Pentagon 2015 budget: Under fiscal strain, USAF justifies fleet retirements

20 March 2014

The USAF wants to divest legacy fleets like the A-10s in favor of more survivable aircraft in the next five years. Source: Jamie Hunter

Key Points

  • The USAF wants to purchase new platforms in order to stay ahead of adversaries' increasing technological sophistication
  • At least two entire fleets, A-10s and U-2s, would be retired in the next five years under the USAF plan

The US Air Force (USAF) is defending plans to retire entire fleets of aircraft over the next five years, citing budget pressure and the need for better technology.

The USAF favoured procurement of new platforms in its fiscal year 2015 (FY 2015) budget proposal in order to keep pace with adversaries' increasing technological sophistication, officials said on 18 March. However, doing so forced service planners to make difficult cutbacks in its legacy fleets.

"The fact is, there were no good choices," said Major General James Jones, the USAF assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements. "This budget has the least risk of all the bad options we considered," he said during a Pentagon press briefing.

The budget plan divests the Lockheed U-2 manned reconnaissance fleet in favour of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.

According to Gen Jones, the entire U-2 fleet will now be retired in FY 2016, even before the RQ-4s receive necessary upgrades. "We can't afford to keep both platforms," he said.

The USAF's five-year budget plan includes USD258 million for RQ-4 upgrades. Officials said that another USD489 million would be needed to complete the modifications in the early 2020s. The USAF needs USD500 million just for a Global Hawk universal payload adapter that would allow it to carry the same sensor package flown on the U-2.

Gen Jones also defended the service's plan to retire the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt close combat aircraft. He said the move would save over USD4 billion.

When asked if there were any alternatives to the politically unpopular retirement, he said officials also considered retiring the entire Rockwell B-1 bomber fleet. "You can't just winnow out portions of fleets when you need to save billions of dollars," he explained.

In the end, the USAF was satisfied that a variety of its aircraft, armed with precision-guided munitions, could perform the close-air support (CAS) mission. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, Gen Jones noted, will have CAS as a primary mission.

"The vast majority of [CAS flights] are being accomplished by airplanes other than A-10s, and it is being done very effectively," he added. "That [aircraft] was the least risk for us to divest."

Rather than continue funding the A-10 fleet, as adversaries continue to develop more sophisticated weapons, USAF officials want to remain at the forefront of technological development with new, more survivable systems, Gen Jones said.

"We are focusing on the anti-access/area denial [A2/AD] environment," he said. "With the proliferation of advanced SAMs [surface-to-air missiles], we have to invest in more survivable aircraft."

He added that the USAF is looking to make a fast leap to sixth-generation combat aircraft technology, highlighting plans to invest USD1.4 billion in a follow-on programme to the Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology (ADVENT) effort to develop a variable-cycle turbojet engine.

(510 words)