WASHINGTON — The Air Force plans to cut nearly 500 planes from its inventory over the next five years if the Defense Department’s Fiscal 2015 budget request is approved by Congress, the service announced Monday.
The reductions — which would affect the active duty, Guard and Reserve — would be implemented in 25 states and the District of Columbia, according to a diagram provided by the Air Force. Only 47 planes would be eliminated overseas at a time when officials are emphasizing the importance of maintaining a strong forward presence to deter adversaries and respond quickly to crises.
The drawdown was necessitated by budget constraints imposed by Congress. The Air Force’s proposed base budget is $109.3 billion, down from the $114.1 billion originally proposed for this year, but slightly higher than the $108.8 billion actually enacted by Congress. If sequestration goes back into effect in fiscal 2016, the service’s budget would take further hits.
“Our challenge in a constrained funding environment is to maintain the balance between having a ready force today, and a modern force tomorrow,” Air Force budget director Maj. Gen. Joe Martin told reporters at the Pentagon last week.
“In addition to fleet divestment, we made the tough choice to reduce a number of tactical fighters, command and control, electronic attack and intra-theater airlift assets so we could rebalance the Air Force at a size that can be supported by expected funding levels. Without those cuts, we will not be able to start recovering to required readiness levels,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said in a news release.
The Air Force’s top budget priorities are the F-35 tactical fighter, the KC-46 tanker and the new long-range bomber, and the Pentagon is trying to protect those programs from the budget axe, officials said.
The procurement budget for the F-35, which has been plagued by cost overruns, technical problems and schedule delays, would rise to about $4.3 billion from $3.3 billion this year, funding the purchase of 26 planes. The Air Force would buy seven new tankers at a cost of $1.6 billion. Money for research, development and testing for the new bomber would more than double from $359 million this year to $914 million, Martin said.
As the war in Afghanistan draws down and China continues to rise militarily, the U.S. military is trying to move assets to the Asia-Pacific region and prioritize high-end platforms over personnel.
“The FY15 [budget proposal] request favors a smaller and more capable force — putting a premium on rapidly deployable, self-sustaining platforms that can defeat more technologically advanced adversaries,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last month.
To maintain capability at lower cost, some assets will be moved from the active duty force to the Reserve. The size of the Reserve fleet will only decrease by 17 aircraft, according to the diagram.
“Wherever possible the Air Force leveraged opportunities to rebalance personnel and force structure into the Reserve component,” Air Force Secretary Deborah James said in the news release. “For that reason, at most Air Reserve component locations where we divested aircraft, we replaced the existing flying missions with a new mission and preserved the majority of the manpower to ease the transition.”
In addition to getting rid of aircraft, the service also plans to slash personnel. The Air Force would reduce its end strength from 503,000 airmen to 483,000 in fiscal 2015. The removal of 17,000 active duty airmen and 3,000 Air Reserve members would be accomplished through the elimination of weapons systems, reductions in headquarters staffing and paring back aircrew-to-cockpit ratios as combat in Afghanistan winds down, officials said last week.
The Air Force plans to use voluntary force reduction measures to thin out the ranks, as well as involuntary programs if necessary, Martin said.
At this point, these Air Force plans are just proposals because Congress has yet to approve them. Certain measures, such as the elimination of the A-10, will be strongly opposed by some lawmakers.
At a budget hearing last week, Sen. Carl Levin D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said some of the proposed force structure reductions would be “difficult for many to support.”
Senators Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., John McCain, R-Ariz. and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., have all come out against the elimination of the A-10. Ayotte’s husband is a former A-10 pilot. McCain and Chambliss each represent states where dozens of the aircraft are based.