Defense industry leaders and analysts received an insight into the proposed Air Force transformation and a preview of the Fiscal Year 2015 Air Force budget during the Bloomberg Government Defense Transformation Spending and Strategy Summit Feb. 26.
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said the Air Force, like the rest of the Department of Defense, is going through a transition period following 13 years of war, and will be making tough choices as personnel and budgets dwindle and the possibility of sequestration looms during the years ahead.
“We are repositioning to focus on the challenges and opportunities that will define our future,” said James. “We have to get ready for the new centers of power, such as the Pacific, and what will be a more volatile and unpredictable world. A world we can no longer take for granted.
“We can no longer assume, as we have over the past 50 years, to dominate the skies, and more recently dominate space. Many other countries are advancing their technologies, so we need to prepare now, not only for that world 10 years from now, but also today. It comes down to balance. That is the strategy.”
James said during times when strategy and budgets don’t match, the Air Force has to make judgment calls, looking at which risks are prudent and which are less so.
Specifically, she referenced tough decisions in the areas of personnel downsizing, force shaping measures, and investments in the future, highlighting the impact with and without sequestration. While the services have received some relief in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, she said that for fiscal years 2016 through 2019, the president has asked Congress for a defense budget $115 billion above the sequestration level, with the Air Force getting a share of roughly $34 billion.
“We’re doing this because we believe that sequestration-level spending will compromise our security. It will compromise in the short term on readiness and in the longer run on important modernization programs.”
On the manpower side, James said the force will get smaller with a cut of up to 25,000 airmen, mostly from the active duty over the next five years, and each service has also been tasked to trim headquarters spending by 20 percent over a five-year period.
“We looked at some of the overlapping organizations and how they can be combined more efficiently. We need to centralize policy and oversight of installation support in such areas as engineering, security forces and contracting, among others. We want to reduce some of the tasks that are not required by law, and in doing so, we won’t foist extra work on fewer people.”
James told the audience that in the area of force structure, the Air Force looks at vertical cuts, eliminating entire fleets of aircraft instead of taking horizontal cuts that “take a few from here and a few from there.” She said one example is the A-10, retiring about 283 close air support aircraft, beginning in fiscal 2015. She said the retirement of the fleet will save more than 3 and a half billion dollars over five years, with no degradation to the close air support mission.
“We chose the A-10 because it’s a single purpose aircraft, with a very important mission, but we have other aircraft like the AC-130, the F-15 Eagle, the F-16 Falcon, the B-1 Lancer and the B-52 Stratofortress that can also do that mission. All are dual or multi-purpose aircraft. In fact, 80 percent of all close air support in Afghanistan has been accomplished by aircraft other than the A-10.”
James told the audience that the U-2 has also been marked for retirement, beginning in the fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017 timeframe. The Secretary said that keeping both the U-2 and the Global Hawk were too expensive and that they both give more high altitude reconnaissance than the Air Force needs. She added that initially the Global Hawk was earmarked for retirement because of its expense to maintain, but advances in technology over the past couple of years have made the U-2 more costly and the Global Hawk less.
Even some of the expansions, such as combat air patrols like the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper will increase more gradually than originally planned. She said initially the Air Force wanted to increase the number from 50 to 65, but with Afghanistan winding down, there won’t be a need for as great a capability. She said the plan is to slowly phase out the Predators and have an all MQ-9 Reaper inventory.
James also talked about investments the Air Force wants to make, committing to the F-35 Lightning II, the new tanker, the KC-46 Pegasus, and the long-range strike bomber. She said the Air Force also wants to invest in readiness, stay committed to the triad of ICBM and bombers and invest a billion dollars in jet engine technology that promises reduced fuel consumption and lower maintenance.
But the Secretary emphasized that sequestration is still the law of the land, and if the Air Force is forced to revert to sequestration limits, as much as $34 billion will be reduced from the budget.
In addition, the Air Force would be forced to retire 80 more aircraft, completely retiring the KC-10 tanker inventory; defer sensor upgrades to the Global Hawk; purchase 19 fewer F-35s over the five year defense plan, and have 10 fewer combat air patrols. Also, funds for the next generation jet engine program will not be available.
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer participated on the panel with James and addressed issues from Airmen morale to force structure and acquisition costs, to include working to keep requirement costs under control during development.
“What has happened in the past when we’ve developed new platforms … is the price just starts to skyrocket as people want to put more and more stuff on it,” Spencer said. “As technology changes, people want more and more capability. We have had to turn back the temptation to put more on the [long-range strike] bomber. But I can tell you, the people working on this program are really working hard to get us the capability we need for that price, which is what we want.”
James told the audience that “tomorrow’s Air Force has to be the most agile, credible and affordable one we can provide. Our job, today and in the future is to fly, fight and win our nation’s wars. We feel that by making the tough choices today, we will set ourselves on a path to be the most modern and ready Air Force in the world, albeit a smaller one.”