WASHINGTON — The words “classified program” conjure up images of experimental planes, highly advanced super weapons and unidentified flying objects operating under cloak and dagger at Area 51. But as the U.S. Air Force gears up to defend its fiscal 2021 budget on Capitol Hill, lifting the veil of secrecy on some of these programs will be key to getting lawmakers on board with controversial retirements of legacy aircraft, defense analysts said.

In its FY21 budget proposal, the Air Force asked to cut 17 B-1 bombers, 44 A-10 jet aircraft, 24 Global Hawk Block 2 and 3 surveillance drones, as well as 13 KC-135 and 16 KC-10 tankers. It is also cutting the number of contractor-flown MQ-9 Reaper combat air patrols, and it will replace 24 C-130H airlifters with 19 C-130Js coming online.

Those reductions net $21 billion in savings over the next five years, with about 40 percent of that spent on classified programs buried in the black budget, creating the initial appearance of capabilities disappearing without any kind of a replacement and no obvious boost to research and development funds.

That could create a challenge for the Air Force as it tries to get members of Congress and their staff on board, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein acknowledged during an exclusive interview on Feb. 18 with Defense News.

“Most of what we’re giving up is unclassified. On the minus column you’re going to see things that are real, that are flying right now that are all legacy, real legacy capability. It’s a real risk to combatant commanders today. What we’re buying — not all but a lot of it — is in the classified realm,” Goldfein said.

“As we go forward with Congress, I think our biggest challenge, quite frankly, is we were able to talk up to the secret level and above inside the Department of Defense in most of our conversations. That’s harder to do with Congress,” he added.

The Air Force is trying to combat that by “doubling down” on office calls with lawmakers and congressional staff to discuss the classified investments. Goldfein said the service has done “well over 20” meetings with members of the congressional defense committees and is on track to brief every lawmaker willing to sit down for a classified briefing before public budget hearings start next month.

But Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense budget expert at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that such briefings are time-consuming and may not be of interest to most lawmakers.

"The members that are going to take the time to go to a [secure room] and get read in and figure out what's what — there are even some members of the armed services [that won't do that]. It's pretty limited who is going to have that kind of time,” she said.

In its FY21 budget proposal, the Air Force asked to cut 17 B-1 bombers, 44 A-10 jet aircraft, 24 Global Hawk Block 2 and 3 surveillance drones, as well as 13 KC-135 and 16 KC-10 tankers. (Airman 1st Class Christina Bennett; Staff. Sgt. Daniel Snider; Staff Sgt. Ramon A. Adelan; Staff Sgt. Bradley Tipton/U.S. Air Force)
In its FY21 budget proposal, the Air Force asked to cut 17 B-1 bombers, 44 A-10 jet aircraft, 24 Global Hawk Block 2 and 3 surveillance drones, as well as 13 KC-135 and 16 KC-10 tankers. (Airman 1st Class Christina Bennett; Staff. Sgt. Daniel Snider; Staff Sgt. Ramon A. Adelan; Staff Sgt. Bradley Tipton/U.S. Air Force)

It will be important for the Air Force to publicly justify — at unclassified hearings and other venues — what its classified investments are going to enable, said Todd Harrison, a budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“How does it contribute to implementation of the [National Defense Strategy]? How does it address vulnerabilities in the force? How does it create strategic challenges for our adversaries? If they can talk about that and then [be] more explicit with Congress about how the money is being used, I think that could help mitigate some of this,” Harrison said. “If you can’t talk about the new investment, the positive aspect for 40 percent of the cases, I think the Air Force is effectively going into this fight with one arm tied behind its back.”

While the large investment in classified programs is a challenge, it is not insurmountable, said David Deptula, the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a retired Air Force lieutenant general.

“Because a good chunk is classified, that’s a good thing. These are truly strategic advantages that we’re investing in, and they’re not items that you’d want out there in the public space,” he said.

Goldfein is confident he will be able to convey to Congress the importance of retiring key aircraft at this point in time.

“At least we can lay out the why,” he said. “It's going to be hard. Asking Congress to retire legacy aircraft is always hard. But I think we have a really positive story to tell, with the analysis behind it.”

Across the board — whether the Air Force has to defend cuts to the B-1, A-10, Global Hawk or tanker fleet — the argument comes down to fleet management, he said.

“We’re putting on the table 17 B-1s, at least to this point,” Goldfein said. “Many of those 17 B-1s are on the ramp, but they were not flying. Then you do your business case on what it would take to actually get them back to a high enough readiness rate, and the business case actually doesn’t justify it.

“You'll see the same methodology we used for each of those weapons systems. How do you retire the oldest of each, refunnel that money into the remaining fleet so you can keep that fleet flying for longer?”

But any skeptics in Congress will want to see hard data proving there are benefits to retiring some of these aircraft, or a plan to drive down risk, Harrison said.

Copies of U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed budget for fiscal 2021 are stacked on pallets after being printed at the Government Publishing Office. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Copies of U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed budget for fiscal 2021 are stacked on pallets after being printed at the Government Publishing Office. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

For instance, the Air Force is retiring its oldest, least capable B-1 bombers, but it will keep all associated maintainers and infrastructure, which cuts down on the savings. To make a case to Congress, the Air Force must make a strong argument on why that reduction could improve mission-capable rates, and the service must provide the statistics, he said.

Regarding the KC-10 and KC-135 tanker reductions, Harrison said the Air Force must describe exactly what it will do to ameliorate a demand for aerial refueling that already exceeds what the service can provide.

“What is the Air Force going to do over the next few years to mitigate the lack of tanker support? Is the Air Force going to go forward with some of the plans they’ve previously had to do contracted tanking as an interim solution like the Navy has been doing?” he wondered.

And to justify the Global Hawk fleet, Harrison said, the Air Force may be called to defend why it is getting rid of those highly utilized assets instead of the aging inventory of U-2 spy planes.

The biggest arguments in favor of keeping legacy aircraft will likely come from lawmakers in districts affected by retirements of legacy aircraft. It will be up to the Air Force to explain to those members what capabilities will come on board to replace it, or why these divestments need to take place even if there is no immediate replacement, Deptula said.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “I think in some districts you’ll see understanding and support. If you look at the bomber issue … with the promise of modernized B-21s that are coming on board, I think that there are some congressional districts and members who will go: ‘Yeah, OK, we understand that logic.’ ”