House panel presses Gates to buy existing fighter jets, not F-35s

House defense authorizers are pressing Defense Secretary Robert Gates to consider buying existing fighter jets instead of the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to curtail a severe fighter jet shortfall in the Air Force National Guard.

During a House Armed Services Committee markup of the 2010 defense authorization bill on Tuesday, lawmakers raised alarm that aircraft shortfalls could present significant challenges to the Air Force’s ability to protect domestic airspace.

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At press time, lawmakers had included an amendment sponsored by Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) that would force Gates to consider buying F-15, F-16 and F-18 aircraft with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, high-capacity datalink, enhanced avionics and the ability to deploy advanced weapons.

In military parlance, this is a 4.5-generation fighter aircraft outfitted with advanced capabilities.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the Pentagon wants to move toward instead of the 4.5-generation aircraft, would be a fifth-generation fighter aircraft — the most advanced.

LoBiondo and Giffords’s amendment directs Gates to submit to Armed Services, within 90 days of the authorization bill becoming law, a report on the procurement of 4.5-generation fighter aircraft that must consider that the Air Force has a requirement to maintain no less than 2,200 tactical fighter aircraft from fiscal 2011 through 2035.

LoBiondo said the fighter shortfall would affect the Air National Guard earlier and more severely than it would the Air Force active-duty units.

The lack of aircraft and the advanced age of some of the fighter jets are “devastating” to the Guard, he said. He criticized the Air Force for not producing any plan to fix the fighter shortfall problems, saying it had pegged its hopes on the arrival of the F-35 to solve the problem.

Under the LoBiondo-Giffords amendment, Pentagon officials must consider the procurement cost of those aircraft if they are bought on a yearly basis, and must also give cost estimates for aircraft bought as part of a multiyear contract. If Gates determines that a multiyear contract would yield significant savings and decides that the Pentagon should be buying those aircraft as part of such a contract, he would have to submit the necessary Pentagon certifications for the contract together with the fiscal 2011 budget request.

The amendment also asks the Pentagon to assess whether it would be possible to recapitalize the Air National Guard with F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from 2015 through 2025.

The Guard conducts the majority of domestic airspace protection missions, known as air sovereignty alert operations and homeland defense air missions. Fully armed fighter aircraft are on alert 24 hours a day at 18 sites across the country. The Air National Guard operates 16 of the 18 sites. The remaining two are under active-duty Air Force responsibilities.

The aircraft used in the domestic airspace protection missions —Lockheed’s F-16 and Boeing’s F-15 — are showing signs of aging. The aircraft used by the National Guard traditionally come used from the active-duty Air Force, which means that the equipment already has significant wear and tear.

The commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is charged with the missions of aerospace warning and control for North America. The Air Force provides NORAD with personnel and equipment for these operations, including fighter aircraft.

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this year found that the Air Force gave short shrift to preparing for its domestic mission as it has focused more on overseas military operations following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The National Guard has also deployed heavily overseas.

“Failure to develop detailed plans to address these challenges could jeopardize the Air Force’s ability to protect U.S. airspace in the future,” read the GAO report, released on Jan. 26.

The planes flown by the Air National Guard are the oldest aircraft ever flown in Air Force history. Eleven of the 18 sites could end up without viable aircraft by 2020 if the planes are not replaced over the next few years, according to the GAO. The oldest planes are also more difficult and expensive to maintain.

Meanwhile, 14 of the 18 sites will have to suspend their operations for a period of time between 2010 and 2020, as their aircraft reach the end of their useful service lives. Twelve sites are currently equipped with F-16 fighters, which will reach the end of their service lives between 2015 and 2020.

One option is to replace the F-16s with either F-22s or F-35s, both of which the Air Force is acquiring. However, according to the current F-22 and F-35 fielding schedules, only one of the units —Shaw Air Force Base — will receive the new aircraft soon enough, according to the GAO.

The tug-of-war will likely intensify between the Air Force and a number of factions in Congress over whether the Air Force should buy cutting-edge — but expensive — fighter jets, such as the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or continue buying and modernizing older aircraft, such as F-15s, F-16s or F-18s.

Meanwhile, on another hot-button issue — missile defense — Democrats on the committee rejected GOP efforts to authorize an additional $120 million to buy 14 more ground-based interceptors for the mid-course defense system at Fort Greely, Alaska.

The Obama administration only wants 30 ground-based interceptors split between Alaska and California. The additional 14 would have brought that number to 44.