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Debates on how many fighters and bombers the Air Force needs could be moot as President Barack Obama's administration and Congress focus on the nation's financial woes and look to defense acquisition programs as a place to save money, defense analyst Loren Thompson warned Wednesday.
Thompson spoke during a seminar in Washington, D.C., "Combat Air Forces in Crisis," organized by the Air Force Association.
"To put it simply, the U.S. is out of money," said Thompson, of the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute.
With a national budget debt of $1 trillion for 2009, lawmakers will look at defense spending as a place to cut costs, Thompson predicted. Because they can't trim military pay and benefits or operations costs, lawmakers will focus on acquisition programs to trim and cancel.
For the Air Force, that means buying fewer F-22 Raptors, F-35 Lightning IIs and delaying plans to deliver a new bomber in 2018. Navy, Army and Marine programs will suffer similar setbacks, Thompson said.
Axing Air Force acquisition plans would come at a bad time for the service.
During the 1990s, the Air Force decided against purchasing large quantities of additional F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons because the service was waiting to field stealthy F-22s and F-35s, said Rebecca Grant, director of the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute.
Higher-than-expected development costs and delays left the Air Force with contracts to buy 187 F-22s, far fewer than commanders wanted. The F-35 is still in the testing phase.
The result is that today, 56 percent of the 1,404 fighters in active-duty units have been flying for 18 years or more, Grant said. All Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve planes have flown for more than 18 years.
Retired Gen. Gregory "Speedy" Martin, who headed Air Force Materiel Command and U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said that in retrospect the Air Force should have continued to buy small numbers of F-15s and F-16s until stealth fighters arrived. That would have kept the fighter fleet from aging and provide a bridge between two generations of aircraft.
Now it doesn't make sense to buy F-16s and F-15s, Martin said. The service should focus its fighter dollars on the stealth aircraft and smaller warplanes like the remote-controlled MQ-9 Reaper.