Key Point: Modernization requires tradeoffs.
In a speech on November 6, 2019 General David Goldfein, Chief of Staff the Air Force outlined a four-point plan to spend $30 billion over the next five years reforming the air warfare branch to make it more capable of tackling emerging hi-tech threats from China and Russia in the 2030s.
Given that the defense budget has likely peaked for the foreseeable future, where will the Air Force find that kind of money?
By accelerating retirement of many older (“legacy”) aircraft already on the verge of aging out purely due to wear and tear to their airframes, according to Goldfein.
“We took a look at every legacy program that we have and asked the question: Does this contribute significantly in a 2030-2038 fight?” Goldfein stated. “If the answer to that was no, we looked at ‘can we accelerate its retirement in order to free the money up to buy the digital architecture and the capability that we need going forward.’”
Air Force ‘night courts’ have already identified where those cuts go a few months earlier. However, their recommendation remain undisclosed and require approval from Congress.
A recent report by Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies lists eight aircraft types that are possible candidates due to a combination of age, operating costs, redundancy with other systems, and obsolescence.
Added together, retiring those planes would save $29.7 billion over the next five years. But that’s not to say their withdrawal is guaranteed—indeed that’s downright unlikely for certain types.
“My analysis is not intended to be a set of recommended cuts,” Harrison explained to me in an email, “just analyzing how much would be saved if it did. And some of the retirements would create lots of problems…the B-2 in particular.”
From a purely accounting standpoint, it’s preferable to cutout an entire aircraft type whenever possible, as that saves huge overhead costs associating with training personnel and maintaining pools of spare parts just to operate that type of plane.
Furthermore, Harrison told me “…the cost of operating aircraft is much higher for aircraft that are maintained in small numbers. So retiring an entire type of aircraft will save much more than retiring [just] part of the fleet.”
And of course, for planes nearing retirement anyway, there’s less future value lost. For that reason, retiring aircraft types with small fleets is more efficient than just reducing the fleet size of more numerous aircraft like the F-16 or MQ-9 Reaper drone.
However, several of the proposed legacy aircraft have been used extensively in recent operations (B-1, U-2) and/or have recently been upgraded to extend their service life and capabilities (A-10, E-3G).
So cutting legacy aircraft involves pawning off capabilities that could still be useful in the short term to invest in making the Air Force more robust in a conflict involving tougher adversaries in the 2030s and beyond.
Another downside of divesting aircraft types that you may lose the ability to perform certain missions if there’s no real replacement or substitute.
For example, when the Air Force retired its F-111 supersonic bombers, it also axed its smaller fleet of EF-111 Raven electronic warfare jets which depended on the same training program and spare parts. But that meant sacrificing the Air Force’s only in-house penetrating jamming capabilities. Ever since, it’s relied upon Navy Prowler and Growler jets to provide that support instead.
Terminating funding for an aircraft type also requires Congressional approval. But politicians with constituents in communities that operate those planes, or who receive donations from companies servicing the aircraft, may be disposed to oppose retirement.
Arguably, Congressional oversight also sometimes curbs military programs with runaway budget or that fail to consider interservice or national priorities.
For example, Congress forced the Air Force to abandon plans to retire the A-10—a fight the service may be reluctant to reinitiate, despite its inclusion on Harrison’s list.
In this article, we’ll look at five of the eight aircraft Harrison suggests might be retired, the potential monetary savings for a phase retirement over five years, and how significant a capability gap the type’s requirement would create.
Current Fleet: 62 B-1Bs
Projected Savings: $4.8 billion
The B-1B is functionally a faster, heavier-lifting B-52. But it’s not fast or stealthy enough to penetrate modern air defenses, so it’s primarily used as a long-range, long-endurance missile and bomb truck. This mission has left it in very high demand over Syria and Afghanistan, with a negative impact on readiness.
Does it leave a gap? B-52s, or (over short distances) non-stealth tactical fighters could take over most of the missions performed by the B-1. However, it would mean passing up its potential uses as a hypersonic missile platform.
Current Fleet: 20 B-2As
Projected Savings: $2.9 billion
Role: The B-2 is a long-range stealth bomber that can fly across vast distances and penetrate deep into heavily defended airspace to deliver deadly conventional or nuclear strikes. Production of these ultra-expensive aircraft was cut short in the 1990s to just 20 aircraft. The small fleet is extremely costly to fly and maintain.
Does it leave a gap? Yes. The B-2’s unique capabilities are unique, and relevant for strategic deterrence of Russia or China. In the mid-to-late 2020s, the Air Force plans to phase-in similar-looking B-21 Raider bomber, which will subsume the B-2’s mission.
Current Fleet: 27 U-2Ss
Projected Savings: $2.2 billion
Role: This legendary high-flying Cold War spy plane remains heavily in demand over the Middle East today to perform wide-area surveillance.
Does it leave a gap? RQ-4 Global Hawk drones can perform the same mission. However, there aren’t enough RQ-4s to meet demand, and the U-2 is reportedly less expensive to operate and more capable.
Current Fleet: 281 A-10s
Projected Savings: $6.7 billion
The A-10 Thunderbolt is a heavily armored attack plane optimized for busting tanks and delivering precision air support against enemies in close combat with U.S. ground forces. After being saved from retirement by Congress, A-10s recently received new wings to extend their service lives.
Does it leave a gap? A-10 proponents argue that it’s cost-efficient and optimal for supporting ground forces in sticky situations that require a pilot to fly ‘low and slow’ to pick out a target. Opponents argue it isn’t survivable in a fight with China and Russia, and that most close air support missions today involve precision-guided weapons released at high altitude—something that a drone or tactical fighter can do just as well.
Current Fleet: 59 KC-10s
Projected Savings: $2.0 billion if retired by 2022
Role: The KC-10 is a DC-10 airliner converted into an aerial refueling tanker and cargo plane with nearly twice the capacity of older KC-135 tankers in Air Force service. The KC-10 is already set to be replaced entirely by new KC-46s in 2024.
Does it leave a gap? No, as the KC-135 and KC-46 Pegasus do the same job. However, it could cause a short-term shortfall in aerial-refueling capacity, and the KC-46 has suffered infamous setbacks and delays.
A companion piece will look at three intelligence and command aircraft based on the 707 airliner (the E-3, E-8 and RC-135) the Air Force may considering retiring early in anticipation of a ground-based alternative that remains in early stages of development.
It will also look at how Goldfein proposes the $30 billion in savings may be targeted to enhance networking, offensive, space-based and base-defense capabilities.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown, University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared last month.