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Posted: 9/28/2004 11:24:53 AM EDT
Air Force may slash JSF purchase

By Laura M. Colarusso
Times staff writer

It’s no secret the Air Force is getting smaller. Top service officials from Secretary James Roche to Gen. Hal Hornburg, the retiring commander of Air Combat Command, have said large-scale aircraft retirements are on the way to save money for the remaining fleet.

So what happens to the Joint Strike Fighter, the stealthy, multi-service aircraft designed to replace the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the A-10 Thunderbolt II in the Air Force?

Industry analysts, defense experts and some retired generals say cuts to the JSF, also known as the F-35, may be on the horizon. With budget pressures intensifying, the Air Force is going to have to make some difficult decisions about what it will buy.

“They’re likely to come down from 1,763,” said retired Gen. John Michael Loh, a former Air Force vice chief of staff and former commander of Air Combat Command. Loh was referring to the number of F-35s the Air Force currently plans to purchase.

“Fewer Joint Strike Fighters for the Air Force is almost a certainty,” said retired Gen. Richard Hawley, also a former commander of Air Combat Command. Recent comments by top service officials that the Air Force will shrink indicate that the F-35 program will recede from its original planned buy, Hawley said.

“The Navy and Marine Corps team has already reduced its buy [of F-35s] by about 500,” Hawley added.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, a defense consulting firm in suburban Washington, D.C., said cutbacks to the program are likely. However, at this stage of development, any changes to production numbers are accounting tricks because the bulk of aircraft will be built in the next decade and have not yet been appropriated for, he said.

Officially, no cuts

Meanwhile, program officials say the Air Force has not officially made any cuts to the program.

“The number of airplanes we’re working toward for the Air Force is 1,763 of the [conventional takeoff] variant,” said program spokeswoman Kathy Crawford. “That is our current program buy of record.”

But, if history is any guide, what happened to the F/A-22 Raptor program might foreshadow the Joint Strike Fighter’s fate. When the F/A-22 program began, officials planned to buy about 800 aircraft to protect against the Soviet Union. That number has been whittled down for a variety of reasons ranging from growing program costs to the demise of the Soviet Union. Air Force officials argue that the Raptor is at least two times as capable as its F-15 Eagle predecessor so they can buy fewer F/A-22s. Today, the Air Force is expected to buy less than 300 Raptors.

And, several top officials have said the service will pare back its fighter force, leaving open the question of whether the Air Force needs close to 2,000 of the stealthy jets.

“It’s neither right nor proper for us to argue that the same force structure and size is required when the killing capacity of each of these systems goes up,” Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper said during the Air Force Association’s conference in September in Washington, D.C.

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