Acting Secretary of the Air Force Matt Donavan talks about the service's plan for changes in the next budget, which could mean retiring older aircraft.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s top civilian hinted the service will make major cuts to certain legacy programs — and potentially retire entire aircraft inventories — to further invest in advanced technology for combating future threats.

Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan said the service is following the lead of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who said he is open to divesting legacy capabilities and has directed a Defense Department-wide review aimed at reshaping the fiscal 2021 budget.

“His guidance states that ‘no reform is too small, too bold or too controversial to be considered,’ ” Donovan said in a keynote speech at the third annual Defense News Conference.

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“The Air Force is leading the way with bold and likely controversial changes to our future budgets," Donovan added. "We need to shift funding and allegiance from legacy programs we can no longer afford due to their incompatibility with future battlefields and into the capabilities and systems that the nation requires for victory. There’s no way around it.”

Over the past decade, the Air Force has famously attempted to divest legacy aircraft like the A-10 and U-2 —often with politically disastrous results. In its FY14 budget, the service announced plans to retire the RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone to pay for other modernization priorities. When Congress rebuffed that plan, the Air Force called for the retirement of the U-2 and A-10, further enraging lawmakers.

The battle over the fate of the aircraft persisted until the release of the FY18 budget request, when the service announced it had no fixed retirement plans for the U-2 or A-10.

“There are plenty of people on Capitol Hill who understand we need to change and who believe it is important for the future effectiveness of the U.S. military. The problem, as it always is, is the devil’s in the details,” said Chris Brose, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, who is now the head of strategy for Anduril Industries. “People want to change until change hits their bottom line or takes something out of their state or district. But that in and of itself isn’t ‘game over.’ ”

Another roadblock could be the Defense Department’s seeming willingness to divert funding from its budget to pay for a wall between the U.S.-Mexico border, a signature priority for President Donald Trump. On Tuesday, Esper signed off on a plan to transfer $3.6 billion from 127 military construction projects to continue building the border wall — a move that angered Democrats. Any plans to divest aircraft could raise questions from lawmakers about why the Air Force is sacrificing capability while continuing to raid its own military construction budget for the wall.

Donovan provided no details on what might be cut, instead outlining areas where the Air Force expects to increase investment. Its biggest priority is multidomain command and control, or MDC2, a buzzword used to describe a communications backbone that will allow current and future platforms and sensors to instantly share important data with the user that needs it.

He also highlighted the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems, which could include a sixth-generation fighter as well as other emerging technologies like hypersonic, directed-energy and new standoff weapons. The aircraft in NGAD will include manned, unmanned and optionally manned systems, Donovan said.

Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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