A C-130J Super Hercules is delivered to the 317th Airlift Group at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, on May 22. A Pentagon review states the Air Force could cut the size of the C-130 fleet. (Lockheed Martin)
The Air Force could cut up to five tactical aircraft squadrons and much of its C-130 fleet to adapt to budget constraints imposed by Congress, the Defense Department announced today.
In unveiling a four-month look at the future of the military services, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Air Force would have to scale back its bomber fleet and possibly limit investment in future programs if across-the-board cuts continue.
Hagel ordered the Strategic Choices Management Review when he took office in March, just as mandatory budget cuts under sequestration went into effect. The review is a “menu of options” focused on fiscal years 2015 through 2019, and is aimed at helping the department prepare for sequestration in the long-term, inform fiscal guidance to each service and provide financial insight for the next Quadrennial Defense Review, Hagel said.
The review looked at current Air Force force structure and mission needs, and found the service could eliminate as many as five tactical aircraft squadrons — up to 120 A-10s, F-15s or F-16s. The service currently has 55 tactical squadrons, each with 18 to 24 aircraft. The review didn’t detail whether the cuts would come from the active duty, reserve or Air National Guard.
“It’s over to the Air Force and the specific services to look at what’s the proper balance, what’s the proper choice as they look at drawing down,” a defense official said following Hagel’s remarks.
Additionally, the review states that the Air Force could cut the size of the C-130 fleet with “minimal risk.”
“It’s a question truly of what’s required,” the defense official said. “We looked closely at the day-to-day requirements, we looked at warfighting requirements under the different operating plans that we have, and we looked at different scenarios that we expect to have.”
Reducing the size of the C-130 fleet goes against congressional efforts to save it. Last year, Congress directed the Air Force to keep 32 older C-130s the service planned to retire. The service originally planned to cut the aircraft largely from the Air National Guard, but after Congress required them to retain the aircraft, the service said it would keep them flying through 2014.
Reductions in the tactical aircraft community could also bring bad news for popular targets, such as older F-15 and F-16 Air National Guard squadrons, and the A-10 community, which lost two squadrons this fiscal year.
“As we assessed it, and as we looked at it, that’s one area we could limit the risk,” a defense official said following Hagel’s remarks.
The secretary’s review laid out two possible scenarios to manage sequestration-level cuts. The first would focus on protecting future investments, but result in a loss of capacity. The Air Force would lose “older bombers,” such as B-1B Lancers that the service has tried to retire before, to protect investments in programs such as the F-35 and long-range strike bomber.
“The strategic choice would result in a force that would be technologically dominant, but would be much smaller and able to go fewer places and do fewer things, especially if crises occurred at the same time in different regions of the world,” Hagel said.
The second scenario would take the opposite approach: Cut back on investments to sustain the military’s regional capacity as much as possible. This would cancel or downsize modernization programs and plans to grow the cyber and special operations forces. Defense officials didn’t outline which specific programs would be affected.
“Cuts on this scale would, in effect, be a decade-long modernization holiday,” Hagel said. “The military could find its equipment and weapons systems — many of which are already near the end of their service lives — less effective against more technologically advanced adversaries.”
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