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No Shack, Just a Miss

April 5, 2009 (by Eric L. Palmer) - Misleading senior political leaders is no way to fix the problems that face the Air Force.

Misrepresenting the F-35 in front of senior political leaders brings the ability of senior USAF leadership into question.

The United States Air Force (USAF) takes its combat air acquisition priorities to the Hill yet can’t even properly explain what the risks are by throwing all the fighter procurement dice into stealth aircraft.

On the 25th of March, Lieutenant General Mark “Shack” Shackelford, the acquisition deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force had a big chance to explain combat air acquisition priorities to the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. He didn’t do so well. By going with marketing hype, spin and sophistry of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the USAF would have been better off if he didn’t show up that day.

The following statement if anything is misleading to our elected officials. “The F-35 was designed from the bottom up to be the Air Force's premiere surface-to-air-missile killer and is uniquely equipped for the mission with its cutting edge processing power, synthetic aperture radar integration techniques and advance target recognition."

This is false. One best bone up on the history of the JSF program and not fall into after-the-fact sales lingo from the F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin. The F-35 is going to look awful silly getting pushed into skill-sets it was never designed for as the “premiere surface-to-air missile killer” because it doesn’t have the survivability to take on emerging long range area SAM threats.

Some in General Shackelford’s peer group don’t agree either. Major General Rick Lewis USAF(ret), who formerly lead the F-22 program, stated in the March 17, 2008 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology that, “The key to the F-22’s advantage over the F-35 is its speed and stealth optimized to counter advanced and integrated air defense systems. The F-35’s survivability and effectiveness would be much less than that of the F-22 because it employs subsonic speeds, lower altitudes, lower G and has half the missile load.” If any aircraft is a “premiere surface-to-air-missile killer”, it is the F-22.

General Shackelford then goes on to state, “F-22s can find, fix, track and target enemy air and surface-based threats, ensuring air dominance for all joint forces. Each model (F-22,F-35) possesses unique complementary and essential capabilities that together provide the necessary speed, stealth and manoeuvrability to maintain superiority across the spectrum of conflict.” (emphasis mine).

There is another problem. Senior USAF leadership is ignoring procurement of new build F-16s. The F-16 can do many Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) deployments that don’t go against first team threats. Part two is that once the F-22 has done its work of taking down the big threats, an F-16 and other “legacy” design fast fighters, including the B-1 bomber mentioned in Shackelford’s presentation, can bomb to their hearts content with existing weapons and not get touched. Given this, the USAF hasn’t really stated an honest justification for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Because of aging aircraft issues, the real killer is that the USAF (and the Reserve and Air Guard) are not going to be able to do the mission of home air defense in the coming years because they won’t have enough jets to take care of all the requirements. This is where new build F-16’s could help.

The recent presentation in front of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee is an opportunity missed by USAF leadership. Get an audience with the political decision makers and then foul it up by not covering all the options for resolving the fighter procurement train wreck. Presenting the F-35, a jet with so few test hours on it and lots of risk, as the answer for USAF fighter recapitalization brings in to question the long range planning ability of senior USAF leadership.

The USAF is already in a serious state. The lack of new fighter aircraft numbers for the coming ten, twenty and thirty years is alarming. Missing opportunities to state the case of the USAF when in front of political decision makers, means more delay to implementing realistic solutions. These problems will never get fixed by stating boldface untruths to the people that hand out the money.

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Additional images:

Two F-22 Raptors fly over the Pacific Ocean after a refueling mission on March 9th, 2009. The Dicemen are deployed from Elmendorf AFB to the 90th EFS Andersen AFB. Fourteen of the $140 million dollar aircraft, and more than 250 Airmen have been here since January for a three month deployment as the Pacific's Theater Security Package. [USAF photo by MSgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald]

3/4 front view of the first UAEAF F-16F block 60 fighter [LMTAS photo]