Key point: The U.S. is retiring planes faster than it can build new ones.
The U.S. Air Force is considering retiring older warplanes in order to save money for new technologies. The idea is that the flying branch eventually would buy new planes including the tech, ultimately restoring the near-term cuts.
But there’s a flaw in that plan, the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute warned in a December 2019 study entitled “Moving Toward the Air Force We Need? Assessing Air Force Budget Trends.”
Cutting force structure in the hope of funding research-and-development and eventually buying back the force structure “has not worked out” in the past, Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Virginia-based institute, explained at an event marking his study’s release.
Air Force Magazine, another wing of the AFA, summarized Gunzinger’s comments. “Each attempt [to save money by cutting forces] has left the Air Force with less hardware and people than needed to do the job,” editor John Tirpak wrote.
Taking that same approach in 2019 would “repeat the pattern we’ve seen for the last 25 years,” Gunzinger said. “Retirements of current USAF force structure are not going to yield the kind of savings … needed to build the future force.”
The Air Force wants to find $30 billion in its five-year budget to help develop and buy new planes and technology including stealth bombers and fighters, new command-and-control software and new drones.
To figure out what it can cut, Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein said the flying branch “took a look at every legacy program we have and asked the question: does this contribute significantly to the 2030-to-2038 timeframe?”
“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,” Goldfein added.
Saving $30 billion in five years from the Air Force’s roughly $100-billion annual budget could compel it to retire early entire fleets of older warplanes. Todd Harrison from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. in November 2019 drew up a list of fleets the Air Force could consider retiring.
Harrison’s list includes the A-10 attack jet, the E-3 radar plane and, perhaps most surprisingly, the B-2 stealth bomber. The 281 38-year-old A-10s could go in 2023 and save nearly $7 billion, Harrison estimated.
All told, there are 521 planes on Harrison’s list, together accounting for around 10 percent of the Air Force’s inventory. But if the service cuts that many planes, it probably won’t ever buy back the same number of airframes, Gunzinger explained.
The Air Force seems to believe that boosts to research-and-development spending will “keep the industrial base healthy” and allow the service to “buy it later,” Gunzinger explained.
But his co-author Carl Rehberg, an analyst with the Washington, D.C. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that never worked out as planned. “When the downturns hit, they usually hit procurement, and the [R&D] basically never shows up” in front-line squadrons.
The billions of dollars the Air Force redirects to tech-development is “basically lost” unless the service can set aside additional billions actually to build new planes, Gunzinger said.
The F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters arguably represent one recent failed tradeoff. Then-U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates in 2009 canceled production of the F-22 after Lockheed Martin had built just 187 copies of the radar-evading plane. The F-35 then in development would be a cheaper alternative to the F-22, Gates argued.
The Air Force at the time expected that over the next decade it would field as many as a thousand F-35s, thanks in part to the service shifting resources from the F-22 program. But problems with the F-35’s design and manufacture meant that, in reality, the Air Force bought just 300 F-35s through 2019.
And the flying branch’s fighter fleet shrank by more than 10 percent as ancient F-15s and F-16s reached the end of their economical service lives without one-for-one replacements being available.
Arguably, the Air Force canceled the F-22 for nothing. It risks again making the same mistake. Take the B-1 bomber. The Air Force plans to maintain a force of 62 B-1s through the 2020s in order to keep up bomber numbers while the new B-21 finishes development.
But owing to its poor reliability, the 1980s-vintage B-1 widely is considered a prime candidate for early retirement. The Air Force could save nearly $3 billion by retiring all 62 B-1s by 2022, Harrison explained.
“We’ve all heard the rumors” about the B-1, Gunzinger said. If Gunzinger and Rehberg are correct in their assessment, cutting the B-1 fleet indeed will save money. But that money won’t ever result in the bomer force growing back to its current strength of around 160 airframes. To say nothing of expanding beyond that level.
Ironically, pretty much all outside experts and even top Air Force officials agree that the service needs more bombers than it currently has, not fewer. Indeed, the Air Force in 2018 announced a requirement for 386 front-line squadrons, up from 312 in the current force.
The Air Force is in the strange position of arguing for a bigger future force while also planning to shrink the present force.