Air Force Focuses on Turning 'Tail to Tooth' in Face of Budget Crunch
The Air Force will focus on modernizing its aging fleet, even as budgets decline, said the service's top civilian leader.
Since 9/11, at least 400 aircraft have been retired for the Air Force inventory, and the service has “begun to put the squeeze internally on many different support functions,” Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley said Oct. 20 at a breakfast hosted by the National Defense University Foundation and the National Defense Industrial Association.
"Over the last 10 years or so, we have become a smaller Air Force with increasing requirements for modernization,” Donley said. “We are now the smallest Air Force since 1947.”
Donley said the Air Force will be challenged to absorb its share of DoD budget cuts — in the range of $450 billion over the next 10 years. It is "hard, but doable," he said.
The Air Force so far has shifted $33 billion “from support tail to war fighting tooth,” he said.
But Donley warned that going forward the low hanging fruit has been picked, and “there’s not much more to do.” Further savings could come from a planned audit of compensation and benefits, which total about 40 percent of defense spending.
Mainly from support and administrative pools, the Air Force’s active duty strength has been reduced since 9/11 by about 25,000, Donley said. It’s a trend that will likely continue as budget constraints are balanced against the need to upgrade weapon systems and acquire new technology.
Donley countered that the Air Force has also “made some important improvements and in many respects is more combat capable” than at any time in its history. Wartime experience and “key investments” like buying F-22 Raptors and C-17 Globemasters have offset the downsizing, he said. The force has also fielded more than 200 unmanned aircraft that fly missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the Air Force’s fleet continues to age and as it becomes a smaller, modernization will become more important, he said. The average age of an Air Force fighter jet is now 22 years, he said. Its bombers are on average 35 years old. Tankers average 47 years apiece, he said.
Donley declared his commitment to continued focus on buying the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a program that has been plagued by cost overruns and delays.
“This (aircraft) will be the backbone of the U.S. Air Force 10, 20, even 30 years from now,” he said.
Other programs on the Air Force's wish list include long-range strike capabilities, replacement of tanker aircraft and nuclear capabilities. If the nation’s nuclear arsenal is forced to downsize, preserving thetriad of delivery optionswould “become more important,” he said.
If Congress cuts more than $450 billion from the defense budget, drastic strategic decisions will be needed, Donley said. Less funding would mean the Air Force “would have to cancel some programs and delay or defer others. But we are working through these issues and we will come out of this with the finest military in the world.”