Air Force Hints at Ditching Legacy Programs in Future Budgets

Acting Air Force Secretary Matthew Donovan, shown here at a January 2018 AFA breakfast in Washington, D.C., spoke at a Defense News conference in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 4, 2019. Air Force photo by SSgt. Rusty Frank.

This story was updated on Sept. 4, 2019, at 6:10 p.m. EST to include comment from Lt. Gen. Timothy Fay.

Air Force officials on Sept. 4 foreshadowed possible cuts to entire aircraft fleets in the service’s upcoming budgets, in the midst of a paradigm shift toward more integrated and data-driven warfare.

"New capabilities are only half the story," Acting Secretary Matt Donovan said at a Defense News conference in Arlington, Va. "Secretary of Defense [Mark] Esper said recently that he was open to ‘divesting of legacy capabilities that simply aren’t suited’ for future battlefields."

Esper has directed the Defense Department to shift funds away from programs that offer less value for the future of war and into those that do. Overall defense spending is capped at $740 billion in 2021, up from $716 billion this year and $738 billion in 2020.

"His guidance states that ‘No reform is too small, too bold, or too controversial to be considered,’" Donovan said. "The Air Force is leading the way with bold and likely controversial changes to our future budgets. We need to shift funding and allegiance from legacy programs we can no longer afford due to their incompatibility with future battlefields."

Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said over the summer he would deliver the 2021 budget blueprint to Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on July 25.

That plan, still largely under wraps, is expected to move the service toward a force that, while larger, relies more heavily on things like improved communications, artificial intelligence, predictive maintenance, spiral software upgrades, space assets, and networks that can share and analyze information instead of leaning on specific platforms to do certain tasks. Programs are starting to look at building assets in ways that let the Air Force swap out sensors and other parts as needed for different missions.

The 2021 budget could lay out concrete steps toward the Air Force’s plan to grow its squadrons, and will continue its work on joint, multidomain command and control, the Advanced Battle Management System, and weapons that strike across long distances and in the cyber and electromagnetic realms, among other priorities.

Lt. Gen. Timothy Fay, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements, said the A-10 is not on the chopping block. The service had previously targeted the A-10 for retirement in 2014, prompting a harsh response from Congress, which blocked the move in a harsh budget battle that soured relations between the service and lawmakers.

The Air Force must still convince the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Capitol Hill to approve its ideas.

"Everybody loves the future force. Our challenge is, what are you going to stop doing in order to pivot" Maj. Gen. Michael Fantini, who runs the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability planning group, said at the conference. "That’s where we see we’re making really tough choices."