The U.S. Air Force is reportedly considering the commissioning of a new class of lightweight fighter to replace a portion of its ageing fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons, with a derivative of the Boeing T-7 Red Hawk trainer seen as a leading candidate. The Air Force received its first T-7 trainer for fight testing on November 8, after the new aircraft class made its first flight several years behind schedule in June. Despite its very small size and simplicity, the aircraft has been beset by wide ranging technical and other performance issues since 2018 and as a result is expected to achieve an initial operational capability until 2027 – three years behind initial projections. With the Air Force planning to acquire 351 T-7s deliberations within the service have centred around the possibility of acquiring a fighter variant – which although much more limited in range, weapons payload and sensors would be significantly cheaper and less maintenance intensive to operate. Development of fighters as derivatives of existing trainer jets is far from unprecedented, with notable examples including the F-5 based on the T-38 trainer, the South Korean FA-50 based on the T-50 trainer, and the Chinese L-15 based on the JL-10 trainer.
The U.S. Air Force’s requirement for a new class of light fighter to replace its large F-16 fleet, which currently numbers approximately 500 aircraft, is primarily a result of serious issues affecting the F-16’s originally intended successor the F-35A fifth generation stealth fighter. The F-35 was initially expected to be acquired by the Air Force at rates of around 110 airframes per year, and to have operational costs comparable to those of the F-16 allowing it to replace almost all the aircraft in the fleet. The program has not only faced very serious delays, with F-35s also still suffer from approximately 800 performance bugs and being far from capable of high intensity combat, but the fighters’ operational costs have also far exceeded initial projections making replacement of all F-16 units far from economically feasible. While the low maintenance F-16 has among the highest availability rates in the fleet, those of the F-35 are among the very worst despite the aircraft being by far the newest, which has seriously limited the fleet’s combat readiness as well as pilot training hours.
In June Lieutenant General Joseph Guastella joined multiple senior Air Force officers warning that the rising age of fourth generation fighter units was taking a serious toll on crews’ flying hours, stressing the fleet was “on a collision course” and combat readiness could “fall off a cliff.” Former U.S. Pacific Air Forces Vice Commander Lieutenant General David Deptula highlighted at the time that as a result Chinese pilots were getting more flying hours than their American counterparts. With F-35s being acquired at just 48 aircraft per year, and significantly less in 2023 due to software issues, operational costs in F-16 units have continued to rise as the aircraft age far past their intended service lives. Thus either keeping ageing F-16s in service, or transitioning units to F-35s, both result in significant drops in availability rates. This has increased the appeal of acquiring a simpler alternative to the F-35, with an ‘F-7’ fighter based on the T-7, despite its very limited combat potential, being one of very few options currently available to the Air Force. Serious shortfalls in the size of the American fifth generation fighter fleet have particularly serious implications as China’s own leading fifth generation fighter the J-20 demonstrates increasingly advanced capabilities and will be acquired by the country’s air force at 250 percent the rate of U.S. Air Force F-35 acquisitions.