By AARON MEHTA
WASHINGTON — Barring investment from European allies, the Pentagon should abandon the goal of a nuclear-capable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in favor of spending funds elsewhere, according to former US Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz.
Schwartz, who headed up the Air Force from 2008 to 2012, argued instead that those funds should be put towards the Air Force’s new long-range strike bomber (LRS-B).
“I recognize and fully support the need for nuclear deterrence in America’s defense architecture to include the triad and capabilities on which a number of our alliances depend,” Schwartz said in a speech organized by the Stimson Center, a DC-based think tank. But the Pentagon needs to ask if “pursuing nuclear capability in the F-35 the best use of precious investment dollars, as this is a multiple-hundred million dollar decision, and more if one considers the optimization of the weapon for the F-35.”
“It is my conviction that without financial buy-in by the NATO partners, either the F-35 nuclear integration or through fielding of an independent or equivalent European manufactured aircraft, F-35 investment dollars should realign to the long range strike bomber,” he continued.
Going back to the Cold War, NATO allies have relied on American nuclear assets in Europe as a deterrent from Russian advancement. The US maintains a small number of nuclear weapons in Europe, capable of being mounted on F-15E and F-16 aircraft, a military asset that a Congressional Budget Office report, released in December, estimates will cost $7 billion for the next decade.
That CBO report also estimated the costs for upgrading F-35s to nuclear-capability at $350 million over the next decade, although that number does not include implementation costs.
If the US is going to continue to have nuclear-capable tactical forces defending Europe, “it important for the NATO allies to manifest financial as well as policy commitment to the NATO nuclear posture,” Schwartz said. “Absent financial commitment and burden sharing, I would argue that those resources now allocated for F-35 nuclear integration… should be realigned to expedite long-range bomber nuclear certification.”
The desire for a nuclear-capable F-35 was laid out in the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.
“The Air Force will retain a dual-capable fighter (the capability to deliver both conventional and nuclear weapons) as it replaces F-16s with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter,” the report reads. “The United States will also conduct a full scope B-61 (nuclear bomb) Life Extension Program to ensure its functionality with the F-35 and to include making surety – safety, security, and use control – enhancements to maintain confidence in the B-61.”
That life-extension program has been a source of controversy, with program costs having doubled over initial estimates. After the extension program is finished, new tail kits turning the B61 from bombs into weapons capable of integration on the F-35 would be installed.
In the omnibus bill passed by Congress this week, the House and Senate stripped $10 million from the president’s budget that was earmarked for a B61 “Capabilities Development Document” for the F-35. Congress also removed $34.8 million from the president’s request for a B61 life-extension program.
Despite his hesitation for spending on the F-35, Schwartz argued that the B61 extension program must continue.
“B61 life extension is necessary independent of F-35 nuclear integration,” he said. “It must proceed in any case, in my view, focused on modernization and long range strike bomber.”
The LRS-B is the Air Force’s next-generation bomber program. Only general details of the heavily classified program have emerged. The platforms are expected to enter service in the mid-2020s and cost about $550 million each, with a potential buy of up to 100. The program has been largely unaffected by sequestration because the funding streams are relatively small in the coming years, according to Air Force officials.
Schwartz hopes to see the money saved from the F-35 put towards making the LRS-B nuclear capable as early as possible.
“I don’t have access to the exact programmatic, but there is a priority obviously [for] conventional certification of the new aircraft,” he said. “My point is, ideally nuclear certification would follow very shortly thereafter. It is a resource issue, and likely to become more so. So as I prioritize things, absent a NATO burden share, I would prioritize the LRSB to accelerate that nuclear certification to the degree that is possible.”