The Pentagon has rolled out its budget today and although the fine details remain nearly non-existent, we are getting a look at the plan's broader strokes. Two items in the 2020 budget request are especially important for us to follow up on—the official procurement of the F-15X and the purchase of 22 F-5E/Fs.
The official F-15X procurement announcement is exactly as we predicted it would be going back to when we broke the existence of the concept last July. This includes the exact initial procurement number—eight F-15EX (two seat) aircraft for 2020, a metric that at the time didn't match other outlets' reporting—as well as the rough total dollar amount of $1,117.4B. A portion of this total will be used for purchasing the first eight aircraft and the rest will be used to fund limited development work to integrate a handful of systems not found on export variants of the Eagle, as well as standing up the official Air Force program and funding some spares and support.
The bottom line here is that we don't have a unit cost for the aircraft themselves yet and won't until the USAF reaches a firm deal with Boeing. So that dollar figure clearly provides some wiggle room.
With the F-15X's inclusion in the budget came a whole new attitude toward buying any fighter but the F-35 from USAF officials. The message was clear—the days of the official DoD party line of "F-35 or nothing" are over. Major concessions about affordability and the need for a mixed force to claw back readiness and affordability are now spoken openly by Air Force officials.
There is finally room for a balanced fight force procurement concept now.
It's a rare, but promising glimmer of logic and realistic decision making by the USAF brass that seems to have been living in wonderland for nearly two decades when it comes to fighter procurement and force structure planning. But still, the USAF is buying 48 F-35s in 2020 and that airframe will continue to be the unchallenged focus of the tactical fighter procurement equation for many years to come.
Regardless of the fine details and the fact that the USAF has taken an about face when it comes to procuring an aircraft like the F-15X alongside the F-35—even if it is only to equip units already flying the aging F-15C/D that weren't slated to get the F-35 anyway—Congress still has to approve of the deal. This may not be easy as there is already a group of lawmakers that have deep special interest ties to the F-35 that are already opposing the relatively humble acquisition.
I am still working on a deep analysis piece that looks at the alternatives to the F-15X and gives an opinion on if the USAF should proceed with procuring it. It should be published soon, so stay tuned for that.
Moving on to the Navy, one unique item in today's budget materials was the inclusion of acquiring 22 F-5E/Fs Tiger IIs from the Swiss Air Force to fulfill fleet adversary support duties. The 44 F-5N/Fs that are currently flying with two US Navy and one Marine adversary squadrons came from surplus Swiss Air Force stocks. The delivery and refurbishment of those jets wrapped up roughly a decade ago and the fleet continues to age while demand for its services continue to rise.
Some of this demand is being offset by employing private contractors for adversary support duties, but the Navy will still have to shore up its F-5 force unless it plans on retiring the type as a whole in the future. Currently, the F-5 offers an incredibly economic and proven solution for a range of threat presentations, so if they were replaced with another type, it would likely come at a significant cost increase, not just in terms of acquisition, but especially in terms of operation and sustainment costs.
That's why it's not surprising that the Pentagon is opting to take another 22 F-5s off Switzerland's hands and have Northrop Grumman's St. Augustine facility refurbish them so that they can provide years of aggressor support duty. In fact, the Navy may have had its hand forced to some degree when it came to snapping up those planes as private contractors are gobbling up viable and economical surplus fighter jet airframes available on the international market at a startling pace as the demand for such services balloons.
Considering that TacAir just won the Navy's own '4th generation' adversary contract by proposing upgraded, but economical F-5s surely has made the type even more attractive to the major players in the commercial adversary support marketplace. You can and should read all about that landmark deal here.
In other words, if the Navy waited to acquire the Swiss Tiger IIs, they may not have been available at all.
It remains unclear exactly how the Navy will distribute these airframes once they are reassembled and refreshed back in the states. They could augment existing F-5 units to help increase capacity and spread flight hours over a larger pool of planes to allow the fleet to last longer as a whole, or they could end up being part of a new adversary unit structure. The official budget summary doesn't give us much to work on, stating:
The Department is procuring F-5E/F aircraft from the government of Switzerland in support of the USN and USMC adversary requirements. The F-5 is an agile, highly maneuverable, reliable supersonic fighter, combining advanced aerodynamic design, engine performance and low operating costs.
But the Marines have already made it clear that they are looking to add roughly two dozen F-5s to their ranks and spreading those jets in small groups at training bases around the U.S. to support the rapidly increasing demand for air-to-air training.
In the past, the Harriers that some of the F-35Bs will replace had only a defensive air-to-air role, with just the AV-8B+ jets gaining the ability to employ AIM-120 AMRAAMs this decade. Marine Legacy Hornet units also had concentrated heavily on their air to ground mission over the last decade and a half of the Global War On Terror, and Corps' aging Hornets don't represent cutting-edge in air-to-air capability anymore as it is.
The F-35B/C fleet with its advanced sensor fusion and stealth, on the other hand, has an insatiable thirst for aerial bad guys in order to challenge its pilots. Even some of the best Hornets now slated to stay in the USMC's ranks will be getting advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars that will require more adversary capacity to develop pilots' air-to-air skills. On top of this, with the Pentagon's refocusing on peer-state warfare, air-to-air training is becoming a much higher priority than it was in the past. Hence the need for both organic and contracted aircraft to satisfy this demand.
So, with all this in mind, grabbing the Swiss Air Force's unwanted F-5s makes nothing but sense, regardless of how convenient the timing of their acquisition is, fiscally speaking.
Yet the cost for the jets, and probably a bunch of parts and accessories that go with them, is just under one third the cost of a single F-35C, clocking in at $39,676,000. This equals roughly $1.8M per plane if you just divide the total across the number of the jets alone. In fact, just flying them back to the U.S. will be a comparatively substantial bill. Last time, the Swiss F-5s trickled across the Atlantic stuffed in the cargo holds of Navy and Marine Corps KC-130Ts!
It will be interesting is seeing if these jets get major avionics upgrades along with their structural refurbishment. Maybe the Navy will just go with the off-the-shelf option that TacAir has developed, one that is open architecture and will allow for the installation of new sensors and advanced radars with relative ease. Giving the Navy's aggressor F-5s new sensors—like a modern radar and bolt-on IRST—and capabilities like helmet mounted sights will go a long way to keeping them relevant for the years to come.
We will know more about these acquisitions and so much more once we can actually review the line item details closely. Those have not been published yet, but when they do, you we will probably have a lot more to report on in regards to the Pentagon's wishlist for fiscal year 2020.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com