WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force plans to cut a quarter of the AWACS planes at Tinker Air Force Base, but station more air refueling tankers there and spend $111 million to build a maintenance depot space for the next generation of air refueling planes, according to the Air Force budget released Wednesday.
Looking to reshape the service under tight spending constraints, the Air Force said in budget documents that it would reduce its capacity of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft by seven; Tinker currently has 28 of the planes.
The E-3G aircraft are equipped with a rotating radar dome with a range of 250 miles; the planes can detect enemy aircraft and ship movements and quickly relay information needed for battle situations.
The Air Force said it would continue modernizing the remaining fleet and fielding a variation of the E-3G.
None of the remaining AWACS planes will be associated now with an Air Force Reserve unit at Tinker. Instead the Air Force plans to adjust the Reserve mission at the base by adding four KC-135s — air refueling tankers — to the eight already there.
Despite budget pressures, the Air Force plans to continue investing heavily at Tinker to prepare for maintenance work on the new Boeing-built refueling tanker, the KC-46A.
This year’s budget included $9 million to purchase land and build a road and fence near the Tinker Aerospace Complex.
For next year, the Air Force wants $63 million to build a two-bay maintenance hangar and another $48 million for infrastructure to support the depot.
Tinker has a huge aircraft maintenance complex, but the KC-46A is too big for it, according to the Air Force. The plane is 52 feet high, about 165 feet long and has a wingspan of nearly 158 feet.
Oklahoma is one of only 10 states in which the Air Force is planning construction projects next year; Air Force budget documents state only the highest-priority projects were requested.
The first KC-46A planes are expected to arrive for routine maintenance at Tinker in 2018.
Inhofe criticizes president
At a hearing on Wednesday, senators from both parties questioned Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about next year’s budget and whether the U.S. military can still meet its national security obligations.
Dempsey said the military would assume greater risks in the budget.
“It is a budget grounded in reality … that prepares the U.S. military to defend our national security in a world that is becoming less predictable, more volatile and, in some ways, more threatening to our country and our interests,” Hagel said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, of Tulsa, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, continued to blame President Barack Obama for slashing military spending, but Hagel said the Pentagon was adhering to the budget caps set by Congress.
The president is seeking to spend $26 billion above the congressional caps next year and $115 billion more than the caps over the next five years, Hagel said.
Inhofe said the administration was pursuing its climate change agenda at the expense of pressing defense needs, spending $120 million for a solar farm at Fort Bliss and $160 million on biofuels initiatives for the Navy.
“Now, when you start adding all this up, you’re talking about really serious money,” Inhofe told Hagel and Dempsey.
“It’s not you guys. It’s the administration that doesn’t have the priorities that you have stated, Mr. Secretary ... in terms of defending America as the No. 1 priority.”