Air Force Secretary Paints Sobering Budget Picture

By Sandra I. Erwin

When he commanded air combat forces in 2006,Gen. Ronald Keys cautioned the U.S. Air Force to break its addiction to expensive “Gucci” weapons.
Air Force leaders are certainly heeding that advice as they brief congressional committees this week on details of the service’s 2013-2017 budget proposal.
The major themes of the spending plan: The Air Force is emphasizing quality rather than quantity, many items that would be “nice to have” are not affordable, and modernization will be slowing down.
“We made tough choices,” Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley said Feb. 2 at a breakfast meeting hosted by the Air Force Association.
Donley outlined proposed cutbacks to the Air Force fleet, most of which had been unveiled last week by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as part of a belt-tightening plan to reduce Pentagon spending by $259 billion in the next five years.
Donley offered a more pointed assessment of how the planned budget cuts are compelling the Air Force to scale back on dream high-tech weaponry and focus on the pragmatic.
About 286 aircraft have been identified in the budget submission for elimination across the Air Force over the next five years. They include 123 fighters (102 A?10s and 21 older F?16s), 133 mobility aircraft (27 C?5As, 65 C?130s, 20 KC?135s, and 21 C? 27s), and 30 intelligence-collection systems (18 Global Hawk RQ?4 Block 30 unmanned aircraft, 11 RC?26s, and one E?8 damaged beyond repair).
Planning for a smaller force, Donley said, means “our decisions favored multi?role platforms over those with more narrowly focused capabilities.”
The Air Force is slowing the pace and scope of modernization while protecting programs that it considers imperative if it has to fight a war in the foreseeable future, such as long-range bombers, cargo planes, surveillance drones, aerial refueling tankers and F-16 fighter jets.
In addition to jettisoning old hardware, the Air Force also expects to remove nearly 10,000 airmen from the ranks, about half from the active-duty force and the rest from Reserves and Air National Guard.
Donley defended the recommended cutbacks to the A-10 fleet, which has turned into a controversial issue with Army advocates who claim that this will lead to diminished capacity in the Air Force for air-support missions. Donley insisted that the Air Force remains “fully committed” to supporting ground forces with strike and transport aircraft.
The centerpiece of a future higher-tech Air Force, the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, remains plagued by delays and is now projected to enter the fleet by the 2020s. “It’s way out there,” Donley said, although he stressed that that Air Force is not scaling back current plans to buy the aircraft. But for purposes of planning its five-year budget, the F-35A is not a big factor, he said. “It’s not anywhere in the next 10 years.”
As a result, the Air Force is hedging its bets and upgrading 350 decades-old F-16 Fighting Falcon multi-role jets. Donley said this was a wise move in light of F-35 delays and the possibility that F-16s might be flying far longer than the Air Force originally forecast when it bought the F-35.
“It makes sense to protect multirole F-16s,” Donley said.
Several space programs, such as the Space?Based Infrared and Advanced EHF satellites, and space launch vehicles, will continue to receive funding, Donley said. Cyberwarfare also is among the budget winners. The Air Force also plans to collaborate with the Navy to fund new radars, precision munitions, and other systems to support the Air?Sea Battle concept that seeks to equip the U.S. military for large-scale wars in the Pacific region.
“To continue funding these high priority investments, we made the hard choices to terminate or restructure programs with unaffordable cost growth or technical challenges such as the RQ?4 Block 30, B?2 Extremely High Frequency radio improvements, and the Family of Advanced Beyond Line of Sight Terminals,” Donley wrote in a white paper released yesterday. “We eliminated expensive programs with more affordable alternatives that still accomplish the mission, such as the C?130 Avionics Modernization Program, the C?27J program, and Defense Weather Satellite System. Likewise, we discontinued or deferred programs that are simply beyond our reach in the current fiscal environment, such as the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform, Light Mobility Aircraft, and Light Attack and Armed Reconnaissance aircraft.”
The budget hit list contained many items that the Air Force did want, Donley told the AFA conference. “They are just not affordable.”

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, DOD Budget

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