Pararescuemen secure the area after being lowered from an HH-60 Pave Hawk during a mission in Afghanistan. The Air Force may not replace the aging rescue helicopter. (Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/Air Force)
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Faced with steep budget cuts and the desire to keep existing procurement initiatives on track, the Air Force is considering scrapping its entire fleet of A-10 attack jets and KC-10 tankers, according to multiple military and defense sources.
Also on the chopping block are F-15C fighters and a planned $6.8 billion purchase of new combat search-and-rescue helicopters, these sources say.
While these proposals are far from final, the options show the magnitude of the decisions facing Air Force leadership as the service wrestles with the prospect of cutting billions of dollars in planned spending over the next decade.
“You only gain major savings if you cut an entire fleet,” Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said in a Sept. 10 interview. “You can cut aircraft from a fleet, but you save a lot more money if you cut all the infrastructure that supports the fleet.”
When directly asked about phasing out the A-10 fleet, Welsh declined to comment on specific aircraft.
“We are looking at every platform we have, every one of those five core missions and trying to decide where must we recapitalize versus where can we modernize,” Welsh said.
The Air Force’s 2015 spending plan is due to the Office of the Secretary of Defense the week of Sept. 23.
Each service is developing two budgets for 2015 — one that includes sequestration spending cuts and another that builds on the Pentagon’s 2014 budget proposal, which is $52 billion above the sequestration cap.
OSD must approve the services’ budget proposals during a series of deliberations in the coming months before a final spending plan is sent to lawmakers in February.
The four-month-long Strategic Choices and Management Review — a Defense Department effort that looked at ways the Pentagon might have to modify its military strategy due to budget cuts — found the Air Force could cut up to five tactical aircraft squadrons, the Defense Department announced in July.
In an emailed statement, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said no decisions have been finalized.
“As the Air Force plans for a future with sequestration, we are looking at all options to accomplish our mission within available resources,” she said. “At this time, all options being considered are pre-decisional.”
The proposed aircraft cuts, particularly the fleet of 340 A-10s, are sure to face scrutiny in Congress. About half of the A-10 fleet resides in the Air National Guard. An Air Force proposal to cut five A-10 squadrons last year faced stiff opposition in Congress and from state governors.
The Air Force Reserve also operates A-10s, which were heavily used to provide support to ground troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. A-10s are also based in South Korea.
Sources say the Army is interested in obtaining A-10s should the Air Force decide to retire the twin-engine jets, which have been flying since the 1970s.
The Air Force operates 59 KC-10s, according to a service fact sheet. The tri-jet, which is based on the commercial McDonnell Douglas DC-10 jetliner, is the workhorse of the Air Force tanker fleet.
The tankers — equipped with both boom and hose-and-drogue refueling systems — can refuel both Air Force, Navy and international military aircraft on a single sortie.
Also on the table is an unspecified number of cuts to the F-15C Eagle fleet. The Air Force has about 250 of the fighters, which, along with the F-22 Raptor, make up the service’s air-to-air fighter arsenal.
Pentagon leaders for several years have said it would like to get rid of single-mission platforms.
An Air Force plan to cut the A-10 doesn’t come as a surprise, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group. He said the active service has been trying to kill off the platform for years. But while congressional pressure has saved the planes in the past, budget realities may make cuts realistic for the first time.
“These are strange and dangerous times budgetarily, which means the Air Force might finally get their way,” Aboulafia said. He points out that the A-10 is not particularly useful for either counterinsurgency actions, or for the so-called pivot to Asia, leaving the platform strategically on the outside looking in.
“If there were any plans to fight a land war, this would not be good news. But everything about the budget implies they have stepped away from land wars,” he said. “It’s a good way for the Air Force to save cash and declare victory in a turf war.”
Conversely, Aboulafia calls the potential KC-10 cuts “a baffler,” citing the relatively young age of the platform and its importance for movement across the Pacific. He speculated that including the KC-10 may be the Air Force attempting to drive home the impact of sequestration and budget cuts, as the program still provides a number of jobs that members of Congress would want to protect.
Air Force leaders are still locked in a passionate debate over whether to migrate aircraft and personnel into the Guard and Reserve. Advocates for this move say the savings achieved could allow the Air Force to keep aircraft in the inventory.
New rescue helos in limbo
While the Air Force sequestration budget proposal cancels the Combat Rescue Helicopter program, a separate 2015 budget proposal — the one that builds on the Pentagon’s 2014 budget plan — funds the effort, sources said.
Sikorsky is the only company to publicly announce a bid in the CRH program. A contract award was expected this month but has been pushed to the first quarter of fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.
If CRH is canceled, the service would likely coast with its inventory of HH-60 Pave Hawks, perhaps with limited procurement to replace losses, Aboulafia said.
While many factors can change over the next five months of budget deliberations, the decision to abandon the service’s one-time No. 2 acquisition program shows Air Force leaders’ desire to protect procurement programs already in production or of higher priority, sources said.
The Air Force brass wants to continue funding Boeing KC-46A refueling tankers, Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighters and development of a new long-range bomber. Pentagon officials do not want to break the fixed-price tanker contract that requires Boeing to pay for development or production hiccups. The bomber is a key component on the Pentagon’s long-term, Pacific-focused strategy, and the F-35 is the only fifth-generation U.S. combat fighter aircraft in production.
In the end, Congress will have the final say. Lawmakers were less than thrilled with the Air Force’s 2014 budget proposal, reversing several big-ticket items.
Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.