Despite objections, Air Force sees no good alternatives to eliminating aircraft fleets

Thursday - 4/24/2014, 6:38am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

Download mp3

The Air Force's top officer said Congress needs to let his service retire entire fleets of aircraft in order to cope with budget cuts.

Gen. Mark Welsh said if the money has to come from somewhere else, each of the alternatives would jeopardize the Air Force's core mission areas.

Welsh, speaking to a breakfast audience at the National Press Club in Washington Wednesday, said even with the partial relief from sequestration DoD got from last year's Bipartisan Budget Act, the Air Force still needs to find ways to trim its budget by billions of dollars.

The service said it is shrinking its end strength as quickly as it can as one means to save money, but Welsh argued the only way to find savings of the magnitude the Air Force needs is to divest itself of entire aircraft platforms.

"The reason this seems so dramatic to people is that three years ago, the projected budget for fiscal year '15 for the Air Force was $20 billion higher than we actually have in our budget. That's about 20 percent of our overall budget," he said. "Changing from a plan that had projected funding and training and force structure at that level to one that is going to be $20 billion a year lower from here forward is a significant adjustment. But if it's not done, things will just get worse in the future. Trimming around the edges as we put together our budget proposal just wasn't going to work. We had to look at some pretty dramatic things."

Among them, the retirement of the service's entire fleets of A-10 attack jets and U-2 spy planes. The Air Force says slimming down the size of its aircraft inventory across the board wouldn't produce the savings it needs, because eliminating fleets outright also cuts out the huge logistics and maintenance infrastructure that accompanies each aircraft type.

All horrible options

The A-10 decision has invited fierce opposition from members of Congress, particularly ones whose districts include A-10 bases. But Welsh said the move to retire all 343 of those planes will save the service $4.2 billion per year, and there aren't many other ways to save that kind of money.

"We also looked at saving $4.2 billion by cutting F-16s out of the fleet. It would take about 363 F-16s to do that, which is 14 squadrons of F-16s. We could cut the F-15E fleet. We could cut the entire B-1 fleet. We could push F-35s outside the future years' Defense plan and buy them later, which drives costs in lots of other areas, by the way, but we could do that," he said. "And we could just ground a whole bunch of squadrons today and make it look like last year did on our flight lines, with airplanes parked and nobody flying. We looked at all those options, and we came very clearly to the conclusion that of all those horrible options. The least operationally impactful was to divest the A-10 fleet. It makes eminent sense from a military perspective if you have to make these kinds of cuts, but nobody likes it."

In the run-up to the 2015 budget submission, the service scoured all five of its core mission areas for things it could do without, or with less of. In each case, officials concluded they could not cut any deeper without crippling core missions like maintaining air superiority, but Welsh said those are exactly the cuts that would have to be made if Congress blocks the A-10 stand-down.

"Air superiority is foundational to the way we fight wars as an American military," he said. "Without it, you can't maneuver on the ground, you can't maneuver at sea. You have to have it, and all of our warfighters know that. And only one service can provide a theater's worth of air superiority. Only one has the capacity, the command-and-control capability to be able to do this. When we capped the buy of F-22s, it meant that we had to support them with some other kind of airplane to provide a theater's worth of air superiority. And for the near term, Until the F-35 is on board and able to assist, it is the F-15C. We are cutting F-15s out of our fleet this year as part of the budget cuts, but we can't eliminate the entire fleet of aircraft, or else we can't do the air superiority mission, and our combatant commanders won't accept that."