Up for cuts are several mainstay Air Force programs. The service is pursuing as many “vertical” cuts, or wholesale fleet terminations, as possible, because the savings are more profound than simply slicing a portion of a fleet. With a vertical cut, the service divorces itself from the cost not only of the aircraft, but also of an entire training and supply chain.
Potential vertical cuts include the A-10 fleet and MC-12W Project Liberties. Both conduct niche missions. “If funding weren't an issue I would love to have that capability, [but] there are other things I need more desperately than the MC-12,” says Gen. Mike Hostage, who heads Air Combat Command. The L-3 Communications MC-12Ws were just fielded in 2009 to satisfy an urgent need for more intelligence collectors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A-10s, by contrast, have been lauded for decades by the Army for their precise close air support (CAS). The Air Force has tried before to kill the A-10 fleet during budget crunches, but Army officials often convince Congress to keep them. Hostage says that with targeting pods and precision-guided munitions, CAS can be had through a variety of platforms. “While they were not happy, [Army leaders] understand we are in a fiscal crisis,” he says. “I am not backing away from the mission. I am just adjusting the way I'm doing it.”
Several other fleets are facing partial cuts. These include the Lockheed Martin C-130 and General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft. “We are trying to convince [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] that the 65 [combat air patrol] challenge . . . is not the force structure the nation needs or can afford,” Hostage says. “Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested . . . environment [and] I need anti-access capability.” Hostage did not reveal what the right number of Reapers would be.
Likewise, the service may shed old, excess C-130s, even while proposing another multi-year deal of the new “J-model” of the tactical transports. Presently, the Air Force has approximately 340 C-130s, but USAF Gen. Paul Selva, head of Air Mobility Command, says the requirement is closer to 300.
Selva is also proposing an early retirement to the KC-10 refueler fleet. It could retire early as the Boeing KC-46 comes onboard. The KC-10 provides more refueling capacity than the KC-135 and was once uniquely capable of providing fuel to Navy and Marine Corps jets that use the probe and drogue receiver interface. Now, however, the service has outfitted the majority of its KC-135s into the R configuration, which allows for the workhorse tanker to conduct such missions.
The topline requirement for tankers is 479 aircraft, so it is possible the USAF could reduce the KC-10 fleet as early as the first 18 KC-46s are introduced into service in 2017.
Also up for a reduction is the C-5A fleet. C-5As have notoriously low reliability; by contrast, the C-5M—which includes new engines through a Lockheed Martin program—has proved to be highly reliable. Congressional members have held retirement plans for the fleet at bay in hopes of protecting missions at their home-state Air Force bases.
Selva says the C-5M, a modernization that includes new engines for the strategic airlifter, is highly reliable and, as such, is not being eyed for a cut. Likewise, the C-17 fleet appears safe.