The U.S. Air Force’s fighter aviation force is too old and too small to meet the national security challenges facing the country. The last major build-up in this mission area began in the wake of the Vietnam War and wound down at the end of the Reagan Administration. The airplanes procured in the 1970s and 1980s still represent 80% of the Air Force’s fighter aircraft inventory. This was never supposed to happen, with types like the F-22 and F-35 intended to reset the force over the last two decades. However, due to the F-22’s premature cancellation at less than half the stated military requirement and numerous delays in the F-35 program, airmen are now flying the oldest, smallest fighter fleet ever fielded in Air Force history. This is not a sustainable vector.
This policy paper discusses the attributes that must be acquired to modernize today’s fighter force to ensure our airmen can fly, fight, win, and come home safe. This includes focusing resources on fifth generation aircraft like the F-35, while also directing significant funds to the next generation air dominance (NGAD) development program. It does not include procuring new-build, old fourth generation aircraft that are not survivable against modern threats. This is not just about the U.S. Air Force—this mission comes down to ensuring the combat viability of the entirety of U.S. joint force operations.