Tactical Aircraft:

DOD's Ability to Meet Future Requirements Is Uncertain, with Key Analyses Needed to Inform Upcoming Investment Decisions

GAO-10-789: Published: Jul 29, 2010. Publicly Released: Aug 9, 2010.

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From 2011 through 2015, DOD plans to spend over $336 billion to operate, maintain, modernize, and recapitalize its tactical air forces. Since DOD projects tactical aircraft inventory shortfalls over the next 15 years, it must effectively balance resources between an increasingly expensive Joint Strike Fighter program and the need to keep its legacy aircraft viable. GAO was asked to assess DOD's tactical aircraft requirements, the extent to which plans for upgrading and retiring legacy aircraft and acquiring new aircraft are likely to meet the requirements, and how changes in strategic plans and threat assessments have affected requirements. GAO analyzed tactical aircraft requirement and inventory data, key plans and threat assessments.

DOD's current combined tactical aircraft requirement is around 3,240 aircraft. The requirement includes a mix of various types of Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps fixed-wing fighter and attack aircraft. The Air Force requirement is 2,000 aircraft, and the combined Navy and Marine Corps requirement is about 1,240 aircraft. To achieve national security objectives, however, DOD not only needs the right quantity of aircraft to adequately equip each service's force structure, but must also have the right organization and mix of aircraft capabilities. The services have reduced required quantities by a combined total of around 900 aircraft since 2002. Service officials believe that the current numbers provide sufficient capabilities to carry out assigned missions with manageable risk, but are not at optimal levels. Although officials also stated that current requirements account for capabilities provided by other weapon systems, such as unmanned aircraft and bombers, it is unclear exactly how and to what extent. DOD expects to encounter shortfalls in both Air Force and Navy tactical aircraft inventories, but the timing and magnitude of these shortfalls largely depend on assumptions about Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) acquisitions and the viability of legacy aircraft. The JSF program has continued to experience cost and schedule problems and is in the process of being restructured. In addition, DOD's investments in legacy systems have generally been assigned lower priority in the budgeting process. As a result, many legacy aircraft systems are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as parts needed to support key subsystems age and become obsolete. The Navy and Air Force are exploring various options for closing their projected inventory shortfalls--including upgrading and extending the service lives of hundreds of legacy aircraft, and making modifications to how tactical air forces are used. Many of these options may be funded in future budgets and could cost billions of dollars. The services have not fully reconsidered tactical aircraft requirements in light of recent changes in strategic planning and threat assessments, but according to service officials, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) affirmed the existing force structure in the near-term, principally the next 5 years. Similarly, DOD's recent Aircraft Investment Plan, which was required by Congress, and fiscal year 2011 budget decisions did not directly affect tactical aircraft requirements, but did make some changes in near-term aircraft investments. The QDR reflected a change in how DOD views future national security challenges, examined expected challenges in various combinations, and recognized the need to plan for and acquire adaptive and agile systems, including unmanned aircraft. The department is still in the process of establishing the analytical foundation for its future requirements. Until requirements analyses and JSF restructuring are complete and capabilities provided by unmanned aircraft and bombers are more clearly accounted for, it will be difficult for DOD to make informed investments in legacy aircraft upgrades and modernizations, and new aircraft procurements. GAO suggests that Congress consider requiring that costs associated with modernizing and sustaining the legacy fleet be included in future investment plans, and recommends that DOD 1) better define requirements and the size and severity of projected shortfalls, 2) clearly articulate how systems like unmanned aircraft are accounted for, and 3) complete a comprehensive cost and benefit analysis of options for addressing expected shortfalls. DOD agreed with the second recommendation and partially agreed with the others, citing current and planned actions. GAO believes its recommendations remain valid.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This matter for congressional consideration was initially drafted as a recommendation for executive action, and was included in the draft GAO report that was sent to DOD for official comment. In its comments, DOD noted that the annual Plans were directed by Congress and therefore any changes in the reporting parameters would have to be required by Congress. As a result the draft recommendation was converted to a matter for congressional consideration in the final GAO report. DOD's March 2012 Annual Aviation Inventory and Funding Plan discusses Air Force and Navy plans to invest in modernizing and sustaining legacy aircraft including service life extension programs, in addition to discussing investments in new aircraft development and procurement. DOD's previous Plans (2010 and 2011) focused on investments in new aircraft and did not discuss the considerable amount of funding needed to upgrade legacy systems. However, the March 2012 Plan, notes that the Air Force expects to invest in legacy fighter modernization and preferred munitions to help bridge the gap between legacy fighter platforms and the delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. It also states that the Air Force will conduct a service life extension program and capability upgrade for approximately 350 F-16 Block 40-52 aircraft beginning in fiscal year 2016. In addition to the Air Force, the Plan also addresses the Navy's expected investments in legacy aircraft. It states that the Navy is addressing the delays in the F-35 program with several management and investment measures: adding to the service life of approximately 150 legacy strike fighter aircraft (F/A-18A-D) and accelerating the transition of legacy F/A-18C squadrons to F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The addition of this information in the 2012 Plan makes the plan more robust and provides greater transparency, which meets the intent of our recommendation.

    Matter: To ensure that DOD's future Aircraft Investment Plans are more complete, balanced, and comprehensive, Congress may wish to consider modifying the reporting requirements of future Plans to include not only acquisition costs for new procurements, but also investments for modernizing and sustaining legacy aircraft, including service life extension programs.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2011, DOD submitted an Aircraft Procurement Plan to Congress along with its fiscal year 2012 budget request. The Plan provided insight into DOD's expected investment in procuring various types of aircraft between 2012 and 2041, including fighter/attack, long range strike, and unmanned aircraft. The Procurement Plan discusses projected shortfalls and future requirements, and contains a major section explicitly dedicated to explaining Air Force and Navy plans, including cost projections, for mitigating their respective fighter/attack shortfalls. In contrast the Aircraft Investment Plan submitted in February 2010, one year earlier, had not explicitly addressed fighter/attack shortfalls or mitigation plans. In addition to the 2011 Procurement Plan, Air Force leadership also provided a classified briefing to congressional staff in April 2011. The Navy provided similar briefings, and in May 2011, submitted a report to congress that detailed the service's analysis of the costs and benefits of extending the service lives of legacy F/A-18 aircraft versus procuring new F/A-18E/F aircraft to mitigate projected shortfalls. These reports and briefings provided additional clarity regarding each service's tactical aircraft requirements and projected shortfalls, identified the key assumptions underlying the force structure and shortfall projections, and examined potential options for mitigating the shortfalls. Therefore, taken together we believe these reports and briefings sufficiently meet the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To address the uncertainty surrounding projected tactical aircraft shortfalls, the Secretary of Defense, working with the Secretaries of the Air Force and the Navy, should more clearly explain the department's requirements and the size and severity of anticipated tactical aircraft shortfalls, identify the key assumptions underlying shortfall projections, and identify alternatives and associated costs to mitigate the impact.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD submitted its updated Aviation Inventory and Funding Plan to Congress in April 2015. The Plan addresses projected investments in fighter/attack, bomber, and unmanned aircraft, but like the plans preceding it, it does not clearly articulate how the complementary capabilities provided by those aircraft are accounted for and quantified when calculating requirements.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should more directly and clearly articulate how the complementary capabilities provided by unmanned aircraft, bombers, missiles, and other weapon systems are accounted for and quantified when calculating tactical aircraft requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2011, DOD submitted its Aircraft Procurement Plan, Fiscal Years 2012-2041, to Congress along with its fiscal year 2012 budget request. The Procurement Plan provided insight into DOD's projected fighter shortfalls, options for mitigating those shortfalls, and expected investments in procuring various types of aircraft between 2012 and 2041, including fighter/attack, long range strike, and unmanned aircraft. In April 2011, the Air Force provided a classified briefing to congressional staff, detailing its analysis of various alternatives for mitigating projected shortfalls. That analysis included an assessment of the feasibility and costs associated with extending the service lives of hundreds of F-16s. The Navy also briefed congressional staff, and in May 2011, submitted a report to Congress, that detailed its cost-benefit analysis of various options related to its projected fighter shortfall. The report explained key details of the Navy's fighter shortfall mitigation analysis comparing the costs and benefits of extending the service lives of legacy F/A-18 aircraft with procuring new F/A-18E/F aircraft. Taken together these reports and briefings meet the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that upcoming investment decisions are fully informed, the Secretary of Defense when reassessing tactical aircraft requirements and potential shortfalls should also complete a comprehensive tactical aircraft analysis that compares and contrasts the costs and benefits of extending the lives of legacy aircraft with the costs and benefits of procuring additional new aircraft including the F-22, JSF, F/A-18E/F, F-15E, and newest block F-16. This analysis should be provided to the Congress with the defense budget in February 2011 and include 1) an assessment of the technological and manufacturing feasibility of each option; 2) an evaluation of the pros and cons for each option in terms of combat effectiveness and desirability from the warfighter's perspective; and 3) identification of data sources and explanation of underlying assumptions; and identification of potential sources of funding for the various options including the deferment of JSF procurements into the future.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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