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Joint Strike Fighter program crucial to future air dominance

WASHINGTON -- Keeping the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program on track is important because the Air Force needs to replace aging aircraft and it is an important complement to the F-22A Raptor aircraft.

That Capitol Hill testimony came March 16 from Lt. Gen. Carrol H. “Howie” Chandler, deputy chief of staff for Air Force air, space, and information operations, plans and requirements.

“The Air Force has been very successful with what we call the high/low mix,” the general said. “The F-15, for example, is high end. (It has) fewer numbers and is more expensive because of its capabilities. The F-16 is the low end of the mix -- more affordable, more numbers, optimized for air-to-ground vice the air-to-air mission of the F-15.”

The general told members of the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on tactical air and land forces that the Air Force meant for there to be a similar relationship between the F-22A and the F-35 aircraft, both “fifth generation” fighters.

“The two are very complementary to each other because of the optimization of the F-22A for air-to-air (combat), and its ability to suppress or defeat enemy air defenses. The Joint Strike Fighter is optimized for air-to-surface and its ability to strike hard ... (with the) persistent numbers that we would like to buy of the aircraft,” he said. “It is very important to us.”

General Chandler also said aging aircraft are a reason to push forward with the JSF program.

The new aircraft will relieve the increasing cost of maintaining an older fleet, while at the same time bring new capabilities to the Air Force.

“As we attempt to maintain the aging fleet that we have today -- as you know that becomes very expensive,” he said. “We are able to sustain high mission-capable rates today because of the young men and women maintaining those aircraft. As the aircraft get older ... they are going to have to work harder to make those airplanes fly at the same rate.”

As part of the fiscal 2007 president’s budget, the Air Force recommends termination of the Joint Strike Fighter F-136 engine development program.

General Chandler said the cancellation will provide cost savings through fiscal 2011. The program was meant to provide a mixed engine to the F-35 fleet, with F-136 engines from one manufacturer and F-135 engines from another.

In written testimony, the general said the Department of Defense concluded that a single engine supplier provides the best balance of risk and cost based upon recent experience with engine development for the F-22A and F/A-18 E/F. He said the current F-135 engine continues to meet JSF performance requirements, but said that in the past the Air Force has had success with maintaining two engines for one airframe.

“That success ... stems primarily to contractor performance -- the contractor performed better under competition,” he said. “And there were fleet operations issues, in that you were buying an insurance policy against a mass grounding of the fleet.”

That “insurance policy” came at a cost, however. The general said the Air Force feels the costs are not worth the benefit to the Air Force to have a fleet of aircraft with different, competing engines.

“You pay for that insurance policy in terms of additional supply lines and additional training for your people,” he said.

“If you look at where we are today with the F-119 engine (in the F-22A), and you look at the other competing issues that we have in the department with trying to fund other programs, and you look at the reliability and the safety that we have developed with this program, you can make a prudent decision that says you can save the money that you would spend on the second engine.”

The F-136 is a General Electric engine developed in partnership with Rolls Royce. The Air Force wants to use the Pratt and Whitney F-135 engine for the F-35 aircraft. That engine is also developed in partnership with Rolls Royce. The F-22A aircraft is currently fitted with an F-119 engine, also developed by Pratt and Whitney.

Committee members were also concerned with encroachment issues.

Encroachment is when communities surrounding a military installation build closer and closer to an airfield or training area and civilian interests begin to compete with military training efforts. The general said the Air Force works with communities to prevent encroachment.

“Encroachment is always an issue ... we work very closely with the communities so we don’t endanger people as we try to train as realistically as we can,” he said.