A reluctant Congress, driven as much by parochial concerns as strategic fears, stands as the Air Force’s biggest barrier between its past and its future.
The Air Force, on one side, is attempting to trim more than 1,000 old, maintenance-intensive, and less-capable aircraft from its fleet, to safeguard funds for future programs.
Congress, on the other side, has batted down many of those plans while voicing concerns that retiring the aircraft will deplete the military of much-needed aviation assets.
Presently, the Air Force by law must keep 347 aircraft on its ramps that it would prefer to retire. Of those, 51 do not even fly—they are older KC-135E and C-130E and H models that have been grounded because of flight safety concerns.
This is a story that plays out on Capitol Hill every year, and the Air Force usually finds itself on the losing end of the battle. This year, however, the stakes are even higher as USAF has increased the number of aircraft it wants to retire while banking on the savings to help fund other modernization and procurement programs.
This year, there appears to be some hope—at least within the Senate, where lawmakers, though skeptical, have agreed to some of the requests. The Air Force has also struck a conciliatory tone, with Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff, indicating that some of the proposed retirements could wait a few years until follow-on systems are ready.
The average age of a USAF airplane is a record 23 years old, with many of the airframes in the fleet dating back to the airplane procurement heydays of the 1960s, when the Air Force bought, on average, more than 600 new airplanes a year.
Many aircraft bought in large numbers in the 1950s and early 1960s, including the B-52 bomber and KC-135E aerial refueling tanker, are still in service today.
“They are not modern airplanes,” Lt. Gen. Christopher A. Kelly, vice commander of Air Mobility Command, said of the KC-135s during a February hearing with a House Armed Services Committee panel.
Over the last several decades, procurement numbers have dipped rapidly. Average purchases dropped dramatically, to 60 a year, during the so-called defense procurement holiday of the 1990s.
The procurement numbers have inched back up to 84 aircraft a year, as next generation aircraft, including the F-22 Raptor and numerous unmanned aerial vehicles, begin to come online.
But for the Air Force, the hefty bill required to maintain decades-old platforms is frustrating efforts to buy the new aircraft.
Today, the service spends fully one-fifth of its procurement budget to modify and upgrade its aircraft—the highest percentage in the Air Force’s history—according to a document the Air Force is circulating on Capitol Hill.
That expense steers money away from Air Force leaders’ future plans and priorities: the F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Lightning II, Predator and Global Hawk UAVs, and a next generation long-range strike platform.
“The challenge today, with growing operating expenses, is to balance [sustainment of old airframes] against the cost of replacing Cold War-era aircraft with modern aircraft,” the Air Force document states. “The Air Force needs to meet today’s needs, while at the same time ensuring future airmen inherit an Air Force that is relevant, capable, and sustainable.”
The Air Force Plan
Over the next five years, the Air Force wants to divest itself of 1,033 aircraft, or 17.1 percent of its entire fleet. The hope, officials say, is to free billions of dollars through 2011 to pay for 585 new manned and unmanned aircraft.
The newer airframes are more capable and, therefore, officials say they are needed in fewer numbers.
The Air Force also intends to make new aircraft able to perform a wide range of new missions. A new KC-X tanker to replace the KC-135, for example, is expected to serve double duty as a cargo airplane in addition to its primary refueling mission.
Flying fewer, but more capable, airplanes will bring about spending reductions in other areas of the Air Force budget, namely force structure, maintenance, and personnel accounts, said Brig. Gen. Charles W. Lyon, deputy director of programs for the Air Staff’s strategic planning directorate.
In its Fiscal 2007 budget request and the accompanying Quadrennial Defense Review sent to Congress in February, the Pentagon revealed plans to cut the fleet of venerable B-52H bombers from 94 to 56, for a total savings of $680 million through 2011. The goal, according to the QDR, is to help field a new long-range strike capability in the next 12 years, while fully modernizing the remaining B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s.
The Defense Department also wants to accelerate the planned retirement date for 52 F-117 Nighthawk fighter jets. The F-117 was the prize of the Air Force fleet in 1982 when it became the first operational stealth aircraft under a veil of secrecy. “I guess what we’ve found is the world has changed around in many manners,” Lyon said. “We’ve moved on to a second and third generation stealth capability, as well as some really significant weapons advancements.”
The plan is to move the stealth fighters’ out-of-service date from 2011 to 2008, amassing savings of $1 billion over the next half-decade. Moseley recently indicated that he is not wedded to this idea, telling reporters, “I don’t want to let go of the 117 until we have the [equivalent] capability demonstrated and operational” in the F-22A.
The Air Force has also proposed ramping down U-2 operations and fully retiring the fleet by 2011 to save another $1 billion. Moseley said recent discussions with the combatant commanders have convinced him this may be premature. “Until the Global Hawk is ready [to assume the U-2 mission], taking the U-2 off line doesn’t make any sense,” he said, because there is still a need for its intelligence-generating capabilities.
Nonetheless, the Air Force wants to replace the U-2 with unmanned aircraft capable of around-the-clock surveillance. Platforms like the Predator and Global Hawk are rapidly becoming more “sophisticated and efficient,” Lyon said.
Officials have also told Congress that retiring 114 of the oldest KC-135E models by 2010 would save the Air Force $6.1 billion (roughly the cost of 50 new tankers), and USAF seeks to divest a total of 145 C-130E/H cargo airplanes by Fiscal 2014.
The Air Force says the expense of maintaining and operating these aircraft far outweighs the benefits of keeping them in the force, particularly as defense officials gird for what is expected to be a downswing in military procurement spending over the next several years.
Not all the moves are being blocked. USAF is not prohibited from retiring 126 older F-15s, 38 US-based C-21s, or 277 F-16 fighters, among others. For helicopters, the Air Force plan is to replace its fleet of HH-60G combat search and rescue helicopters with a larger fleet of 141 new aircraft.
“In order to transform our Air Force as directed by [the Quadrennial Defense Review], we know some of this is going to have to be self-financed,” Lyon said. “We really can’t expect to get help outside the Department of the Air Force to get funding.”
Indeed, Lyon said failure to retire these airframes will force the Air Force to cut other areas of its budget—a step the service views as counterproductive to its plans down the road.
An Old Struggle
“To buy these new aircraft, to stay within our [total obligation authority], we just have to trim within our current force structure,” Lyon said. “If we hold on to these aircraft, that means we have to look elsewhere to trim our expenses.”
The service would have to raid infrastructure, operations and maintenance, and personnel accounts. Already, the service is cutting its force by 40,000 personnel over the next five years—a move made possible, in part, by more advanced weapons systems that require less equipment and less manpower. (See “The New Air Force Program,” July, p. 30.)
Retiring aircraft, however, is not a new budget-saving strategy for the service. In 1995, years after the end of the Cold War, the service declared that it had 38 more B-52 bombers than it needed. The country, Lyon said, no longer needed the big bomber fleet to serve as a strategic deterrent against the Soviet military.
But Congress blocked the Air Force’s proposal, forcing the service to keep its B-52 fleet at 94 bombers—the same size it was during the Cold War. The Air Force adjusted its BUFF requirement to 76 aircraft by 2000, but Congress continued to mandate a fleet of 94 B-52s.
Those decisions, Lyon said, have cost taxpayers $500 million to keep bombers the Air Force says it does not want or need.
“I’d like to think how much of an investment we could have made in the next generation bomber” with that money, Lyon said.
In addition to the bombers, many of the older KC-135Es are either grounded or go unused by combatant commanders, who say they are underpowered and can’t take on full fuel loads during hot weather days.
Meanwhile, the service has restricted many C-130E cargo airplanes because of structural deficiencies, but is still paying millions to maintain and repair them.
“We’ve got a lot of C-130Es that are just sitting around and [can’t] fly right now,” Lyon said.
The Air Force is pushing its divestiture plan on Capitol Hill, attempting to convince lawmakers to overturn the onerous restrictions.
“This approach is not possible without the support of Congress,” the Air Force document urges. “Lifting the legislative restrictions on retiring aircraft will alleviate pressures on our constrained resources that continue to erode our overall capabilities.”
Indeed, top service officials have pleaded with both chambers to allow the Air Force to send dozens of bombers, fighters, and cargo airplanes to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.
“I need your help in lifting the legislative restrictions,” Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne told Senators during a hearing in March.
Getting that help could be difficult, noted Winslow T. Wheeler, a former Senate Budget Committee analyst. The potential for lost jobs is the central issue for worried lawmakers, he said.
But Wheeler, who vocally and routinely criticizes what he considers wasteful government spending, said he concurs with many lawmakers who believe it is too soon to retire many of these airframes.
“I agree that retirements should be held off, but the members of Congress are doing it for all the wrong reasons, for pork reasons,” Wheeler said.
Despite election year concerns, the Senate appears to have listened to the Air Force’s pleas, passing in June a $517.7 billion defense authorization bill that would allow the service to carry out at least some of its plans.
For one, the Senate bill did not include language prohibiting retiring the F-117 and U-2 aircraft, a silent endorsement of the Air Force’s plans. The Senators required only an environmental assessment for bedding down F-22 Raptors as “replacements for the retiring F-117A aircraft” at Holloman AFB, N.M.
For the U-2, they required a study from the Air Force Secretary on migrating the U-2’s electro-optical reconnaissance system to the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle.
|Why Congress Blocks the Moves
Parts of the Air Force’s five-year divestiture plan were approved by the Senate in June as part of the $517.7 billion defense authorization, but the permission to retire aircraft still falls far short of the sweeping retirement plans the Air Force put on the table earlier this year.
Key decision-makers in both chambers of Congress are wary of the service’s plans, questioning whether Air Force leaders are jumping the gun on retiring airframes, such as the historic B-52 bomber, before a new fleet is in the air.
House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has been particularly vocal on the issue, arguing that the older airframes represent an insurance policy, an essential ingredient for a military preparing for a broad swath of future contingencies around the world.
C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), a defense hawk and House Appropriations defense subcommittee chairman, voiced similar concerns in a recent interview. “Yes, I think we should continue to advance the state of the art in our aircraft,” Young said, but many retirements should be held off “until we have the new aircraft” to perform the missions of the older airplanes.
For lawmakers, the aversion to retiring aircraft is more about jobs than strategic military needs, said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst at Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. In an election year, convincing lawmakers to sacrifice well-paying and highly skilled jobs in their districts is an inevitable, and perhaps even insurmountable, challenge.
“It never really works,” Aboulafia said, despite the Air Force very aggressively pushing for the moves. “You see a bunch of compromises.”
Lawmakers, he added, will agree only to retire the “worst offenders, the real hangar queens.”
For instance, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a member of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, is a strong opponent of retiring B-52s, many of which are housed at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base.
Dorgan, who helped restore money in the Fiscal 2006 budget for the B-52s, has emphasized that the legendary bombers are efficient and reliable and should not be scrapped when the Air Force starts to feel the impacts of an impending budget crunch.
Meanwhile, members of the House remain staunchly opposed to placing almost any of the Air Force’s aircraft in the boneyard.
Their arguments are similar—too much risk and not enough assurance from Air Force leaders that a smaller fleet can meet worldwide operational demands.
“How can you discontinue the only stealth fighter?” asked Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), questioning the Air Force decision to stand down the F-117 three years ahead of its previous schedule. (The F-22A stealth fighter became operational last December.)
But Pearce, whose district includes Holloman Air Force Base, home to the F-117 fleet, acknowledged that his concerns went beyond national security. Retiring the aircraft would have a “pretty serious adverse effect in our district,” he said.
Not All Roses
Senators also approved language in the legislation that would allow the Air Force to retire 29 grounded KC-135E tankers in Fiscal 2007.
And they did not outright forbid all B-52 retirements, but they did limit it for 2007 to just the 18 that the Air Force has wanted to stand down for years. However, they also put a hold on retiring those bombers until after the Air Force charters a study by the Institute for Defense Analyses on the bomber force structure.
“The committee is troubled that the Air Force would reduce the B-52 bomber fleet without a comprehensive analysis of the bomber force structure,” according to the Senate Armed Services Committee report accompanying the bill.
The Senate was not universally supportive of the Air Force plans. The lawmakers prohibited standing down any C-130E and H model airlifters in Fiscal 2007 and noted that it would be premature to retire any of the aircraft until the Air Force Fleet Viability Board studied the matter.
By far the toughest opposition to the Air Force’s plans, however, is found on the other side of the Capitol.
Specifically, the House prohibited the Air Force from retiring any of the B-52s, except one aircraft used for testing by NASA, and would require USAF to keep at least 44 B-52s in the fleet until 2018, or until another long-range strike aircraft “with equal or greater capability” to the B-52 reaches initial operational capability.
House lawmakers also want to limit the retirement of Nighthawks to 10 stealth fighters, but require the service to preserve those aircraft for future contingencies by maintaining them at a minimal level.
The House also refused to allow the Air Force permission to retire any U-2s until the Defense Department provides Congress with information indicating that manned aircraft are no longer needed for intelligence-gathering and surveillance.
House lawmakers limited the retirement of KC-135E aerial refueling tankers to 29 next year. But, as with the F-117s, the Air Force would have to minimally maintain those airframes in case they are needed for future missions.
The fate of the aircraft hinges largely on House-Senate conference negotiations for the defense authorization bill, expected to be completed in September. Members of the two chambers began meeting on their versions of the bill in July, but were not expected to complete talks before the August recess.
The Air Force, meanwhile, is expected to continue pushing its long-standing aircraft retirement plans, which Lyon said have been given added heft by the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review.
“We’re going to sustain the legacy capability that we need; we’re going to modernize them when necessary and do this recapitalization,” Lyon said. “The QDR allowed us to put that under the scrutiny, one more time, of the entire Department of Defense, Secretary of Defense, and staff.”
Megan Scully is the defense reporter for National Journal’s CongressDaily in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to National Journal, Government Executive, and Seapower magazines. This is her first article for Air Force Magazine.