Lockheed Martin has countered a potential cut in US Air Force orders for its F-35A by claiming the in-development fighter could fill an air superiority role as well as the ground-attack mission for which it is officially designed.

The USAF officially lists the F-35's conventional take-off and landing variant as a ground-attack fighter complementing the air superiority mission, replacing only the Lockheed F-16 and the Fairchild A-10.

But Lockheed has added the Boeing F-15C/D air superiority fighter and F-15E Strike Eagles to its own speculative and unofficial list of aircraft the F-35A can replace. That allows it to claim the USAF's requirement to buy 1,763 F-35As over the next 20 years remains intact despite recent policy changes.

Lockheed provided the analysis to Flight International in response to questions about the potential impact of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which proposes to slash the USAF's theatre strike wing-equivalents to 10 to 11 wings.

The reduction potentially devastates the USAF's demand for 1,763 F-35As. If the USAF maintains a 72-aircraft wing structure, only 720 to 792 combat-coded fighters are needed to perform the F-35's primary mission. That role is currently performed by a mix of F-16s, A-10s and F-15Es. Lockheed's analysis assumes the mission would be performed exclusively by F-35s within 25 years.

"All the A-10s and F-15Es would reach their life during the USAF buy of F-35s [through 2035] with no other tactical strike platform to replace their full capability other than F-35s," Lockheed's analysis says.

Lockheed also makes a second major assumption. The analysis assumes the QDR plan to operate six air superiority wing-equivalents will include two wings of Lockheed F-22s and four wings of F-35As. Lockheed acknowledges the F-22 fleet is limited to 1-2/3 wings. The four wings of F-35As would replace the F-15C/Ds, according to Lockheed.

If the F-35A gains the new mission, the USAF requirement would rise to 14-15 wings, totalling between 1,008 and 1,080 combat-coded jets. Lockheed also estimates a need for another 593 to 636 jets required for training, test, depot and attrition reserve. The final number for the F-35A requirement ranges between 1,601 and 1,715 fighters, a total that Lockheed concludes is "in the noise" compared to the programme estimate of 1,763.

Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed vice-president for business development, supported Lockheed's analysis, saying a single F-35 provides the capability of six F-15s in air-to-air simulations. Although the F-35's projected top speed of Mach 1.6 falls short of the F-15's M2.5 maximum, O'Bryan says, the F-35's higher level of stealth offsets the F-15's speed advantage in calculations of overall survivability.

The F-35's prowess in the air superiority role has been debated, with one controversial Rand analysis in 2008 concluding the jet "can't turn, can't climb and can't run" fast enough to survive dogfights.

According to industry sources, an unnamed senior USAF officer said last year: "JSF is not an air dominance platform and we understand that."

Source: Flight International