Late last week the Air Force gave a tantalizing hint about its possible F-35 basing plans. Where to “bed down” the F-35 as the blue-suiters say is a huge decision. First, it’s the only major fighter program left, and second, nearly every Air Force base is home to some seriously geriatric aircraft.
Not every base will be a winner and get new fighters. So far, the candidate bases include Air National Guard hubs for air sovereignty missions as well as big active-duty bases like Hill AFB in Utah. However, the Air Force’s sneak peek at candidate bases raises as many questions as it answers. First is what the Air Force will do to get new fighters to the Guard so it can continue the missions of defending America’s skies. In the past, the Air Force sometimes handed down F-15s and F-16s to Guard units after several years of active service. Today the F-15s and F-16s are too old for that, so the Guard needs new F-35s.
Second, can the Air Force speed up its full-rate production of F-35s from 80 to 110 aircraft per year? General Schwartz has long said he wants to do just that. Active F-15s are a breath away from fleet retirement. F-16s will hit an aging bulge in the mid-2010s when scores per year crest near their 8000 hour service life. Given the aging fighter force structure, strong F-35 production rates are a must.
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