Not Date Driven
The Air Force is re-examining when its first F-35 combat unit will be ready.
—Michael C. Sirak
Orlando, February 19, 2010--Air Combat Command is re-examining the standing target date to field USAF's first combat-ready unit of F-35A strike fighters given the recent changes to the F-35 program, Gen. William Fraser, ACC boss, told reporters at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium.
"We are re-evaluating the IOC [initial operational capability] date and what our definition of that is," he said during the Feb. 19 meeting, which occurred right after his symposium address.
The Air Force’s current plan is to have the first operational unit in place in Fiscal 2013.
Fraser did not say that date could not be met, even though the major restructure that Pentagon leaders announced Feb. 1 would essentially extend F-35 development by about 13 months and slow production ramp-up.
But, he said, "I think it’s incumbent upon me … to take a look at that."
IOC means that there are sufficient airframes as well as the trained aircrews and maintainers and spare parts to sustain combat operations.
Fraser said, when looking at the IOC, his focus is on ensuring that the correct "combat capability" is in place; he is not fixated on a date.
“It has got to be about combat capability and that is crews trained, spares, supportability, all of that together," he said. He added, “That is my advice and counsel."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled the F-35 restructure Feb. 1 as part of the rollout of the Pentagon's Fiscal 2011 budget request to Congress. In explaining it, Gates said the in-service dates for the Air Force, Marine Corps (Fiscal 2012) and Navy (fourth quarter Fiscal 2014) would not change, although there would be fewer aircraft delivered by the time of these IOC milestones.
“The aircraft are going to deliver at a different rate now," Fraser confirmed.
With the restructure, Fraser said he is "still very confident" in the F-35 program.
"It is progressing along; it is encouraging," he added.
He said the F-35 is a "very complex program" and a "complex aircraft with a lot of tremendous capability."
"When you are on the edge of these new technologies and then integrating all of that . . . [it's] a lot of hard work," he explained, adding, "Every program has had its challenges."
Nonetheless, he told symposium attendees during his speech that, with the restructure in place, the F-35 program "now ... needs to produce."
"If we experience further delays ... we will have a gap in our combat capability," he said.
In order to mitigate any gap, he said the Air Force would "continue to maximize" the capability of legacy fighters and "integrate them with our fifth generation aircraft."
During the press roundtable, he added that ACC is also exploring a service life extension for some F-16s "to see if we can fly them longer." This would extend their structural life from 6,000 hours to 8,000 hours, he said.
It is also exploring new concepts of operations for how it operates legacy fighters with F-22s today that could yield combat gains.
But Fraser said he hasn’t looked at buying new-build legacy aircraft designs off of running production lines as a potential gap-filler.
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