Air Force urged to consider Navy F-18s

Officials want the Air Force to weigh all possibilities for dealing with the Air National Guard’s aging fleet of fighter jets.

As the Air National Guard grapples with an impending fighter jet shortfall that will threaten its ability to protect U.S. airspace, its supporters in Congress and the Pentagon want the Air Force to consider all possible solutions -- even buying Navy F-18s to fill the gap.

Lawmakers and other National Guard boosters are becoming increasingly frustrated with the Defense Department and the Air Force, charging that officials have no workable plan to deal with the Guard's aging fleet.

They argue that 80 percent of the Air Guard's F-16s, which fly the majority of Air Sovereignty Alert missions, will retire years before their replacements are ready, depleting units of the aircraft they need to secure domestic airspace.

The workhorse F-15 fleet isn't in much better shape, having been grounded for three months after one broke apart in November 2007 during a training mission over eastern Missouri.

According to a Government Accountability Office report released this year, the Air Force will not have viable aircraft after fiscal 2015 at some of its 18 ASA sites in the United States -- 16 of which are run by the Guard. By 2032, two sites will still not have viable aircraft for the mission.

"Despite the Pentagon's head-in-the-sand attitude, I'm exploring any and every option on the table to address the looming fighter shortfall," said Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., co-chairman of the Senate National Guard Caucus.

Bond and others have proposed buying "4.5-generation" fighters - advanced versions of current fighters that are less costly than the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - as one option that could solve the problem quickly.

Across the Capitol, the House has passed a fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill that includes an amendment by Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., requiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates to review buying advanced F-15s, F-16s and F-18s for the Air Guard.

"To me, it's a very critical problem that needs immediate attention in order to avert a real catastrophe in eight to 10 years," LoBiondo said.

Both the F-15s and F-16s are still in production for international customers. But there is concern that advanced versions of the F-15, a Boeing Co.-built plane with a price tag that could top $70 million, would be cost-prohibitive. As for Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-16, the manufacturer is expected to focus its U.S. efforts on its F-35 program.

While neither plane is out of the question, the Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, another Boeing plane, has emerged as an appealing, though unorthodox, alternative.

Boeing has given the Navy an unsolicited offer to buy 149 of those aircraft carrier-based fighters as part of a multiyear procurement plan at $49.9 million apiece. The price tag would likely drop if the military bought more to equip Air Guard units.

For its part, Boeing said it hasn't had any discussions with the National Guard about the F-18s. But one defense official said it's an area the Air Force should review.

"I think the taxpayer demands we look at this because it's an efficient, highly capable aircraft that can sustain our force structure through this risky period," the official said.

The Air Force is focusing its budgets on the F-35, which eventually will make its way to the Air Guard. But leaders insist they are open to other solutions, if necessary.

Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt, chief of the Air Guard, said last week he is "platform agnostic," but mentioned the F-18 -- along with the F-15 and F-16 -- as a possible solution, especially if the F-35 program falls behind schedule.

But the defense official expects the Air Force to reject any efforts to buy Super Hornets -- or any other older fighters. "The Air Force won't do it willingly, more than likely, because it doesn't meet their strategy," he said.

Buying F-18s would not mark the first time the Air Force purchased planes built for the Navy. During the Vietnam War, the Air Force flew A-7 Corsair IIs, F-4 Phantom IIs, and A-1 Skyraiders, all of which were originally designed for take offs and landings on Navy carriers.

Still, there would likely be concerns within the Air Force and even in some state Air Guard units that buying F-18s would complicate training and logistics.

But those arguments, the defense official said, are "not valid."

Otto Kreisher contributed to this report.

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