WASHINGTON — The Air Force plans to shed tens of thousands of airmen and dump a pair of famous aircraft fleets in order to pay for advanced capabilities that will allow it to face down “high-end” threats of the future, according to the service’s 2015 budget proposal presented Tuesday.
“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.
Under the proposal, which must be approved by Congress, the Air Force would reduce its overall end strength from a current level of 503,000 troops to 483,000 in fiscal year 2015, officials told reporters.
The cuts of 17,000 active duty airmen and 3,000 Air National Guard 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 this year, officials said.
Voluntary force reduction measures would first be used to thin out the ranks, followed by involuntary programs if not enough airmen left, Martin said.
Two entire weapons systems are on the chopping block — the A-10 “Warthog” attack jet, and the venerable U2 spy plane.
The A-10, popular with ground troops in recent wars for its ability to lay waste to enemy formations, which defense officials say can’t operate in contested air environments, and eliminating it would result in $3.7 billion in savings over five years, Martin said.
Meanwhile, a controversial new fighter the Air Force wants to fully fund, the F-35A Lightning II, will be able to operate in a close air support role, as can other multi-use planes in the inventory, Air Force officials say. The A-10 proposal has generated intense controversy and opposition from powerful members of Congress.
Meanwhile, the Global Hawk spy drone, which the Air Force had previously proposed getting rid of, can do the U2’s mission, officials say.
The Air Force’s proposed 2015 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.
In addition, the Air Force’s so-called “non-blue” budget, which includes classified DOD programs not under the control of the Air Force, would fall slightly to $28.5 billion from the $29.5 billion enacted by Congress in 2014.
The Air Force’s top budget priorities are the KC-46 tanker, the the F-35 and the planned long range strike bomber, Martin said.
Research, development and testing spending on the planned bomber would jump next year to $914 million from $359 million currently, he said. Meanwhile, the procurement budget for the F-35, which has been behind schedule and over budget throughout its development, would rise to nearly $4.3 billion from $3.3 billion this year, funding the purchase of 26 planes.
Another $1.58 billion would be budgeted buy seven of the new tankers next year, Martin said.