Despite objections, Air Force sees no good alternatives to eliminating aircraft fleets

The Air Force’s top officer said Congress needs to let his service retire entire fleets of aircraft in order to cope with budget cuts.

Gen. Mark Welsh said if the money has to come from somewhere else, each of the alternatives would jeopardize the Air Force’s core mission areas.

Welsh, speaking to a breakfast audience at the National Press Club in Washington Wednesday, said even with the partial relief from sequestration DoD got from last year’s Bipartisan Budget Act, the Air Force still needs to find ways to trim its budget by billions of dollars.

The service said it is shrinking its end strength as quickly as it can as one means to save money, but Welsh argued the only way to find savings of the magnitude the Air Force needs is to divest itself of entire aircraft platforms.

“The reason this seems so dramatic to people is that three years ago, the projected budget for fiscal year ’15 for the Air Force was $20 billion higher than we actually have in our budget. That’s about 20 percent of our overall budget,” he said. “Changing from a plan that had projected funding and training and force structure at that level to one that is going to be $20 billion a year lower from here forward is a significant adjustment. But if it’s not done, things will just get worse in the future. Trimming around the edges as we put together our budget proposal just wasn’t going to work. We had to look at some pretty dramatic things.”

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Among them, the retirement of the service’s entire fleets of A-10 attack jets and U-2 spy planes. The Air Force says slimming down the size of its aircraft inventory across the board wouldn’t produce the savings it needs, because eliminating fleets outright also cuts out the huge logistics and maintenance infrastructure that accompanies each aircraft type.

All horrible options

The A-10 decision has invited fierce opposition from members of Congress, particularly ones whose districts include A-10 bases. But Welsh said the move to retire all 343 of those planes will save the service $4.2 billion per year, and there aren’t many other ways to save that kind of money.

“We also looked at saving $4.2 billion by cutting F-16s out of the fleet. It would take about 363 F-16s to do that, which is 14 squadrons of F-16s. We could cut the F-15E fleet. We could cut the entire B-1 fleet. We could push F-35s outside the future years’ Defense plan and buy them later, which drives costs in lots of other areas, by the way, but we could do that,” he said. “And we could just ground a whole bunch of squadrons today and make it look like last year did on our flight lines, with airplanes parked and nobody flying. We looked at all those options, and we came very clearly to the conclusion that of all those horrible options. The least operationally impactful was to divest the A-10 fleet. It makes eminent sense from a military perspective if you have to make these kinds of cuts, but nobody likes it.”

In the run-up to the 2015 budget submission, the service scoured all five of its core mission areas for things it could do without, or with less of. In each case, officials concluded they could not cut any deeper without crippling core missions like maintaining air superiority, but Welsh said those are exactly the cuts that would have to be made if Congress blocks the A-10 stand-down.

“Air superiority is foundational to the way we fight wars as an American military,” he said. “Without it, you can’t maneuver on the ground, you can’t maneuver at sea. You have to have it, and all of our warfighters know that. And only one service can provide a theater’s worth of air superiority. Only one has the capacity, the command-and-control capability to be able to do this. When we capped the buy of F-22s, it meant that we had to support them with some other kind of airplane to provide a theater’s worth of air superiority. And for the near term, Until the F-35 is on board and able to assist, it is the F-15C. We are cutting F-15s out of our fleet this year as part of the budget cuts, but we can’t eliminate the entire fleet of aircraft, or else we can’t do the air superiority mission, and our combatant commanders won’t accept that.”

Nor would they accept cuts in the area of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), Welsh said.

“If you ask the combatant commanders, their number one shortfall year after year after year is ISR capability,” he said. “We are already reducing ISR capability in this budget — we’re cutting every mission area. But they would not support us cutting any more than we already have projected. So maybe we could take it out of global mobility, cut our airlift fleets. Well, I talked to Ray Odierno, the chief of staff of the Army about that, and said, ‘OK, we’re all getting smaller, can we cut our airlift fleet more than we planned to align with these new force sizes?’ And he said, ‘We’re going to be smaller, but that means we need to be more flexible and more agile. So no, I wouldn’t support you cutting the airlift fleet.'”

Too many risks already

If sequestration stays in effect past 2015, the Air Force did decide it would have to make some cutbacks in the area of aerial refueling — cuts it says would be manageable, but far from ideal. Welsh said that’s another area that needs to be protected, but if the automatic budget cuts aren’t abolished, the Air Force would ask Congress to do away with the entire fleet of KC-10 tankers too.

“The analysis showed us that if you got rid of the KC-10 fleet, it would be less impactful than getting rid of the KC-135s, which means three times as many airplanes, and then you flat out can’t do the job anymore. Without the KC-10s, you could do the job, but it would be ugly, and you would not have any flexibility whatsoever,” he said. “We finally decided the impact of that was just too big on all the services and the combatant commanders compared to other options that we looked at. So airlift wasn’t a good place to go. So how about command-and-control? Maybe we can cut systems there. But the only service that can do command-and- control on a theater-scale is the Air Force. Missile defense, air operations, ISR activity, whatever it might be, nobody supports cutting that further.”

In the end, Welsh said the Air Force decided it’s already taking more risks than it would like to in funding for each of its mission areas and that it can’t afford to spend its resources on platforms that are dedicated to a single function — close air support, in the case of the A-10 — when that same role could be filled by more versatile aircraft the Air Force already owns.

Nor, he said, is it feasible to simply downsize aircraft fleets while keeping a few in the inventory.

“If we took, for example, just the A-10s that have all been upgraded with new wings over the last few years and divested the rest of the fleet, we’d only save $1 billion, because it’s all the infrastructure that drives the big costs,” he said. “The difference between $1 billion and $4.2 billion is significant. That pays for half of our flying hour program each year, for example. This is not about the A-10 not being a great airplane, it’s about where can we take operational risk going forward, where can we create savings, and how can we start transitioning the Air Force into thinking about the threat and the environment we will have to operate in 10 years from now. The A-10 will not be part of that solution in a high-threat environment. And this budget is eliminating our ability to have airplanes, systems, or people who can only operate in a single environment.”

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