Fighter aircraft modernization is a critical component of the rebalance to the Pacific. Control of the air is the essential basis for joint operations, partnership, crisis re- sponse and deterrence. It may come as a shock then, that the US has serious challenges and choices ahead to maintain air dominance.
China’s growing military challenge has been some time in the making. With a re-vamped fighter force, two new stealth fighters in development and an aircraft carrier, China could by 2020 be in position to disrupt air operations and vie for control of the air in the Pacific. The strategic challenge of China is coming at a time when the US is lagging in fighter force structure replacements for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Had all gone according to plan, the U.S. would have already replaced most of its 1970s-design fighters with a joint force centered on the F-35 and with special roles for the Air Force F-22 and Navy F/A-18EF. Instead, a combination of urgent wartime needs, program cuts, delays in the F-35 program and slow retirements of old aircraft have left a complicated situation.
The timing could hardly be worse. Anti-access and area denial threats are now present in the form of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles which U.S. forces have never faced in combat. Added to this is the development of advanced adversary fighters. Re- calculation of fighter requirements in the Pacific has become essential.
Maintaining air dominance is one of the most essential force modernization tasks to flow from the Pacific strategy. The top priority is to assure that the fighter force has both the advanced capability and the numbers to do its part in providing crisis response options and ensuring deterrence.
The way ahead is to efficiently buy out the F-35 so that the USAF, USN and USMC all have a highly capable, interoperable platform. For the F-35, the best course is to accel- erate to efficient production rates that bring 1,000 F-35s into the tri-service inventory by 2020. The next step is to invest in development of several next-generation technologies and give them time to mature. The fighter of the future deserves new, fuel-efficient engines with supersonic performance and enough power for new sensors and directed energy weapons. That leaves the F-35 as the core capability to meet current needs, bridge the period of future technology development, and get the Pacific pivot on track.