CSIS Suggests Major Aircraft Retirements as Routes to USAF’s $30 Billion Shift

The Air Force could save the $30 billion it plans to shift from “legacy” programs to more relevant ones in the fiscal 2021 budget request by retiring eight major aircraft, wrote Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The funding shift has been telegraphed by Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Undersecretary Matthew Donovan in recent weeks.

Goldfein said the $30 billion will be poured into four areas: Nine billion into “connect the force;” $9 billion in “offensive and defensive space;” $9 billion into ”generating combat power;” and $3 billion into “logistics under attack.”

Starting with the $30 billion figure quoted by Donovan to Air Force Magazine and by Goldfein at a recent Air Force Association Capitol Hill breakfast, Harrison also drew on the CSIS analysis, “The Air Force of the Future: A Comparison of Alternative Force Structures.” Harrison determined that just over $29 billion could be freed up by early retirement of eight major aircraft: the B-1 and B-2 bombers; the A-10 attack aircraft; the KC-10 tanker; the RC-135 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, the E-3 AWACS, and the U-2 spy plane. He published the analysis in a Nov. 12 article on the CSIS website.

Harrison cautioned that these retirements are not the only ways to find $30 billion for new priorities in the Air Force’s budget, and further noted that his list is “not a recommendation,” but merely the identification of “potential targets for cuts based on previous actions and comments” by USAF senior leaders. Other partial routes to a $30 billion shift could come from retiring portions of the F-15 or F-16 fleets “as F-35As are fielded to replace them,” or reducing the MQ-9 fleet as the US winds down Middle East operations, Harrison said. Partial retirement savings, though, are “minimal” compared with wholesale fleet eliminations, he wrote. The MQ-9, at a 90 percent mission capable rate and an operating cost under $800 per hour, is very efficient, and USAF might consider investing in expanding its capabilities, he said.

Moreover, Harrison wrote, the longer the phase-out, the less the savings.

Donovan told Air Force Magazine in a recent interview that the National Defense Strategy mandates that USAF make a priority of modernizing both the Minuteman ICBM and the bulk of the bomber fleet. Global Strike Command’s “Bomber Vector” called for phasing out the B-1 and B-2 in the 2031 timeframe. Goldfein, however, said in September that some of the more maintenance-intensive B-1Bs might be retired to pay for upgrades on the rest. Donovan has mentioned the A-10 as another aircraft that might not be affordable in light of higher priorities in the competition against China and Russia.

Harrison also cautioned that Congress has its own ideas about what aircraft are relevant to the future fight, and noted that USAF’s attempts to retire the A-10, U-2, and RQ-4 Global Hawk have all been rebuffed by Capitol Hill.

The savings Harrison cites are based on USAF’s own Total Ownership Cost database, and recent budget documents, as well as his own “projections for how reductions could be phased in.” In each case, the retirements would happen over a three-year period, from fiscal ’21 to fiscal ’23, and the savings would accrue across the future years defense plan that ends in fiscal 2025.

Harrison’s potential hit list is as follows:

  • KC-10 Extender: The Air Force has 59 of these large tankers/cargo aircraft, and could save $2.0 billion over the FYDP by retiring them ahead of 2024, which Harrison said is when they are scheduled to depart anyway. Without having a replacement in hand, though, USAF could see a “temporary shortage of tanking capacity.”
  • B-1B Lancer: Retiring the B-1B early could save $4.8 billion over the FYDP (and more over the next six years of avoided operations), but cause a “temporary reduction” in the number of available bombers and strike capacity. There would be no impact on nuclear deterrence because the B-1B’s nuclear mission was eliminated in the 1990s. The B-1s are 32 years old and average a grim mission capable rate of 52 percent, he said.
  • B-2 Spirit: The famous stealth bomber averages 25 years old and is available for its full mission only 61 percent of the time, Harrison said. Retiring it by fiscal 2023 could save $2.9 billion over the FYDP, but leave USAF without a penetrating bomber capability until the first B-21s come online in the mid-to-late 2020s.
  • A-10 Thunderbolt II: The 281 A-10s in USAF’s inventory average 38 years old—all of which are either being re-winged or have already had the modification—and have a mission capability rate of 73 percent. Though USAF would lose its dedicated close air support airplane, other jets can do the job, and USAF could save $6.7 billion over the FYDP, in part by canceling the re-winging effort.
  • E-8C JSTARS: The 16 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar aircraft are already slated for retirement, to be replaced by an as-yet undefined Advanced Battle Management System. They perform the Ground Moving Target Indicator mission, and have a mission capable rate of 67 percent. Early retirement would save $2.7 billion over the FYDP, but leave USAF with a “temporary gap in GMTI” and Battle Management Command and Control until ABMS becomes available.
  • RC-135V/W Rivet Joint: The “RJ” performs signals intelligence, and variants provide specialized optical and electronic reconnaissance. The 25 jets in the fleet average more than 56 years old, and it, too, is waiting on obtaining an ABMS. The Air Force could save $3.5 billion over the FYDP by retiring it by fiscal 2023, but would suffer a gap in “theater and national-level electronic and signals intelligence collection capabilities.”
  • E-3 AWACS: The AWACS fleet, at 39 years old on average, has a mission capable rate of 66 percent. The air battle surveillance system fleet is undergoing a modernization, but foregoing it and retiring all the aircraft by fiscal 2023 would save $5 billion, leaving USAF with a gap until a replacement capability, now not even defined, comes along.
  • U-2 Dragon Lady: At an average of 37 years, the U-2 spyplane fleet has a mission capable rate of 77 percent and a heavy utilization rate of 600 hours per aircraft per year. Retiring it would place heavier demands on the RQ-4 fleet, which itself has a “ute” rate of 1,000 hours per aircraft per year. Getting rid of all the U-2s would save $2.2 billion over the FYDP.