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​F-35A Lightning II aircraft receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender from Travis AFB, Calif., July 13, 2015, during a flight from England to the US. Air Force photo by SSgt. Madelyn Brown.

Congress should boost funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and ignore a Pentagon initiative to buy new “legacy” F-15EXs, according to a letter to the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees from 128 retired general and flag officers, including six former members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The letter and signatories were organized by Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35. A handful of former general officers, at least one of whom works as a consultant for Boeing, have recently penned op-ed articles supporting the F-15EX plan.

The April 30 letter asks that Congress “increase the procurement rate” of the F-35 in the fiscal 2020 defense budget, saying the fifth-generation fighter “ensures air advantage over emerging peer adversaries through cutting-edge technologies.” The general officers pushed for an increase of 24 F-35s in the Air Force and Marine Corps versus the numbers proposed in the 2020 budget request. Specifically, they want 60 F-35As for the USAF (12 more than requested) and 22 F-35Bs for the Marine Corps (12 more than requested), while continuing with the requested 20 F-35Cs for the Navy, for a total of 102 aircraft.

“This increase will reestablish the original F-35 production rates that in the past years have been tamped by sequestration-era budget caps resulting from the Budget Control Act,” the signatories wrote. “The US must start buying the F-35s in larger quantities to reach the minimum 50 percent of fifth generation fighters in the timeframe required to meet the emerging global threat.”

The writers noted that the F-35 is doing well in deployments and has racked up “a 28:1 kill ratio at recent Red Flag exercises in Nevada.” More than 380 F-35s are now flying with all three US services—the Navy recently having declared initial operational capability—and in 17 locations worldwide, the letter noted.

The F-35 is “our nation’s only fifth generation stealth aircraft in production,” and the writers urged Congress to increase the buy rate “to keep the F-35 ahead of our adversaries.”

As for the surprise addition of new F-15EXs in the 2020 Air Force budget request, the signers did not mention it by name, but said the DOD’s proposal to buy “a legacy, fourth-generation aircraft that has limited survivability in a high-end fight today and is equipped with decades-old technology” won’t work. “The fourth-generation airframe is simply unable to win against near-peer threats, which are the biggest concern” of the National Defense Strategy. Such aircraft have “little operational relevance in a near-peer conflict.”

Former Air Force Chiefs of Staff signing the letter included Gens. Merrill McPeak, Michael Ryan, John Jumper, and T. Michael Moseley. Former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Thomas Hayward and former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos also signed. Of the 128 signers, 60 were former USAF general officers, including 17 that wore four stars. Twenty-five of the 128 were four-star flag officers from all services. By service, 60 were former USAF, 51 former Marine Corps, and 17 former Navy.