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After 10 years of frequent carrier deployments during two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Navy has almost the exact same number of fighters — 1,179 — as in 2001. It has retired older F-18 Hornets in favor of newer F-18E/F Super Hornets.

Yet it too faces a projected fighter gap of required missions compared with available aircraft. The Navy plans to do life-stretching work on 150 older F-18s, from 8,600 flight hours to 10,000 to ensure the gap does not exceed 50 planes.

John E. Pike, a longtime military analyst who directs the GlobalSecurity.org research website, said President Obama’s military strategy, which ditches the demand that the armed forces be able to fight two big land wars at once, means the Air Force and Navy have a sufficient number of fighters.

“Now we have only one major theater war, at most,” Mr. Pike said. “The tactical aviation components were sized before the precision revolution, in an age of sorties per target, and now we live in an age of targets per sortie. Probably, we have a bit more tactical aviation than is called for at the moment.”

This is the point Mr. Panetta and the top brass are making to justify smaller armed forces overall.

Their strategic guidance paper calls for increased spending on unmanned aircraft, such as the missile-carrying MQ-1 Predator and the larger MQ-9 Reaper. The Pentagon has spent the past 10 years perfecting precision-guided bombs that allow one pilot to hit multiple targets.

An Air Force “white paper” last week put a brave face on future fighter cuts.

“The Air Force has made the hard choices to closely align with the new strategic guidance in our [fiscal 2013] budget submission by trading size for quality,” the Air Force leadership said. “We will be a smaller but superb force that maintains the agility, flexibility, and readiness to engage a full range of contingencies and threats.”

Joint strike fighter flak

The Pentagon is juggling the retirements of some old planes and the refurbishments of others as its newest fighter keeps hitting turbulence.

The F-35 joint strike fighter is a multirole stealth aircraft that was supposed to be entering the fleet in large numbers two years ago. But it remains dogged by huge cost overruns and technical failures.

Mr. Panetta has announced another production slowdown, putting more pressure on the current fighter fleet to keep performing.

At $382 billion for 2,443 planes, the F-35 Lightning is the most expensive weapons system ever, and perhaps the most important, given it is the long-term replacement for three venerable aircraft: the F-18 Hornet, F-16 Falcon and AV-8B Harrier.

Each F-35 has doubled in cost to more than $130 million, and the aircraft will not reach full production until 2018 as the current fighter fleet keeps aging.

“In so many different respects, the F-35 program truly represents a tragedy,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said in a December floor speech. “The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps desperately need new aircraft to take the place of the current strike and fighter jets that have been at war for most of the last 10 years. These well-worn legacy aircraft are coming to the end of their service lives.”

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