenario as an issue, something we here at The War Zone have highlighted in the past. There have been discussions over the years about developing drop tanks or conformal fuel tanks that could work with all three F-35 variants to help extend their ranges. The Air Force, in particular, is exploring various future aerial refueling concepts that might help provide more survivable ways to extend the reach of American combat aircraft, especially stealthy types, in future conflicts, as well.

Regardless of the specifics, the Lieutenant General's comments are the latest in a string of what can be characterized, at best, as mixed-messaging from the Air Force about its plans for the F-35A going forward, as well as its view of the program, as a whole. The projected costs to operate and maintain F-35s of all variants across the U.S. military throughout their planned life cycles, which have only grown in recent years, are the core of these discussions. At present, the Air Force still publicly plans to buy 1,763 F-35As, in total, primarily to replace its F-16 Viper fighter jets.

USAF

The F-35A assigned to the Air Force's F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team, at bottom, flies together with the F-16C assigned to the service's F-16 Viper Demonstration Team, above.

As of 2019, the Pentagon said the estimated price tag for sustaining F-35A, B, and C operations across the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy was $1.196 trillion through 2070. This figure had been relayed to Congress in part to inform them that this figure had increased by $22 billion specifically due to growing costs associated with the Block 4 upgrades that Lieutenant General Hinote has now said are absolutely essential to ensuring the relevance of the Joint Strike Fighter in future high-end conflicts. 

As of February, the average cost-per-flight-hour to operate any of the three F-35 variants is $36,000, according to Lockheed Martin. The company says its goal remains to get that figure down to $25,000, which would put it closer to the cost-per-flight-hour of operating an F-16C/D.

The unit costs to purchase new Joint Strike Fighters had been declining in recent years, as well, but those price figures look set to plateau, or even rise again, as new capabilities are added to future jets. 

In January, Will Roper, in an interview with Aviation Week that was published after he had left his post as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, had said "I think it’s [the F-35A] a long way from being an affordable fighter that we can buy in bulk." He also suggested that the Air Force's planned purchases could be scaled back in favor of a revised mixture of capabilities that might include new, lower-end manned combat jets, such as advanced F-16 Viper variants, and greater numbers of lower-cost "loyal wingman" type unmanned aircraft.

USAF

A Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned aircraft, at bottom left, a type the Air Force is experimenting with, including as part of the development of "loyal wingman" type drones, flies together with an F-35A, at center, and an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, at top right.

Then, in February, Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown confirmed that the Air Force had initiated a new study into possible changes to the composition of its future manned and unmanned combat aircraft fleets. At that time, he specifically mentioned the possibility of acquiring a new, "clean-sheet design" separate from the F-35 that could replace a portion of the service's existing F-16s and cited F-35 operations and maintenance costs as a factor. 

“I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft,” Brown said, referring to the F-35A fleet. "You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our ‘high end’ [fighter], we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight."

Those comments from Roper and Brown prompted a burst of criticism about the F-35 program, which has been a long-troubled saga that continues to face significant hurdles. Brown, the Air Force's top uniformed official, did subsequently respond to the reporting surrounding his February remarks by saying that the F-35 was the "cornerstone of the U.S. Air Force fighter fleet."

USAF

F-35As, along with F-16Cs, on the runway at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska during an “Elephant Walk” readiness exercise in 2020.

Regardless, all of those comments were then followed by unusually critical remarks from Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington State who is the present chair of the House Armed Services Committee, at an event that the Brookings Institution hosted on March 5. “[I want to] stop throwing money down that particular rathole," Smith said, referring to the F-35 program.

"What does the F-35 give us? And is there a way to cut our losses? Is there a way to not keep spending that much money for such a low capability because, as you know, the sustainment costs are brutal," he continued. "What I’m going to try to do is figure out how we can get a mix of fighter-attack aircraft that’s the most cost-effective. And I am telling you right now a big part of that is finding something that doesn’t make us have to rely on the F-35 for the next 35 years."

Chairman Smith's comments could point to a looming budget battle between the Pentagon and lawmakers over the F-35, broadly, beyond any reexamination of the program that the Air Force might be working through now. Though the service has repeatedly insisted that the NGAD program, as well as its acquisition of new F-15EXs, will not impact funding related to its F-35A fleet, it is Congress that ultimately decides how the defense budget shakes out. The potential for rising unit costs, in addition to how expensive the aircraft will be to operate and maintain for the foreseeable future, could have further impacts on discussions regarding the opportunity costs associated with continuing to buy more of any F-35 variant.

USAF

From left to right, an F-15C Eagle, an F-15E Strike Eagle, and an F-15EX Eagle II.

Lieutenant General Hinote's new comments about the F-35 in the context of last year's wargame can only now call into question the utility of the service's current F-35As in any potential major conflict, at least in the very near term. It's not clear when the Air Force expects to complete the rollout of the full Block 4 upgrade package across its F-35A fleet, or when those updates might similarly make their way into the Marine Corps and Navy's F-35B and F-35C fleets

"The current development process used by the F-35 JPO [Joint Program Office] and Lockheed Martin, that is supposed to provide new capabilities and updates in 6-month increments, is not working," the Pentagon's Office of the Director of Test and Evaluation, or DOT&E, reported bluntly at the close of the 2020 Fiscal Year, which came to an end on Sept. 30, 2020. "It is causing significant delays to planned schedules and results in poor software quality containing deficiencies."

A number of older F-35As will never be brought up to the Block 4 standard, either, relegating those jets to training and other non-combat duties.

In addition, the F-35 program is still working to resolve a laundry list of deficiencies across all three Joint Strike Fighter Variants, 10 of which are Category 1 issues, the most severe type. These are things that could impact the operational effectiveness of the jets, or worse. This is the same number of Category 1 problems DOT&E said were still open by the close of the 2020 Fiscal Year. DOT&E said there were another 861 unresolved, but less severe deficiencies. Just this month, the F-35 Joint Program Office declined to elaborate on the exact nature of the 10 Category 1 deficiencies, six of which are classified, according to Defense News' Valerie Insinna.

It is also important to note that the U.S. military's existing Joint Strike Fighter Fleets have seen improvements in their readiness rates in recent years, but those metrics continue to be a point of significant concern. Major problems persist with the cloud-based computer backend, known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), which is critical to the day-to-day operation of all F-35 variants and that you can read about more here. ALIS has been directly linked to poor readiness rates in the past. The U.S. military is already in process of replacing ALIS with a new system, called the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN).

Beyond that, any scaling back of the American end of the F-35 program could influence decisions that existing or potential foreign Joint Strike Fighter operators make, as well. There is already discussion in the United Kingdom about whether or not that country will upgrade its F-35Bs to the Block 4 standard, with the potential cost of doing so being a major factor.

All told, the Air Force's F-35 plans are very much in a new state of flux, which could also point to possible shakeups in Joint Strike Fighter plans elsewhere across the U.S. military. Lieutenant General Hinote's position that it makes no sense to include the current generation of jets in high-end wargames can only add additional fuel to what is already a fiery debate among proponents and critics of this aircraft.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com