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Posted: 3/22/2006 4:52:51 PM EDT
March 27, 2006

1 Air Force minus 1,124 planes equals a new fleet
Plan to cut bombers, 1 in 4 fighters adds up to dogfight with lawmakers

By Laura M. Colarusso
Times staff writer

The Air Force aims to retire close to 20 percent of its aircraft over the next six years under an ambitious plan that will yield a distinctly different fleet from the one now parked on air base flight lines.

If lawmakers will allow it, that is.

In all, the retirement plan calls for cutting 1,124 planes over the next six years, starting with 118 in fiscal 2006, as new airframes join the fleet. But congressmen are already gearing up to battle the cuts and preserve jobs in their home states.

Lawmakers have had some success in forcing the service to keep legacy aircraft. Recent legislation required that the Air Force keep F-117 Nighthawks in service, for example.

This time around, there is broader recognition that as the service seeks to free up funds for modernization — upgrades to current planes and purchases of new aircraft — in a defense budget limited by both wartime expenditures and new efforts to contain deficit spending, something has to give.

So whether it’s the timely departure of aging F-15s set to be replaced by the long-awaited F-22A Raptor or the accelerated retirement of B-52 Stratofortress bombers and U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance planes, airmen can expect to see planes they’ve loved — or loathed — for years finally leaving the ramp.

Procurement is top priority

In some ways, this is the other shoe dropping. The first fell on the news that the Air Force intends to cut the equivalent of 40,000 full-time personnel over the same six-year period, between now and fiscal 2011.

“It’s budget-driven,” said Christopher Hellman, a military policy analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, of the proposed aircraft retirements. “Budgeting is always about choices and priorities. There’s a certain amount of risk inherent in any budget. The question is whether it’s acceptable.

“You can cut the numbers down only so far because eventually numbers are going to begin to matter,” Hellman said. “You literally can’t be in two places or three places or four places at once.”

Air Force leaders are making difficult tradeoffs to afford expensive weapon programs. Those cuts include speeding the retirement of the entire 33-aircraft U-2 fleet and 38 B-52 bombers, a request that many on Capitol Hill are scrambling to block.

The Air Force retires aircraft every year because the planes get old. However, the service’s arguments for retiring several of the aircraft, like the F-117, are focused more on declining military utility or vulnerability in today’s threat environments.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley said in a March 6 interview with Air Force Times that enemy defensive systems are making the Nighthawk obsolete because its stealthy coating isn’t as effective against more advanced anti-aircraft technologies. And, the aircraft can carry only two bombs, he said.

“If you look at the number of F-117 sorties from Desert Shield [and] Desert Storm, it’s fairly high,” Moseley said. “When you look at the numbers flown in Kosovo, it’s a lot lower. When you look at the numbers flown in Iraq, it’s even lower.”

The Air Force does have plans to bring new aircraft on line. The 2007 budget request allocates $3.3 billion for 12 C-17 cargo aircraft, which will bring the total program purchase to 180 aircraft. But amid concerns that wartime operational tempo is wearing out the transports sooner than anticipated, the Air Force has asked for funds to buy another seven C-17s through an unfunded priorities list released Feb. 27.

The Air Force is also buying 183 F-22A Raptors to replace its aging F-15C and F-117 fleets. Service officials will continue to buy the aircraft through 2010 with the last deliveries coming in fiscal 2012, said Doug Karas, an Air Force spokesman.

Large purchases of the Raptor’s cousin, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, are also on the horizon. Cheryl Limerick, a spokeswoman for the JSF program, said the Air Force plans to buy 1,763 of the aircraft. Current plans call for the Air Force to buy about 110 a year, with the service receiving its first operational JSF around 2010. Purchases would continue beyond 2025, according to an Air Force officer with knowledge of the program.

But most defense analysts say — and many in the Air Force realize — the service probably won’t be able to purchase that many. The Navy already cut its purchase by about 500 aircraft.

If history is any guide, the Raptor program’s growing pains may foreshadow the F-35’s fate. The F-22A began more than 15 years ago as an 800-aircraft program to protect the skies against the Soviet threat. That number has since been whittled down: Today, the Air Force is expected to buy fewer than 200 Raptors, although Air Force leaders still cite 381 planes as their desired Raptor fleet size.

Despite the decrease in new fighter procurement, cuts to the fighters represent the bulk of the proposed reduction. The Air Force wants to retire 474 of its F-15s, F-16s and F-117s.

During a Feb. 6 briefing, Maj. Gen. Frank Faykes, deputy assistant secretary for budget, said the Air Force plans to reduce its fighter fleet by about 25 percent. Air Force officials have said their goal is to make that reduction by 2025.

“I think there’s a growing recognition that the role of the air superiority fighter no longer represents the primary Air Force function,” Hellman said. “They’re no longer dogfighting.”

Air Force officials maintain that because the next generation of fighters is more capable than those in action today, the service can justify a smaller fleet.

Plans call for the Air Force to retire 107 F-15 A- and B-model aircraft and 30 F-15 C and D models by 2011. Service officials also want to retire 10 F-16 A and B models in the same timeframe.

The F-16 Cs and Ds would see the largest reduction of any airframe, reduced by 275 planes.

“The way you save money is to reduce the number of aircraft you have to operate and support,” said Steven Kosiak, director of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute in Washington, D.C.

Service officials did not provide details for what cuts, if any, are planned beyond 2011.

Congress vs. cuts

Whether Congress will approve the Air Force’s plan remains to be seen.

“They’re overly optimistic to assume they’re going to get all of those,” Hellman said. “Congress has resisted these types of cuts in the past.”

A previous Air Force plan to cut 10 Nighthawks drew ire from lawmakers in New Mexico, where the F-117 is based. They eventually blocked the proposal with an amendment to the 2006 Defense Authorization Act prohibiting the retirements.

This time around, Air Force officials may have avoided that problem by offering to base some Raptors at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., now home to the F-117.

If Congress doesn’t allow the Air Force to retire the aircraft it wants, the service will have to find about $3 billion to cover the associated costs in fiscal 2007 alone, according to service officials.

“It will hurt,” Moseley said, though he could not estimate how much would need to be reprogrammed. “It will hurt.”

One of the biggest fights in Congress may be over the plan to cut B-52s; lawmakers are already throwing up roadblocks.

The Senate unanimously approved March 16 an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that would oblige the Air Force to continue maintaining and upgrading all 94 of its B-52s. Part of the B-52 fleet is based at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.

Landrieu has vowed to fight the cuts, saying the B-52 is a vital part of the Air Force’s arsenal.

“By setting aside these dollars, the U.S. Senate sends a strong signal in support of Barksdale’s B-52 fleet and recognizes the essential role the fleet plays in our 21st-century military,” Landrieu said in a written statement. “The [administration] has tried to cut this program before and our delegation has stopped them. We will continue to work together on behalf of our state, our military, and our nation’s security.”

Landrieu and Vitter said the B-52 must remain in the inventory until the Air Force has a replacement, which isn’t expected until 2016 at the earliest, according to Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne.

“Until we have a new generation of long-range bombers, we cannot put our nation at risk by cutting our B-52 fleet,” Landrieu said.

Said Vitter: “It’s a matter of national security to have these long-range strike bombers available to our military. … The B-52s are enormously capable and they are the only efficient long-range bomber in the Air Force’s arsenal. It’s vital that we maintain and upgrade our B-52s.”

Landrieu and Vitter have several allies in the House, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

“It’s obvious to all observers that we need to have emphasis on and greater capability on deep strike,” Hunter said during a March 1 committee hearing. “Right now, deep strike largely resides on the backs of these ancient B-52s, the youngest of which I think was built about 1962.

“The problem with deep strike is we’ve got darn few of any systems,” Hunter added. “We’ve got probably the smallest bomber force we’ve ever had. In fact, I think it is the smallest bomber force in our modern history.”

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