How To Shrink Fighter Gap

In a new analysis, CBO looked at various ways to reduce the Navy's projected strike fighter gap. The options included combinations of extending the life of the legacy Hornet fleet, buying more Super Hornets in addition to the planned JSF buy or buying more Super Hornets and reducing the JSF buy. According to CBO, the most cost effective way to keep the inventory above 1,000 aircraft between 2011 and 2025 is to extend the life of the legacy Hornet fleet, buy 126 more Super Hornets than currently planned and reduce the JSF buy by 93 aircraft.

There is a pretty wide divergence out there on how big the much discussed Navy-Marine Corps strike fighter gap may turn out to be.

The Navy’s head of aviation programs, Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, recently told reporters that his worst case projections put the shortfall at about 177 aircraft peaking in 2017.

Yet, by tweaking “mitigation levers” — which includes how long older versions of the F-18 continue to fly, the delivery rate of new Super Hornets, how soon F-35s can begin to roll off the production line in large numbers and the demand from combatant commanders for carrier strike – that shortfall can be reduced to about 100 aircraft, he said.

Even that potential shortfall is nothing to get excited about, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a speech earlier this month: “Should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds?”

Not surprisingly, lawmakers disagree, both with the Navy’s numbers and Gates’ dismissal of the gap. In their write up in the 2011 defense budget, the House Armed Service Committee said the Navy’s strike fighter gap could be as large as 250 aircraft by 2017. In order to reduce the looming shortfall, the HASC moved money from other accounts in the budget to add eight more F-18 E/F Super Hornets to the bill.

The HASC also asked the Congressional Budget Office to look at possible plans, and their costs, that could reduce the shortfall. CBO obliged, and came up with four options.

Those options consists of different combinations of: extending the service life of F/A-18A-D Hornets to 8,600 hours (adding roughly two additional years of operation) through minor structural repairs and more frequent inspections, known as the high-flight hour (HFH) program; or, do a more costly service life extension program (SLEP) to reach 10,000 flight hours; or, buying more Hornets.

Before looking at the various alternatives, let’s look at CBO’s shortfall projections. The current Navy-Marine tactical aircraft fleet totals about 1,100 aircraft. CBO forecasts that number to drop to about 800 aircraft in 2020 as older Hornets and Harriers are retired before rebounding through 2025 as JSFs come on line. The current Navy plan is to replace all of the older model Hornets (640 A-D models) and Harriers (150 aircraft) with 515 Super Hornets and 680 F-35B/C JSFs.

CBO’s alternatives:

Alternative 1: Do the HFH minor repairs and inspection on the 509 suitable Hornets; at a cost of around $2.2 billion. This option would increase the number of aircraft by 71 over the 2011-2025 time frame.

Alternative 2: Do the HFH repairs and inspection on 220 Hornets and the more costly SLEP on 289 Hornets; at a cost of about $7.7 billion. This option would increase the inventory by 135 aircraft from 2011 to 2025.

Alternative 3: Do the HFH repairs and inspection on 509 Hornets and buy 126 more Super Hornets (beyond the 515 planned buy) and decrease the buy of Joint Strike Fighters by 93 between 2018 and 2023. The downside of this option is that it would increase costs by up to $11.3 billion in the short term, out to 2015. However, because it reduces the JSF buy, it’s only an increase of about $4.8 billion over the current plan in the longer term out to 2025. It would increase the number of Navy tactical aircraft by 174.

Alternative 4: Modify 509 Hornets through HFH and purchase 126 more Super Hornets, but don’t reduce the JSF buy. This is the most expensive option at about $12.6 billion. It would also net the most aircraft, increasing the total inventory by 191 above the projected shortfall; the total inventory would remain above 1,000 aircraft between 2011 and 2025.