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The top officer in the U.S. Air Force wants the service to build a cheap, light fighter to replace hundreds of F-16s from the Cold War and add to a small fleet of advanced, but expensive and unreliable, stealth fighters.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr. said that the result would be a mix of expensive “fifth-generation” jets like the F-22 and F-35 and cheaper “fifth-generation-minus” jets.

If this plan sounds familiar, it’s because the Air Force started working on a cheap, light fighter a decade ago to replace hundreds of F-16s from the Cold War and add to a small fleet of advanced, but expensive and unreliable, stealth fighters.

But after 20 years of research and development, the Air Force and the lead contractor, Lockheed Martin (LMT), added more and more new technology to the fighter, making it heavier and more expensive.

The F-35 is what we’re talking about, yes. The 25-ton stealth warplane is now part of the problem it was supposed to solve. And now, officials say, the U.S. needs a new fighter to fix the F-35 problem.

The F-35 is expensive. Each plane, including the engine, costs around $100 million. Even though it’s quiet and full of high-tech sensors, it’s hard to keep up with, has bugs, and isn’t reliable. Dan Ward, a former Air Force program manager and author of popular business books like The Simplicity Cycle, said, “The F-35 is not a low-cost, light-weight fighter.”

Brown told reporters last Wednesday that the F-35 is like a Ferrari. “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day; you only do it on Sundays.” This is our “high-end” fighter, and we don’t want to use it all for the “low-end” fight.

Brown said, “I want to limit how often we use those planes.”

Because of this, they need a new low-end fighter to help with day-to-day operations. Today, this need is met by the Air Force’s fleet of about 1,000 F-16s. But the Flying Branch has not bought a new F-16 from Lockheed since 2001. The F-16s are older.

The Air Force’s top acquisition official, Will Roper, brought up the idea of new F-16 orders in his last interview before leaving his job in January. But Brown shot down the idea by saying that he doesn’t want more of the old planes.

Brown explained that the 17-ton, non-stealthy F-16 is too hard to update with the most recent software. He said that instead of ordering more F-16s, the Air Force should start from scratch to make a new low-end fighter.

Brown’s comments are a quiet admission that the F-35 has failed. As it was planned in the 1990s, the program was supposed to make thousands of fighters replace almost all of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps tactical warplanes.

The Air Force alone wanted almost 1,800 F-35s to replace old F-16s and A-10s and make up the low end of a low-high fighter mix. The high-end would be 180 twin-engine F-22s.

But the Air Force and Lockheed Martin designed the F-35 to fail from the start. Dan Grazier, an analyst at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C., said, “They tried to make the F-35 do too much.”

There is a small-wing version for operations on land, a big-wing version for the Navy’s aircraft carriers with catapults, and a vertical-landing model with a downward-blasting lift engine for the Marines’ small-deck assault ships.

The difficulty added a cost. Cost increases caused delays. Because of the delays, designers had more time to make the design even more complicated. These extras cost more money. Because of these costs, there were more delays. The list goes on.

F-35s took their first flight 15 years ago, but the Air Force only has 250 of them. Now, the service is giving signs that the program might be cut. Brown has started calling the F-35 a “boutique” and “high-end” fighter like the F-22 for a good reason. After making just 195 F-22s, the Air Force stopped making them.

The F-35 is coming to a turning point,” said Grazier.

Leaders at the Pentagon have hinted that the Navy and Air Force might get a bigger share of the U.S. military’s roughly $700 billion annual budget as part of a shift in focus toward peer threats like Russia and China. all paid for by the Army.

“If we’re going to buy a new fighter, now is probably the time to do it,” Grazier said. After only a few hundred F-35s are made, the Air Force could stop making them and put tens of billions of dollars into a new fighter program.

But it’s not clear if the Air Force will ever be able to build a fighter that is both light and cheap. The new low-end jet could end up like the F-35, which steadily got heavier, more complicated, and more expensive until it was, well, a high-end jet.

If that happens, as it has in the past, a future Air Force chief of staff might tell reporters, say, in 2041, that the new F-36 is a Ferrari and you don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day.

This future general might say that the Air Force should make a cheap, light fighter to replace its 60-year-old F-16s.


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