There is an old-fashioned showdown taking place in the halls of the Pentagon and Capitol Hill right now. Officials are concerned about the emergence of a so-called "fighter gap" in the U.S. Navy. The gap refers to a projected shortfall in the number of strike-fighter aircraft the Navy requires to meet the needs of its 10 active-duty carrier air wings.
According to the latest figures released by the Navy and the Congressional Research Service, the Navy and Marine Corps will suffer a shortfall of 50 aircraft in 2010. That number could reach as high as 243 when the gap peaks in 2018.
Of course, the fighter gap deeply concerns Navy brass, but it should also worry the Army and Marines, who depend on precision combat air support on a daily basis.
The proximate cause of the fighter gap comes from the rate at which the Navy will retire the backbone of its current strike-fighter fleet -- the F/A-18 Hornet-Super Hornet -- while simultaneously introducing the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as its replacement.
Admirals, analysts and members of Congress have good reason to argue over the exact size of the upcoming fighter gap; after all, numbers matter. However, we must not allow reasonable disagreements to descend into petty quibbling. Everyone agrees that the problem is unacceptable and that we need an urgent answer to the problem.
Fortunately, the answer to that question is not complicated: Buy more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.
Cost, Delivery Concerns
The reason for this answer is simple. The biggest unknown in this entire equation is "if" and "when" there will be a successful introduction of the F-35. The development and procurement strategy behind this new aircraft has been flawed from the beginning, and it is highly likely that both the cost and delivery schedule will continue to change for the worse.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the federal government's independent budgetary watchdog, has had tough words for the new JSF. In its last annual review of the F-35 program, the GAO highlighted the fact that "three defense organizations independent of the JSF program office have all concluded that the program office's cost estimate is significantly understated and the current schedule unlikely to be achieved."
This led the GAO to determine that "the current JSF cost and schedule reported to Congress are not reliable for decision making."
In other words, defense officials and Congress have no clear idea of when the F-35 will be fully operational. What they do have is a proven aircraft in the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The Super Hornet is already in production, has a well-established cost and is battle tested. The F-35 is none of these. It may one day prove to be a better aircraft, but for now, it is little more than a good idea with an uncertain future.
Given this reality, the only sensible plan to address the Navy's fighter gap is for Congress to authorize and fund a new, extended procurement plan for the Super Hornet.
In the narrow confines of the defense procurement debate, this makes perfect sense. But there are also bigger issues at stake.
In the daily Washington battles about who gets what military contract and why, the fact that we are a nation at war is sometimes too easily forgotten. With troops in combat today, our servicemen and women deserve better than a debate about unproven technologies of the future.
What they really need as members of the military -- and what we need to do as U.S. citizens if we are to support the military we have sent into battle -- is reliable, precision combat air support.
The Navy and the Department of Defense have committed to the F-35 as the strike-fighter of the future. But that is exactly the problem; the future is not here yet. It is irresponsible and wrong to invest in the vague and pricey promises of tomorrow at the expense of the needs of the military today.
(Please note this piece was originally published on June 29, 2009 in Defense News).