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B-1B, F-16s could be next if Congress blocks Air Force plan to retire A-10

Mar. 18, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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While the B-1 and F-16 cuts are not part of the fiscal 2015 budget plan, each is considered the 'cost equivalent' to retiring the A-10 and could be an option if the Air Force can't execute its budget, Maj. Gen. James Jones said. (Staff Sgt Bennie J. Davis III/Air Force)
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The Air Force could be forced to make heavy cuts to its fighters and bombers if Congress rejects plans to retire the A-10 without providing additional funding, a top budget official said today.

The administration’s plan to cut the entire A-10 fleet, including infrastructure and depots, would save the Air Force $3.7 billion, plus another $500 million in cost avoidance, said Maj. Gen. James Jones, the deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements.

The Air Force could save the same amount by eliminating the entire B-1B Lancer fleet or about 350 F-16s.

“If you don’t let us divest, if we are returned force structure without additional [funding authority], we would have to evaluate what the options are,” Jones told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.

While the B-1 and F-16 cuts are not part of the fiscal 2015 budget plan, each is considered the “cost equivalent” to retiring the A-10 and could be an option if the Air Force can’t execute its budget, Jones said.

“We have to turn to something else,” he said. “We have to cut elsewhere. [The A-10] was the least-risk option.”

The Air Force flies 66 operational B-1Bs, and Congress has previously blocked the service from eliminating several of the jets from its fleet. Retiring 350 F-16s would remove nearly one-third of the fleet of 1,018 aircraft. The current budget proposal already seeks to end the F-16’s combat aviation programmed extension suite, a long-planned upgrade to the Falcon’s avionics.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers March 14 that the Air Force looked at several planning scenarios to find similar savings but that cutting the A-10 was the “lowest risk option from an operational perspective.”

“To achieve the same savings would require a much higher number of either F-16s or F-15Es, but we also looked at those options,” Welsh told the House Armed Services Committee. “We ran a detailed operational analysis comparing divestiture of the A-10 fleet to divestiture of the B-1 fleet, reducing the F-16 fleet, deferring procurement of a number of F-35s or decreasing readiness further by standing down a number of fighter squadrons.”

A-10 supporters have come out in force on Capitol Hill, with several lawmakers vowing to fight to keep the Warthog in the Air Force’s inventory and questioning the service’s commitment to and planning for the close-air support mission.

“People before you, Gen. [Welsh], have said that you were an A-10 pilot and then indicated that you suggested getting rid of the A-10,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif. “It’s amazing how things work. But I think the ones that we should probably be asking about the A-10s are the ground forces that have their lives saved because of the A-10 and the pilots that have flown them. And I understand the dilemma we’re facing.”

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the Air Force is “absolutely committed to the close-air support mission” and repeated the statistic that 80 percent of close air support missions in Afghanistan are flown by aircraft other than the A-10.

“We will not let it drop,” James said. “We are going to cover it, and we can cover it with other aircraft, and we commit that we will.”

The aircraft that will pick up most of the close-air support mission as the A-10 is retired will be the F-16, in advance of the F-35 achieving full operational capability, Welsh said.

Some lawmakers have said they support the Air Force’s decision to retire the A-10, an indication the cuts could be more likely in fiscal 2015 than previous attempts by the service to cull its fleet.

“The reasons the Air Force has chosen to take these difficult steps are sound ones in my view,” said House Armed Services ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., in a statement for the March 14 hearing. “First, they want to be ready for the future through investing in new and better aircraft. Nostalgia for old aircraft might sound good, but if we want our Air Force to continue to be able to operate anywhere in the world against any threat, we need new and more modern aircraft.”

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