The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are running out of fighters. Heavy wear and tear over nearly a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has depleted the two services’ combined fighter force. Purchases of new planes have been delayed by controversial planning decisions. As a result, U.S. maritime forces operate at elevated risk. Robotic systems could help mitigate this risk, but the Navy has resisted adopting pilot-less aircraft.

The U.S. Navy also has shortage of fighters, primarily F/A-18C/Ds. Together, both services are currently short by around 50 aircraft, but this so-called “fighter gap” could deepen to an estimated 125 aircraft by 2017 before the new Lockheed Martin F-35 enters service in large numbers. The naval fighter gap first appeared around 2006, when the Marines decommissioned two fighter squadrons flying F/A-18D and AV-8B, owing to unexpected fatigue issues. The Hornets, in particular, were worn out from repeated deployments to western Iraq, where the two-seat jets were in high demand for forward air-control missions. The Marines planned to recommission the squadrons once their F-35Bs fighters become operational.

Some analysts argue that the drones could represent a radical improvement over existing capabilities. A Unmanned Combat Aerial System (UCAS) like the X-47, scheduled to perform carrier deployment evaluation in two years could deliver more firepower over greater range and with fewer losses than the F-35 – and could do it sooner, and potentially more cheaply. The Air Force has already realized this advantage – in 2010, the Air Force will buy more armed drone aircraft than it buys fighters.

To help the Navy through the widening fighter gap, Congress doubled F/A-18E/F production for 2010, to 18 copies. More new Hornets could follow as older planes are decommissioned or transferred to the Marines. Some analysts have proposed the Navy advance plans for unmanned fighters, as another alternative to the F-35. The Marines don’t fly the E- and F-model Hornet, and have no concept of operations for drone fighters. Realistically, the Marines can only wait for the F-35, while their existing fighter force continues wasting away.

For the full story see: David Axe article on ‘War is

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