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​Air Combat Command boss Gen. Hawk Carlisle said the Air Force must increase the F-35 buy rate if it expects to stick with its overall goal of procuring 1,763 F-35As. Air Force photo.

—John A. Tirpak

If there is a supplemental defense budget in the coming months and it contains an increase for the Air Force, the fighter fleet gets first dibs, Air Combat Command chief Gen. Hawk Carlisle said in an interview with Air Force Magazine Tuesday.

“The first priority is the fighter force structure,” Carlisle said. “That’s … been a bill payer for the last 10 years; more, actually, if you look at how long we’ve been reducing the size of the fighter force.” He said the “fighters first” thinking is shared by the top USAF leadership.

The Air Force is seriously short of fighter capacity, he said, with simply not enough aircraft to spread around to cover all the world trouble spots, and he wants to put the bulk of any new money toward buying F-35s.

“We have to increase the buy rate of the F-35,” he insisted, noting that in the budgets of 2010-2012, the Air Force anticipated that “by the year 2015, we were going to buy 110 a year. And this year, we put in our budget 44” F-35s. The slowness of bringing the type into service has pushed the eventual full equippage with F-35s out many years, and Carlisle said he continues to struggle with whether an objective of 1,763 F-35As is still the right number.

The service is conducting an intense look at its air superiority needs circa 2030, and Carlisle said he’s looked at whether to cut off the F-35 at 1,000 or 1,200 aircraft and put the rest of those designated funds “into the PCA,” or Penetrating Combat Aircraft, which is the planned follow-on to the F-22 and F-35.

“Maybe that’s the right answer,” he said, “or maybe [the answer is] a modernized F-35.” In the near-term, however, “we need to get the buy rate up and get as many as we can as soon as we can.” Other priorities for a supplemental, he said, would have to be munitions, where “we’re woefully short,” as well as training, particularly for high-end operations against a peer opponent.

Lockheed Martin, in its fourth-quarter earnings call the same day, said it expects to reach full-rate production of all variants of the F-35 in Lots 13 and 14, at 150 jets a year, and is confident it will hit the cost bogey of $85 million a copy for the A model by 2019 (Lot 13).

Higher rates will likely produce lower unit costs due to the economy of scale, and profits on the program are expected to hit 10 percent in 2018 and as high as 12 percent by 2021.

The company also said it expects to ink contracts for Lots 10, 11, and 12 this year, which contain about 90, 125, and 150 aircraft, respectively. Lockheed expects to build about 5.5 F-35s a month this year. Company CEO Marillyn Hewson said, “We … are just looking at our options,” as to whether to appeal the Pentagon’s decision last fall to cut off negotiations on Lot 9 and simply set a price.

She said Lockheed’s not “under pressure” to back away from an appeal, but she has met with President Donald Trump several times and pledged to work with the government to reduce costs on the program.