Replace the Joint Strike Fighter Program with F-16s and F/A-18s

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is the military's largest aircraft development program. The program's objective is to design and produce three versions of the stealthy aircraft: a conventional takeoff version for the Air Force; a carrier-based version for the Navy; and a short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) version for the Marine Corps. The Departments of the Navy and the Air Force placed orders for 101 F-35s from 2007 through 2011 and anticipate purchasing 2,342 more from 2012 through 2035. The Department of Defense (DoD) has estimated that, including the cost to complete development, the remaining cost for those purchases will amount to about $260 billion. (All three versions of the aircraft are still in the developmental stage and will not enter operational service for several years.)

Under this option, DoD would cancel the F-35 program and instead purchase the most advanced versions of fighter aircraft already in production: the Lockheed Martin F-16 for the Air Force, and the Boeing F/A-18 for the Navy and Marine Corps. If those aircraft were purchased at the rates planned for the F-35, the option would decrease outlays by about $27 billion over the next five years. Over the longer term, the option would save $48 billion through 2021 and $78 billion if the entire planned fleet of F-35s--not all of which would be purchased within the 10-year budget window--was replaced with F-16s and F/A-18s.

The Congressional Budget Office's estimate of savings under this option is based on information from DoD's latest available Selected Acquisition Report. Since that report was prepared, DoD has announced that the JSF program has experienced substantial cost increases and schedule delays. CBO lacked sufficient details about those changes to produce a revised estimate of the savings that could be realized under this option. Savings from canceling the F-35 program would probably be significantly greater than CBO's estimate for the entire production run (now likely to include purchases beyond 2035, if production quantities remain unchanged). How much the potential savings over the next 5 or 10 years will change depends on the degree to which purchases are postponed to accommodate delays in development and increases in cost.

An argument in favor of this option is that--if equipped with upgraded modern radar, precision weapons, and digital communications--new F-16s and F/A-18s would be sufficiently advanced to meet the threats that the nation is likely to face in the foreseeable future. The extreme sophistication of the F-35 and the additional technical challenge of building three distinct types of aircraft with a common airframe and engine have resulted in significant cost growth and schedule delays. Although the F-35 program was recently restructured and further changes have been announced, additional cost growth and schedule delays remain a possibility. The cost of upgrading the other aircraft also could escalate, but their lesser technical challenges relative to the F-35 would make comparable cost growth unlikely. Because the Air Force and the Navy project that planned production rates for the F-35 would be insufficient to meet inventory goals as older aircraft needed to be retired, schedule delays for that aircraft could be particularly problematic.

A disadvantage of this option is that F-16 and F/A-18 aircraft lack the stealth design features that would help the F-35 evade enemy radar and hence operate more safely in the presence of enemy air defenses. The services would maintain some stealth capability, however, with the B-2 bomber and F-22 fighters already in the force. Any greater need for stealth capabilities that might arise in the future could be addressed with new, highly stealthy unmanned fighters and long-range bombers that the services plan to develop. Another potential disadvantage of this option is that substituting F/A-18s for the F-35B-- the AV-8B Harrier. Those strike groups would be left to the Marine Corps' STOVL version of the F-35--would rely on armed helicopters (which lack the range, speed, remove that service's capability to operate fixed-wing payload, and survivability of the F-35) or on other forces, fighters from the amphibious assault ships in naval expe-such as aircraft from aircraft carrier strike groups. ditionary strike groups, a capability currently provided by