SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the service urgently needs to retire outdated air frames so it can focus on developing modern aircraft to counter a rapidly modernizing Chinese military.
During a panel here Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Kendall mentioned MQ-9 Reapers, some C-130s, older tankers and the A-10 Warthog as examples of aging aircraft that — while useful during counterinsurgency missions in the Middle East over the last two decades — will struggle in a conflict with China.
“If it doesn’t threaten China, why are we doing it?” Kendall said in describing his mindset.
China has focused its own modernization efforts on ways to defeat high-value American assets, Kendall said — “of which the numbers are fairly low.”
Now, the U.S. has to respond to that, Kendall said. But the advancing age of the Air Force’s fleet, which averages about 30 years, is an “anchor holding back the Air Force.”
He lamented that the service has long sought to retire “old iron,” such as the A-10, only to encounter resistance from lawmakers who don’t want programs in their states to lose jobs.
Kendall’s views were echoed by the Air Force’s top officer. In an interview with Defense News Saturday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown underscored the importance of letting some older air frames go as a way to allow the service to bring on more F-35s and other newer aircraft.
“It’s really a tough decision of the things we’re going to let go, and how we transition from the current capabilities we have, to get to the capabilities of the future,” Brown said when asked about the choices that will have to be made in the Pentagon’s 2023 budget proposal.
But he added that the Air Force will need to balance risk. This means ensuring combatant commanders can still carry out their missions while still preserving enough resources to modernize for the next generation of platforms.
“There’s got to be a little give-and-take that goes back and forth between the Air Force and the combatant commands in the department,” Brown said. “One of the things I’ve found is the United States Air Force is very popular, and as I talk to combatant commanders, they tend to ask for more Air Force.”
Brown said he’s had to tell those commanders not to fight the Air Force over the retirements and instead support the service as it tries to modernize, even if such a change means hard trade-offs in the short term.
For 20 years, the Air Force has primarily operated in the permissive environment of the Middle East, without worrying about adversaries with advanced anti-aircraft systems.
That would change in a conflict with a peer or near-peer adversary such as China, that has significant weapons to deny U.S. access to its airspace.
Brown said aircraft — including certain fighters, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and command and control aircraft — that may not be well suited to a more contested environment, or those that are older or with higher sustainment costs, could be among those considered for retirement.
Brown declined to name specific aircraft, but the Air Force’s fiscal 2022 budget proposal released earlier this year asked to retire dozens of A-10s, F-15Cs and Ds and F-16s, KC-135s and KC-10s, C-130s, and RQ-4 Global Hawks.
The Air Force is waiting for the final approval of the National Defense Authorization Act to see what Congress will ultimately allow the service to retire, Brown said.
He said that the Air Force’s future of ISR aircraft must be “survivable, connected, and persistent.” He cited the 2019 Iranian downing of a Global Hawk variant as an example of how ISR aircraft will need to be able to survive in a contested environment.
If Congress doesn’t allow for such retirements, Brown said, it will increase risk the service faces in a high-end conflict.
“We will not have the capabilities for any future crisis and contingencies,” he said. “That concerns me. If we don’t [change], we’re going to lose aspects of our national security because we’re holding on to the past.”
Shortly after becoming chief of staff, Brown released a document titled “Accelerate Change or Lose” that outlined his views on how the Air Force needs to adjust to a world in which U.S. military dominance is not assured, and China and Russia are emboldened.
When asked if Congress is allowing the Air Force to accelerate change, Brown replied, “in some cases.”
Brown said that while the annual defense policy bill has yet to pass Congress, he has indications it will allow the Air Force to take some of the steps it’s been trying to accomplish.
Retired Sen. Jim Talent, R-Missouri, said on the panel that the military’s funding hasn’t been sufficient to field the forces needed to deter potential adversaries — and it doesn’t have the rest of the decade to wait until it can.
As a result, Talent said, the military is having to choose what threats it guards against, because it hasn’t been able to build the necessary capacity.
“It’s one thing to make hard choices,” Talent said. “It’s another thing to make what are effectively Sophie’s choices.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.