As Military Fighter Fleet Shrinks, National Guard Eyes Commercial Alternatives

By Sandra I. Erwin

The U.S. Air Force is moving to retire outdated aircraft from its fighter inventory, including F-16s and A-10s that have for decades been operated by the Air National Guard.

Some squadrons are transitioning to unmanned aircraft, a decision endorsed by Air Force leaders as a way to keep the Guard equipped with modern technology and able to support combat operations.

But some Air National Guard leaders are privately grumbling that losing manned aircraft and replacing them with remotely piloted Predators or Global Hawks leaves them ill-equipped to respond to domestic emergencies such as natural disasters and homeland security crises.

Such complaints are not new and often are viewed as politically motivated attempts by states to hold on to military funds and jobs. They recentlyresurfaced during the confirmation hearing for Air Force Secretary nominee Deborah Lee James, where lawmakers questioned Air Force plans to retire larger numbers of aircraft as a result of sequestration budget cuts.

Tensions between the active-duty Air Force and the Guard over resources and equipment reached new heights last year, when leaders proposed deep cuts to the Guard in the fiscal year 2013 budget. The discord likely will continue into 2014, when a congressionally mandated commission is scheduled to make recommendations on how the Air Force should balance the needs of all its components as it absorbs deep spending cuts.

The Air Force proposed to save nearly $9 billion by retiring 286 aircraft over the next five years, including 227 in fiscal year 2013. The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, meanwhile, directs a reduction of 65 aircraft from the Air National Guard, 57 aircraft from the Air Force Reserve, and 122 aircraft from the active-duty Air Force.

The ongoing turf battle has created a marketing opportunity for Textron AirLand, a privately funded venture that recently unveiled a new jet that is targeted to military buyers. Company officials said the aircraft, called Scorpion, got positive reviews last week at the conference of the National Guard Association of the United States in Honolulu.

The Guard is worried about losing its manned aircraft, said Edward Hackett, Textron AirLand program director. “The Guard looks at Scorpion and sees that it fits nicely to their mission space,” Hackett said.

State governments share the Guard’s apprehension about manned aircraft inventories thinning out, and about units becoming too dependent on drones, he said. “Several states already have lost their manned squadrons and will be transitioning to unmanned.”

Units that have flown A-10s and F-16s and are shifting to drones fear that, in the event of a domestic disaster, the red tape associated with unmanned flight could cripple their ability to respond, Hackett said. “There is great interest in having manned aircraft not just for Title 10 [military] but also Title 32 [domestic] responsibilities for homeland security and disaster response,” he said.

The two-seat Scorpion was unveiled this month at the Air Force Association Air & Space Conference. It is still in the final stages of assembly, and a first flight is expected by year’s end, said Hackett.

The company is positioning Scorpion as a low-cost alternative to military fighters and high-end drones for surveillance and light-attack missions.

The supplier is a partnership of Textron’s Cessna Aircraft and a newly created venture, AirLand Enterprises, which is funded by several private investors.

Hackett said the company would not disclose a price tag for the aircraft, but estimated operating cost would be about $3,000 per flying hour. Traditional fighters are three to four times more expensive. That would make Scorpion an attractive option to Guard units that are cash strapped and also seeing greater demand for their services, Hackett said.

Guard officials are hopeful that they can “open up the dialogue on capabilities such as this” with Air Force leaders, he said. Hackett insisted that the company is not seeking to bash unmanned aircraft, but is pointing out the obvious. Drones “do not deploy very well within the national airspace,” he said. “That's been extensively reported.”

Congress has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a plan to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace by September 2015. Allowing drones to fly in U.S. airspace faces many obstacles, however, as there are legal barriers and safety issues that might take years to resolve, according to the Congressional Research Service. In 2007, the FAA issued a policy that stated that “no person may operate an unmanned aircraft system in the National Airspace without specific authority.” Currently, all drone operators who do not fall within the recreational use exemption must apply directly to the FAA for permission to fly.”

In an emergency such as a hurricane or wildfire, when the National Guard is called to deploy immediately, “it is kind of hard to get a Predator up and operating in just a few hours,” said Hackett.

“Manned aircraft can deploy on a moment's notice.”

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, C4ISR, Sensors, Homeland Security, Disaster Response, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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