US Air Force leaders have abandoned their fight to get rid of the expensive Global Hawk UAV, sources said. Forced by Congress to keep the unmanned aircraft, left, they will give up the manned U-2 spy plane, which they argue is more capable than the Global Hawk. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — This close to the March 4 submission of the fiscal 2015 budget request, getting specifics from service officials can be like pulling teeth. But a number of statements, both in public appearances and during interviews, provide a sense of direction for the US Air Force’s plans.
The message: Expect to see big cuts to personnel and platforms.
The overall theme of the budget is the question of capability today or capability tomorrow. It’s a tricky path for the service, which has cut readiness in order to keep modernization programs — most notably the KC-46A tanker, F-35 joint strike fighter and new long-range strike bomber — moving forward.
“A basic strategic tradeoff is whether we maintain more of our current capabilities and continue to upgrade them to marginally improve their capability, or do we use those resources to modernize the force and develop and field the next generation of capabilities?” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who served in a number of Pentagon roles. “I see a trend, which I think the [Strategic Choices and Management Review] highlighted, toward sustaining a smaller force in the near term in order to resource needed modernization programs.”
That the service will begin to shrink was confirmed by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James in a Jan. 29 speech.
“I feel quite certain we will become a smaller Air Force, but it will be an Air Force that will remain highly capable and on the cutting edge of technology so we can always step up to the plate and meet the country’s needs,” James said.
The Air Force took a conservative approach to its budget, beginning with a worst-case scenario and building up. While the congressional budget deal has bought the Pentagon extra funds over sequestration levels, the service intends to use that money to address readiness challenges rather than add new platforms.
The choice to take funds from readiness and needed upgrades in favor of modernization is a direct result of politics that have prevented politically sensitive cuts, according to one top Air Force general.
“That was a juxtaposition forced on us because we were not allowed to make other decisions that would allow us to modernize, recapitalize and resize the force all within the budget we were given. We were told, ‘You cannot reduce any force structure, you cannot get rid of any people,’ ” Gen. Michael Hostage, head of Air Combat Command, said in a Jan. 27 interview. “I knew I had to keep recapitalizing. I had to replenish the force.”
“We need to get on to modernization. We just have to,” Gunzinger added. “The Air Force is now fielding the smallest and the oldest combat air force that it has ever fielded. That is really startling.”
But modernization leads to what James referred to as “hard choices” in this budget. That includes vertical cuts, or the removal of whole platforms, from the Air Force inventory.
The most notorious of these cuts is the A-10, the venerable close-air support platform best known as the Warthog. Service officials have openly acknowledged in recent months that they intend to move away from the plane, which serves only one core function, in favor of multifunction platforms.
Members of Congress, most notably New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, have fought attempts to cut the A-10. Ayotte recently wrote a letter to James demanding to know whether the Air Force is beginning plans to cut the aircraft, something expressly forbidden until after Dec. 31, 2014, under the National Defense Authorization Act. Doing so would be in violation of the law, Ayotte said.
Other platforms that could be phased out as a cost-cutting measure include the KC-10, an older transport aircraft, and the MC-12, a surveillance platform from Beechcraft.
“The only way you save the amount of money that we are being told we have to cut from the budget is to make entire weapons systems go away,” Hostage said. “That is the way to save the huge dollars that are having to come out of the budget. Though we did not want to lose the capability of the A-10, I can do close-air support with them or [other platforms] I have in the inventory.”
The world of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) will also see some program changes, particularly when it comes to unmanned systems.
For several years, the Air Force has tried to divest itself of the Global Hawk, a long-range drone that service officials claim is too expensive, in favor of maintaining U-2 manned spy planes. Those attempts have been blocked by congressional supporters of the Global Hawk, developed by Northrop Grumman.
According to sources, the Air Force has officially given up on that fight, and will take funding for the U-2 and put it toward the Global Hawk in the budget.
“What we have long maintained is that the platforms are in many ways complementary, and if we could afford to keep both, we would,” Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR, said in a Jan. 23 interview. “I believe we are at the point where there are only hard choices, and we cannot afford to keep both platforms. And so this is another area where there is a robust debate over which platform should we keep as we go forward.”
Hostage was more direct.
“It appears that I will be told I have to continue to purchase Global Hawks, and given the budget picture that we have, I cannot afford both the U-2 and the Global Hawk,” the Air Combat Command leader said. “What that means is that we are going to have to spend buckets of money to get the Global Hawk up to some semblance of capability that the U-2 currently has. It is going to cost a lot of money and it is going to take time, and as I lose the U-2 fleet, I now have a high-altitude ISR fleet that is not very useful in a contested environment.”
Both generals confirmed that the budget proposal will begin reducing the number of Reaper and Predator unmanned combat air patrols (CAPs). The service has been reaching toward a target of 65 CAPs for several years, but the budget environment, combined with the need for ISR platforms that can survive in a contested environment, are driving the service away from the two systems.
“It’s lower than 65 significantly,” Otto said. “As I look at this whole equation, I would say that 65 is much more than what we can afford holistically and we will ask for a significant reduction in order to be able to invest in highly contested scenarios.”
The budget will also reflect growing integration among the active, reserve and Air National Guard components, a dramatic change from two years ago when very public budget fights among the three broke out on the Hill.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s chief of staff, took care to include two representatives from the Guard adjutants-general throughout the budgeting process, and officials hope their inclusion will avoid another brutal fight as the service makes painful cuts that will include a shrinking of headquarters staff.
“It was an integrated, total-force approach from the start to finish. It’s a fundamental change, and it is permanent,” Lt. Gen. Michael Moeller, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs, said in a Jan. 14 interview. “We will not conduct these major processes unless it’s a total-force effort.”
James hinted at that as well in her recent comments.
“Going forward, there is no doubt in my mind that our Air Force is going to rely more, not less, on our National Guard and reserve forces,” she said. “Not only does this make good sense from a mission standpoint, it also makes good sense from an economic standpoint.” ■