The first F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing lands at Eielson AFB, Alaska on April 21 last year. A total of 54 F-35As will be stationed at Eielson AFB by the end of 2021, which will make Alaska the most concentrated state for combat-coded fifth-generation aircraft (U.S. Air Force).
Adm. Phil Davidson, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told lawmakers this week that fifth generation fighters, such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 and F-22, are vital to respond to future crises in the region.
“Certainly, fifth gen fighters, I would tell you, are the backbone of any of our planning for a crisis forward in the theater and would be needed at dispersed locations within the first and second island chain,” he said during a March 9 posture hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in response to a question from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).
The first island chain runs from the Kuril Islands through Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines to Borneo, while the second island chain runs from Japan south to the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Micronesia, Palau and Papua New Guinea.
“Alaska will soon have over 100 fifth generation fighters stationed there,” Sullivan said before Davidson’s remarks. “If you have the right mix of tankers, those assets could be in, for example, the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait within hours with the right tankers.”
Amanda Coyne, a spokeswoman for Sullivan, wrote in an email that U.S. Alaskan Command had told Sullivan’s office that there are 54 F-22s at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, Alaska (JBER) and that there will be 54 F-35As at Eielson AFB, Alaska “once the beddown is complete” for a total of 108 fifth generation fighters in Alaska. The Air Force has said that Eielson will have 54 F-35As by the end of this year.
In response to a question on the F-35 from Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) during a March 10 posture hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Davidson said that “fifth gen fighters, the F-35 and the F-22, are critical to any future war fight we might have in the theater.”
“Or adversaries are fielding already fifth gen fighters themselves,” Davidson said. “To go backwards into fourth generation capability as a substitute broadly would be a mistake in my view and would put us at a severe disadvantage over the course of this decade.”
While the U.S. Air Force still is officially committed to buying 1,763 F-35As, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has said that he favors curtailing the F-35 buy and pursuing less costly options to deter China.
Partnerships with allies and diplomacy will play a crucial role, along with military strength in such deterrence, Smith has said.
“I think we need to be really careful about stumbling into a Cold War with China,” he said on March 5 during a Brookings Institution discussion. “There’s been a lot of talk about the Office of Net Assessment and the wargames/exercises they’ve done over the course of the last six or seven years that show we struggle in a straight-on confrontation with China. I think the wrong message to get out of that is, ‘Oh, my gosh. We have got to build a military that enables us to dominate China.’ I don’t think that’s possible, and I don’t think it’s desirable. I also think that runs the distinct risk of creating conflict where it doesn’t need to be. What we need is an entire approach that deters China and others from doing the things we don’t want them to do.”
In the deterrence and dominance equations, it is difficult to parse out the utility of Air Force fighters–the Boeing F-15 and the Lockheed Martin F-16, F-22 and F-35A. The service public affairs office said that it does not have the number of combat sorties flown by each of the aircraft. Previously disclosed data, however, indicate that the F-22 had its combat debut over Syria on Sept. 22, 2014–nine years after its initial fielding–and that the F-35A had its combat debut over Iraq on April 30, 2019, less than three years after its initial fielding.
The F-35As used in the Apr. 30, 2019 strike used a Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) in Wadi Ashai, Iraq “to strike an entrenched Daesh tunnel network and weapons cache deep in the Hamrin Mountains, a location able to threaten friendly forces,” AFCENT said at the time.
Data released in 2016 by Air Force Central Command for Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS in Iraq and Syria revealed that the F-22 had flown hundreds of combat sorties since its combat debut, but significantly less than the F-15s and F-16s.
AFCENT did not respond to emails requesting the number of combat sorties flown by each of the Air Force fighter types since the F-35A’s combat debut on Apr. 30, 2019.
While the legacy F-16s and F-15s are one-fifth to one-half the procurement cost of the F-22, the Air Force has said that the value of fifth generation fighters is in penetrating advanced enemy air defense systems, such as those employed by China, with little risk to aircrews.
As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conducts a Global Force Posture Review, the U.S. Air Force and the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) will run a tactical aircraft (TACAIR) study to inform needed fighter capabilities and numbers for the Air Force fiscal 2023 budget submission, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown said last month.
“One of the areas I am looking, we’re pushing through is a TACAIR study for the United States Air Force to look at what is the right force mix,” Brown said. “There is a need for fifth-gen capability. There’s a need for NGAD [Next Generation Air Dominance] and that particular capability to remain competitive against our adversaries, and then there’s a mix for a low-end fight. I don’t know it would actually be F-16. I’d want to be able to build something new and different that’s not the F-16, that has some of those capabilities but gets there faster, uses a digital approach.”
Brown said that such an F-16 replacement could be a clean sheet design.