KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — As the Army cuts its forces in Europe with a knife, the Air Force trims with a scalpel.

With the major changes behind it, the Air Force looks to modernize its aging planes and reduce its forces by 3,000 to 4,000 airmen, Gen. Tom Hobbins, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said recently.

It’s “not a lot less, but a few less,” Hobbins told Stars and Stripes.

Col. Philip McDaniel, USAFE deputy director of plans, programs and requirements, said the Air Force’s version of “transformation” in Europe is an ongoing process but with only small adjustments.

The Air Force did much of its major rebasing and force reductions in Europe in the early 1990s. In the mid-1980s, the Air Force had 25 main operating bases, 850 aircraft and 60,000 active-duty airmen. Today, there are five main bases, about 200 aircraft and fewer than 30,000 airmen. (See graphics on page 4.)

“They’re all pretty essential to the mission,” McDaniel said.

The Air Force will continue to rely on a scattering of small temporary bases in Eastern Europe and Africa for training and to build better relations with countries farther east and south.

Although the bases will remain, they will have fewer airmen.

Air Force commands across the continent plan to reduce the number of airmen as part of a servicewide plan to cut 40,000 from the ranks to pay for new planes and equipment. While most units will remain, they will have fewer people.

Squadrons are trying to figure out ways to perform jobs more efficiently to brace for the cuts.

USAFE headquarters offices will see the biggest reduction. The Air Force plans to shift some jobs from the European command and Pacific Air Force to a central command stateside.

Personnel and civil engineering jobs are among those to be consolidated at the central location. Hobbins said those changes will happen in the next two years, but the headquarters has already begun preparing for the shift.

One of the top priorities as part of the service’s future “transformation” is to replace old cargo planes that have become costly to fly and maintain. The 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base, for example, has planes that entered service when John F. Kennedy was president.

“These aging airplanes that cost us a lot of money [to maintain] have to go away,” Hobbins said.

The Air Force plans to replace the C-130E Hercules transport planes in Europe with the new “J” models in 2009. Between 12 and 16 of the new planes, which fly farther and are designed to be more maintenance-friendly, are to be based on the continent, Hobbins said.

A consortium of NATO allies wants to buy C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes to be based at Ramstein Air Base. The four-engine jet can travel 2,400 miles without refueling and has been a workhorse supplying troops and supplies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Although details have not been worked out, it’s possible the planes could have aircrews from a mixture of allied nations, including the United States, McDaniel said.

In addition to modernizing the fleet, the Air Force is in the midst of overhauling housing for airmen and their families in Europe. It is building hundreds of townhouse-style homes in the United Kingdom and Germany. The Air Force is demolishing its 1950s-era, stairwell apartments and constructing larger houses with garages and nicer amenities.

But fewer airmen will be living on base as a result. In the next several years, more airmen and their families will be living off base. Hobbins said it is cheaper to pay for airmen to live on the economy in places like Germany than it is to house servicemembers on base.

Plus, most airmen and their families prefer to live off base, Hobbins said.

Spy planes planned

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Air Force wants to station a small squadron of high-altitude, unmanned reconnaissance planes in Europe.

The Air Force would like to base as many as five Global Hawk aircraft at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, said Col. Philip McDaniel, deputy director of plans, programs and requirements.

The planes would perform similar reconnaissance missions as those now done by the U-2 spy planes, said Gen. Tom Hobbins, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. The Air Force is going to retire the U-2.

USAFE is awaiting approval from the Italian government for permission to station the planes in Sicily. Hobbins did not say how many airmen would be needed to operate and maintain the planes.

The Global Hawk can cruise at high altitudes and provide surveillance and reconnaissance imagery. The pilotless planes are operated by crews on the ground.

“That’s a great capability,” McDaniel said.

The jet is 44 feet long, has a wingspan of 116 feet, flies as far as 12,000 miles and can reach an altitude of 65,000 feet, according to the Air Force’s fact sheet on the Northrop Grumman Corp. Web site.

— Scott Schonauer

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