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Cuts stretch across fighter, airlift and bomber communities

Aug. 5, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The Strategic Choices Management Review states that the Air Force could cut the size of the C-130 fleet with 'minimal risk.' (1st Lt. Jason Uhlig / Army)
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The Air Force's share of budget cuts could add up to five tactical aircraft squadrons and much of its C-130 fleet.

The Air Force's share of budget cuts could add up to five tactical aircraft squadrons and much of its C-130 fleet.

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The Air Force’s share of budget cuts could add up to five tactical aircraft squadrons and much of its C-130 fleet. And if across-the-board cuts continue, the Air Force would have to scale back its bomber fleet and possibly limit investment in future programs, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said July 31.

Those are among the findings of the four-month Strategic Choices Management Review ordered by Hagel in March. The review found the service could eliminate up to 120 A-10s, F-15s or F-16s — or five of 55 tactical squadrons, which have 18 to 24 aircraft each. The review didn’t say whether the cuts would target the active component, reserve or Air National Guard.

“It’s over to the Air Force and the specific services to look at the proper balance ... as they look at drawing down,” a defense official said following Hagel’s remarks.

The review also states that the Air Force could cut the size of the C-130 fleet with “minimal risk.”

“It’s a question truly of what’s required,” the defense official said. “We looked closely at the day-to-day requirements, we looked at war-fighting requirements under the different operating plans that we have, and we looked at different scenarios that we expect to have.”

Reducing the size of the C-130 fleet runs counter to congressional efforts to save it. Last year, Congress directed the Air Force to keep 32 older C-130s tagged for retirement. The service now plans to keep them flying through 2014.

Reductions in the tactical aircraft community also could bring bad news for popular targets, such as older F-15 and F-16 Air National Guard squadrons, and the A-10 community, which lost two squadrons this fiscal year.

“As we looked at it, that’s one area we could limit the risk,” a defense official said.

In the fiscal 2013 budget process, the Air Force proposed retiring 22 C-130Hs and shutting down two A-10 squadrons. That attempt was blocked by Congress.

Among the cuts the Air Force proposed and Congress rejected: retiring seven C-130Hs from the Reserve’s 908th Airlift Wing at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.; seven C-130Hs from the Reserve’s 94th Airlift Wing at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga.; and eight C-130Hs from the Guard’s 136th Airlift Wing at Fort Worth, Texas. The Air Force also tried to retire 20 A-10s from the Guard’s 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne, Ind., and 21 from the Guard’s 127th Wing from Selfridge, Mich.

“Retiring older fighters, cutting C-130s, has been proposed before,” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The sequester is additional pressure that would hurt the Air Force’s ability to develop future force structure and the future capability mix needed.”

The Air Force has been working to update its fleet of 343 A-10s, 1,018 F-16s, 219 F-15Es and 249 F-15 C/Ds, with the goal of extending the service life of the jets while the F-35 works to come online.

These upgrades include $2.8 billion for a service life extension and avionics for F-16s, 350 of which are starting in 2016 and continuing into the 2020s. The service is upgrading the radars on 150 F-15Cs, along with targeting pod integration and radio upgrades on 177 C models. The upgraded F-15Cs are expected to keep flying through 2035, and the Air Force is looking at extending the long-term status of all C and D models.

Additionally, 396 total Eagle and Strike Eagle jets will undergo full-scale fatigue testing through 2015 to determine their life span.

“We have a fighter force ... older than this nation has ever had,” said Gunzinger, who was a senior adviser to the Air Force for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.

Possible retirements have not had much luck in Congress, and the Defense Department would need to effectively work with Capitol Hill to make necessary cuts to have enough flexibility to manage the Air Force fleet, he said.

“The Air Force has had a very difficult problem of retiring older aircraft,” he said. “You can’t gain the benefits of efficiencies if you can’t address compensation, if you can’t leverage a [Base Closure and Realignment Commission], if you can’t retire older force structure. What else is there? End strength and modernization. It’s a really, really difficult choice.”

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