In the heady days of the 1980s, the Air Force and Navy moved on parallel tracks. Both bought hundreds of short-range, high-performance fighters and struggled to develop longer-range, larger-payload bombers designed to evade enemy radar, specifically the Air Force B-2 and the Navy A-12. When procurement budgets shrank, the same roof fell on both services. Fighter procurement dropped from a peak of 399 in 1986 to just 60 in 1993, the B-2 was cut back from a planned 132 planes to just 21, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney canceled the A-12 altogether.
The Navy decided it could no longer wait for the development of stealth airplanes, with their ungainly radar-diffusing shapes, which made them difficult to land on aircraft carriers, and their radar-absorbent coatings, which made them difficult to maintain in salty sea air. Instead, Navy planners focused their modernization program on a heavily upgraded F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a plane 30 percent larger — and correspondingly more expensive — than the basic F-18, and able to carry more bombs and fuel but still lacking the range, payload, or stealth envisaged for the canceled A-12.
The Air Force, by contrast, bet all of its chips on stealth. … While it poured ever more billions of dollars into this Holy Grail fighter, the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force all but stopped buying more F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons.
The two services’ purchasing profiles diverged dramatically. Navy fighter procurement plunged from 171 planes in 1986 to just 36 planes in 1993, and then grew to a steady current rate of 40 to 50 F/A-18s of various types per year. The average age of its fighter fleet rose, but only from 11 years in 1986 to 13.6 today.
By contrast, Air Force fighter procurement crashed to the ground: 228 planes in 1986, 24 in 1993, zero in 1995. Purchases did not climb back up to 21 planes a year until 2003 — but all 21 were F-22s, in service at last. In the meantime, however, the average age of Air Force fighters has climbed from less than 11 years in 1986 to more than 20 today.