The U.S. Air Force has announced a plan to retire more than 500 older warplanes over the next five years, while adding just 200 new planes over the same period.
If Congress approves the scheme, the Air Force will drop from 5,194 planes to 4,814 between now and 2019. It will still be the biggest and most powerful air arm in the world … by a large margin.
But the flying branch will lose some of its current fighting abilities, despite Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s assurance that the post-2019 Air Force will be “a smaller and more capable force.”
The warplane cull is part of the Pentagon’s five-year spending plan, which military leaders sent to Congress in early March along with the $575-billion 2015 defense budget. Congress ultimately decides how much money the Pentagon spends—and on what—so the brass’ plan remains just that, a plan.
Still, the proposed plane cuts are indicative of the military’s thinking as it struggles with federally-mandated “sequestration” budget reductions. And they could preview a much smaller Air Force, one with fewer drones, attack jets, dogfighters and electronic warfare planes.
Goodbye A-10s, hello F-16s
The five-year scheme retires all of the roughly 340 A-10 Warthog attack jets in the active Air Force, Air Force Reserve and state-controlled Air National Guard. The Warthogs account for the majority of the planned warplane cuts.
The twin-jet, gun-armed A-10s disappear from their main active-duty strongholds in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and South Korea in 2015 and 2016. Reserve and Guard squadrons in Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and Maryland surrender their A-10s more gradually between 2015 and 2019.
Cutting the low- and slow-flying Warthogs leaves a big gap in the Air Force’s ability to support ground troops and destroy enemy tanks. Forces in South Korea could feel the loss most acutely, as they must be ready to defeat potentially thousands of North Korean armored vehicles streaming over the Demilitarized Zone in the event of war between the Koreas.
Under the plan, only the Guard and Reserve get any fresh fighters to compensate for the grounded A-10s. Squadrons in Arizona, Indiana and Missouri receive F-16s in 2018 and 2019. Presumably, the F-16s are former active-duty models displaced by new F-35 stealth fighters.
The Air Force has around 1,000 F-16s and plans to keep most of them in service past 2019. The flying branch had planned to give 300 or so of the single-engine jets major radar and avionics upgrades, but ended that multi-billion-dollar update this year in favor of a cheaper program that keeps the F-16s structurally flightworthy but does not enhance their fighting abilities.
If the Air Force gets it way, in the 2020s and 2030s it will retire all the F-16s, too—and replace them with more than 1,700 new F-35 stealth fighters. But the late, over-budget F-35 is still in testing. And the news has not been good.
Fewer F-15s, better F-22s
The plane-reduction scheme cuts around 70 of the Air Force’s roughly 250 remaining F-15C Eagle air-to-air fighters. Guard squadrons in Massachusetts, Florida, Louisiana and California each give up a few of their twin-engine F-15s in 2015 and 2016—and Oregon Guard’s two Eagle squadrons together lose 15.
Most surprisingly, the plan also shutters an overseas, active-duty F-15 squadron. The active Air Force has three Eagle units abroad—one in England and two in Japan. The Air Force isn’t saying yet which of the three squadrons will turn out its lights, but it’s hard to imagine the Pentagon will cut forces in the Pacific. Just two years ago the military said it would “pivot” toward Asia to counter a rising China.
That leaves the England-based Eagles, which are part of a wing that also includes ground-attack F-15Es. In early March, 10 of these F-15Cs deployed to Lithuania as a response to Moscow’s bloodless invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region. After 2016, the Air Force in Europe could have fewer fighters with which to respond to Russian incursions.
The cuts leave 175 F-15Cs in the inventory. The Air Force wants to spend $740 million in 2015 adding new radars to all 219 F-15Es and 175 F-15Cs. After 2016, the flying branch envisions an air-superiority fighter force of around 350 planes, split roughly evenly between F-15Cs and stealthy F-22s. The Pentagon plans to spend more than $500 million in 2015 enhancing the F-22s’ sensors and weapons.
Bye bye, spy planes
Specialist aircraft take a big hit. More than 150 reconnaissance, radar and electronic-jamming planes head to the boneyard.
Active and Guard squadrons in North Dakota, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and California give up 119 MQ-1 Predator drones between 2015 and 2017, replacing them with just 36 new MQ-9 Reapers, which are bigger and carry more weapons. By 2019, the Air Force wants to be able to maintain 55 continuous drone combat air patrols, each with three Reapers.
All 33 U-2 manned spy jets will disappear from California in 2016 and most of the flying branch’s MC-12 surveillance turboprops, also in California, will transfer to the Army. Six of the 16 Georgia-based E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System planes decommission in 2015 and 2016.
The JSTARSs are converted Boeing 707 airliners with underslung ground-scanning radars for tracking enemy troops. The Air Force wants a new ground-scanning sensor fitted to a smaller, cheaper business jet. The warplane plan adds two of the new JSTARS back to Georgia in 2019.
The scheme removes seven of the active Air Force’s 33 E-3 Sentry radar planes in Oklahoma in 2015 and seven of the 14 EC-130 Compass Call radar-jammers in Arizona in 2016. The remaining E-3s and EC-130s get expensive upgrades to improve their sensors and electronics.
The same five-year plan that cuts some 500 existing planes also adds back hundreds of newly-built aircraft. Between 2015 and 2019 the Air Force wants to buy 238 F-35s and 69 new KC-46 tankers plus scores of Reaper drones and C-130 airlifters—not to mention an undisclosed number of secret RQ-180 spy drones.
Not all the new planes the flying branch purchases by 2019 will actually enter service before that year, as it usually takes a couple years to manufacture and introduce each new aircraft.
In any event, Congress is sure to alter the Air Force’s warplane plan. If history is a guide, lawmakers will add money to keep older planes flying longer than the military says it wants. In fact, budget drills like the current aircraft-retirement scheme could actually represent deliberate efforts to squeeze cash from lawmakers.