The United States Air Force is suffering a global air superiority crisis after 26 years of combat operations. Today, the service possesses just under 1,000 aircraft capable of air-to-air combat — F-15s, , F-22s, and F-35s. That is down more than 65 percent since the end of the Cold War. Given the global demands of our national security strategy, operational considerations, and force rotation factors, this amounts to fewer than 100 fighter aircraft available in a particular location at any given time.
Fighters are employed in a rotational fashion—with one third of aircraft on station, another third returning to base, and the last third preparing to launch. That means in reality only about 30 fighters are immediately able to engage at any given time in a particular region. Put bluntly, that number does not cut it when it comes to projecting necessary air-to-air capability to meet increasingly lethal threats that are more challenging today than during the Cold War.
The F-22 boast impressive capabilities, the reality is that the few that we have are not enough to meet the demands of our defense strategy. History is replete with examples when air superiority was the fundamental lynchpin of military success—Desert Storm, D-Day, and the Battle of Britain are some of the most well known. The fate of nations has resided on air superiority more than once—and it will again one day in the future.
The US Air Force recommends –
While maintaining the current inventory, we must increase the number of operational fighters. A reasonable near-term goal is to buy back 250 air-to-air capable fighters that were ceded as part CAF REDUX. That measure was never intended to be permanent and it is time to replace that cut. The F-35 build rate could be accelerated to at least the original plan of 100 Air Force F-35As per year. In addition to increasing capacity, this would reduce per-unit cost, total program cost, and populate fighter squadrons with a vast increase in capability—something enormously important when we need to make the most of every aircraft.