The Pentagon's 2015 budget proposal funds the Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk UAV, which the Air Force had declared too expensive and insufficient to meet combatant commanders' needs. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — When US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel previewed the Pentagon’s budget Feb. 24, he confirmed what has long been speculated: Two major Air Force programs will be retired over the next five years.
Both the A-10 attack plane and U-2 spy planes will be retired, hard-luck victims the service maintains are necessary to keep other modernization priorities on track in the face of overall budget cuts.
The decision would seem to be final, but supporters of one platform can look to the other for inspiration.
The U-2 in 2006 was slated for retirement in favor of the unmanned Global Hawk Block 30 system, before the Air Force pulled an about-face two years ago and declared the Global Hawk too expensive and insufficient for the needs of combatant commanders. But Global Hawk developer Northrop Grumman — and its supporters in Congress — successfully fought to put funding for the unmanned system back into the fiscal 2015 budget proposal.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Feb. 26 that costs, not performance, are driving that decision.
“The change is because there’s been a new development over the last year, year and a half or so, and it has to do with sustainment costs,” she said. “The sustainment costs in earlier times was projected to be higher for the Global Hawk. That was going to be the more expensive aircraft. That has flipped in the last year and a half. The sustainment costs now are less, so we will be going with the Global Hawk.”
A Northrop Grumman spokeswoman declined to comment on sustainment costs, citing Air Force rules that the company not discuss costs publicly.
But the Air Force cited an increase in flying hours as the “primary driver” for a decrease in cost per flying hour.
Cost per flying hour on the U-2 has been stable for years at around $32,000. In fiscal 2012, that was about the same as the Global Hawk. But in fiscal 2013, Global Hawk dropped significantly to $24,000. The service could not supply fiscal 2014 estimated per-hour costs by press time.
What drove that change? According to an Air Force spokeswoman, the biggest driver was simply that as Global Hawk is flying more, the service is finding more efficiencies in areas such as supply chain and maintenance.
The service calculates operational cost per flying hour by taking the annual operational costs and dividing that by the number of hours flown in the fiscal year. Those operational costs include “mission personnel, unit level consumption (fuel and reparable/consumable parts), intermediate maintenance, depot maintenance, contractor support, sustaining support and indirect support costs associated with the aircraft,” according to a service spokeswoman.
That’s a lot of variables, with a variety of different outcomes depending how those costs are calculated, according to Rebecca Grant, president of Iris Research. For instance, if Global Hawk and U-2 were at the same base, how would the Air Force calculate which platform picks up the cost of base security or mowing the lawn? It is a number that can be manipulated several ways.
“It would be nice if the Air Force could share a little more of this data,” Grant said. “Could it be true that Global Hawk now costs less than the U-2 to fly? It depends on what you put into the flying hour cost. If it’s close, they need to be picking based on operational requirements.”
Despite top generals, such as Air Combat Command head Gen. Mike Hostage, saying they prefer the capabilities of the U-2, the Global Hawk appears to have finally won this battle.
With that in mind, A-10 supporters in Congress might think they could pull a similar maneuver and save the Warthog. But there are a few key differences that make a rescue of the A-10 unlikely.
First, the A-10 is supported by fans, not industry. The A-10 community is incredibly vocal and has had success in rallying support from members of Congress, most notably Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who in a statement last week pledged to “work with my colleagues to prevent the Pentagon from making this serious mistake that I believe could cost the lives of our brave servicemen and women in future conflicts.”
But will industry go to bat for the Warthog? Companies such as Boeing, which has an ongoing contract for wing upgrades, would certainly be happy to keep the plane around. But it is not likely to fight in Congress the way Northrop Grumman famously did with its Global Hawk.
“Is Boeing going to spend a lot of political capital on that? I doubt it,” said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners.
“I think it’s going to be a battle, not from an industrial standpoint but from a where-it’s-based standpoint.”
Secondly, this isn’t a one-for-one platform trade. Service officials are quick to note that the majority of close-air support missions are already being carried out by other planes in the fleet, including B-1s and F-15s.
Instead, A-10 money would be traded into the three top priorities for the service — the KC-46A Pegasus tanker, the long-range strike bomber and the F-35A joint strike fighter. The latter plane is slated to pick up some of the close-air support mission once it enters service for the Air Force in 2016.
Supporters of the A-10 are quick to argue that the F-35 will struggle to fill that role, but on Capitol Hill, the technical arguments are almost beside the point. The Air Force has successfully protected the F-35 in recent budgets, with Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program head, telling an audience recently that sequestration essentially had no impact on the fifth-generation fighter.
Unlike with the Global Hawk/U-2 fight, where only one platform could be funded, the F-35 is guaranteed to receive investment dollars. It’s not a question of which to cut, but rather if the A-10 should be kept around.
The Global Hawk “might just be a unique beast, because there are two similar ways of doing the mission,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. “It really comes down to budget more than operational doctrine.”
“To me the difference [between the A-10 and U-2 situations] is that the Air Force had long planned to retire the A-10 and has largely stuck to that,” Grant said. “They have delayed it for various reasons, but mostly they all said at some point the A-10 will go.
“What was different with the Global Hawk and U-2 was there was a plan and then a very sudden reversal, that has now been reversed,” she added. “I see that as an anomaly.”
Service officials emphasized that the retirement of the platforms would occur over the next five years, not all at once.
The A-10 divestiture will begin in fiscal 2015, beginning with machines in the active Air Force, James said, adding that the plane will be “fully retired.”
“Over the five years, and over the course of retirement, the beginning years would tilt towards more of the active component requirement and the latter years would tilt more towards the Guard and reserve form of retirement,” James said.
The phased structure makes sense both politically and strategically, Aboulafia said.
“If there were any reasons to keep A-10s, they would be in the Guard and reserve,” he said. “It’s not like you’re going to deploy A-10s around the globe and global hotspots. You just don’t have any reason to do that right now.”
The U-2 retirement would begin in fiscal 2016, but is slightly more complicated. Eric Fanning, Air Force undersecretary, told a Feb. 20 McAleese/Credit Suisse conference the U-2 would not be divested until the Global Hawk has achieved capability “parity.”
“In picking the Global Hawk, we are committed to getting it to parity with the U-2 before we divest the U-2 fleet,” he said.
While Fanning did not go into details, Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, the service’s deputy for acquisition, said the Air Force is looking at upgrading the Global Hawk’s sensor package and weatherization capabilities.
Cost estimates to upgrade those sensors have ranged up to $1 billion. ■