Airman Brandon Kempf, 757th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron assistant dedicated A-10 Thunderbolt II crew chief, watches as an aircraft taxis into position after landing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (Airman 1st Class Joshua Kleinholz/Air Force)
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The Air Force’s plan to retire the A-10 and U-2 fleets has hit major congressional opposition that could ripple across the service and put other aircraft fleets at risk of being eliminated or downsized.
The House Armed Services Committe on May 7 passed amendments to the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which, if approved by the full Congress, would leave the service scrambling for other ways to save money, both in fiscal 2015 and in 2016 when sequestration returns.
“It would be great if Congress provided the Air Force with additional resources sufficient to keep A-10s, U-2s and other at-risk capabilities in the force,” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis. “Unfortunately, there seems to be little appetite for another budget deal in [fiscal 2016] that would do this, so the Air Force must make some tough calls. They have, and are now being criticized for it. Frankly, that doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me.”
Air Force leaders have told Congress that if they cannot make the fleet cuts, they will have to take resources away from other parts of the service. This could mean cuts to other fleets, reductions in flying hours and other hits on readiness.
“Wherever we are not able to take savings from those divestitures, we’ll have to take reductions somewhere else, in areas that we don’t think are as significant to capability in terms of what the combatant commanders expect us to provide,” Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 5. “We also have a game plan that allows divestiture of assets and cross-training of people and transition of those people into different roles in our Air Force. That plan would have to be relooked.”
The Air Force has said there are other options to find savings on par with cutting the A-10, such as retiring the entire B-1B Lancer fleet or cutting 350 F-16s. Those decisions would face even more opposition on Capitol Hill, because it would impact even more lawmakers’ home districts, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.
“If it doesn’t go through, Air Force leaders have made no bones about having to consider [cuts to other fleets],” Eaglen said. “That’s just going to be a lot more pain.”
Keeping the Warthog
The service expected to find the most savings in the one fleet that has the strongest backers in Congress: the A-10.
The Air Force would save $3.7 billion over five years by cutting the fleet of 283 close-air support aircraft, but that proposal met strong opposition almost immediately. And on May 7, that opposition scored a major victory.
The House Armed Services Committee, by a vote of 41-20, approved an amendment by Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., to block the Air Force from retiring the A-10. The measure, which received bipartisan support, requires the comptroller general to complete multiple studies on the move, including an evaluation of all Air Force platforms that are used for close air support.
The committee had earlier proposed a compromise, which would have placed the A-10 in “type-1000” storage at the boneyard. This means the aircraft would be wrapped in latex, but able to quickly return to service if necessary. But that proposal was rejected with the adoption of Barber’s amendment.
“While the bill claims that the fighters could be put back to service if the military needs them, it is not that simple,” Barber said of the unsuccessful proposal. “We aren’t going to shrink-wrap the pilots.”
Barber’s amendment would keep the A-10s flying by allocating $635 million in funding for the overseas contingency operations budget, which is used for operations in Afghanistan. This proposal met some opposition in the committee.
“We don’t have the options and the flexibility to undertake what would be a massive shift to avoid this outcome with the A-10,” Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said. “Even though I agree that this plane is absolutely, incredibly capable and provides a unique capability that is highly praised and needed, our problem is we are not spending enough on the Defense Department ... for this.”
The use of contingency funds would cause problems for another Air Force program: the Combat Rescue Helicopter, which was not funded in the service’s request and was expected to be covered by the OCO funds.
“It is highly unlikely that OCO will ‘cover’ the bills driven by mandates to keep legacy systems,” Gunzinger said. “Moreover, these bills will be on top of funding the Air Force will need for the combat rescue helicopter.”
The original storage proposal shows that Congress is warming to the idea of cutting the A-10, because readiness and investment in new platforms will be more necessary compared to maintaining the legacy fleets, Eaglen said.
“I’m sure Congress will find a little money to postpone the day of reckoning on the A-10, but they won’t be able to overturn [the cut] because there just isn’t enough money,” she said.
Dragon Lady sticking around
The Air Force also wants to cut the manned U-2 spy plane in favor of keeping the RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone, but that proposal was also blocked by the panel.
The U-2 retirement would save about $2.2 billion, according to the Air Force, while it would cost about $1.77 billion over 10 years to upgrade the Global Hawk.
The committee’s version of the bill blocks the U-2 cuts until Congress receives a report from the Defense Department on all high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.
“The committee has not yet received this report and believes that any action to retire, or prepare to retire U-2 aircraft would be premature prior to the committee’s review of the report,” the bill states.
The service also wants to cut seven E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft to start the process of recapitalizing the fleet, with replacements to the entire fleet in the early 2020s. The service proposed reducing its fleet from 31 to 24.
That move, however, was blocked by an amendment by Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., which reduced the number of aircraft retired to four.
“In today’s volatile world, maintaining a strong military with versatile command and control capability is essential,” Bridenstine said. “This is just the first step.”
If full sequestration returns in 2016, the service has said it would have to cut its entire KC-10 Extender refueling fleet, but the panel blocked that move even before it had a chance to be proposed.
The committee’s draft of the bill includes language to block any plans or preparation to retire the KC-10 fleet in fiscal 2015. If the Air Force proposes cutting the KC-10s next year, it has to provide an operational risk assessment and mitigation strategy, the committee said.
Air Force reaction
The Air Force, for now, said it is too early to speculate on how it would work around the amendments.
“Once legislation is passed, the Air Force will carefully consider all options to meet funding levels,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.
But experts have saidCapitol Hill’s handcuffs would hurt both current and future readiness. While there may not be more than a dozen combat squadrons grounded because of a lack of money, similar to what happened last year, it is likely there will be reduced readiness and more idle runways “more often than not” if the Air Force can’t reduce its fleet.
The House panel’s plan protects the service’s “big three” future programs: the F-35, the KC-46A tanker and the next generation bomber.
But officials have warned that, if the proposed cuts are not approved, they would have to cut back on those future investments.
“Simply stated, using OCO and [operations and maintenance] funding to keep older, unwanted systems in the force will have a very predictable impact on the Air Force’s ability to respond to crises in the near term,” Gunzinger said. It’s just as important to consider the impact it may have on future readiness, which is determined by the service’s ability to modernize and adopt new technologies that will help it to maintain its comparative advantage over potential enemies.”