Three systems the USAF could sacrifice - and three it shouldn't

Budget crunch; Sequester; keep/ditch the A-10/F-35/Defense Sec Ashton Carter’s dog walker. Never before has the USAF been so challenged with the separate pull of shrinking funds and the need to keep up a tactical, strategic and logistical air fleet (as well as its non-flying needs) during an active war. Armchair generals such as yours truly can go blue in the face all day long talking about the need to eliminate this and boost the funding of that with all the effectiveness of talking to a brick wall - and with likely all the intelligence of one, too. The decision-makers armed with a nuclear stockpile’s worth of information are behind carefully guarded closed doors, and having access to that information while being a civilian is literal treason. In other words, none of us really know what’s “best” for the Air Force - but that doesn’t mean we can’t throw editorial darts at what we think is best for our protective warfighters if nothing else just for fun and venting frustration.

So here’s an opinionated list of programs the Air Force should keep and trash - of course, feel free to add your own suggestions too. This list will be mostly limited to actual flying platforms since the Air Force bits people don’t really care about - radio/communications equipment, military-grade smartphones and even redundant or outright obsolete personnel assignments tend to be hard to track down without access to the specialist publications that delve into this stuff (Armed Forces Journal is a great resource for this, by the way). And no doubt every single item on this list is going to be met with controversy.

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Dump - F-15C Eagle

The F-15 Eagle has been the premiere air superiority fighter of the USAF and globally since its debut, and was practically the fighter that invented the category “air superiority fighter.” Born from a combination of lessons learned from air combat over Vietnam and fears of Soviet “super fighters” coming over the horizon (particularly the Mach 3 MiG-25, NATO Codename “Foxbat”), the F-15 tested the limits of performance and design in an era when “microcomputer” was still an important distinguishing characteristic. Decades later the F-15C still remains the benchmark against which all other fighters are measured.

So why retire this well-serving yet deadly workhorse? For starters, the aircraft is simply getting old. Yes, the design is still so cutting-edge it remains viable and current even against newer threats - but the flying airframes themselves are wearing out and structural problems remains an albatross draped across its neck. Fixing these issues takes away funding from programs that are frankly more in-line with how the Air Force wishes to engage current and future threats across the entire land-sea-air battlespace.

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The F-15C is also greatly handicapped by its single-mission focus. As they are currently configured, USAF F-15Cs can’t do much over the skies of Iraq or Afghanistan. USAF F-15Cs typically lag behind updates made to foreign F-15 operators such as the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force. Most damning of all, the USAF already has an aircraft capable of the exact same missions as the F-15C as well as any manner of air-to-ground missions - the F-15C’s own evolved sibling, the F-15E Strike Eagle. While the USAF uses its F-15E fleet almost strictly in the air-to-ground role, almost every other foreign nation including Israel, Saudi Arabia and South Korea use their F-15E derivatives in the dual air-to-air/air-to-ground role and in fact the aircraft serve as their premiere air superiority assets. Furthermore, the F-15E has a strengthened airframe compared to the F-15C which has allowed it to bypass the fleet-wide grounding that effected its pure air-to-air sibling. Granted, USAF F-15Cs have recently completed a pricey AESA radar upgrade (allowing them unprecedented detection capability akin to the Navy’s vaunted AEGIS destroyers) but costs from this upgrade can presumably be recouped by transferring these radars from retired F-15C frames onto active F-15Es.

Retiring the F-15C force does leave a significant gap in the Air Force’s ability to counter enemy air threats - but this gap can be mitigated by shifting F-15E, F-16 and F-22 deployments as well as with the F-35 now finally entering something resembling initial operational capability - which, if working as advertised introduces a platform with detection capability the F-15C can only dream of in the form of upgrades it will never see in any post-Reagan administration, not to mention all packaged in a stealth platform. Furthermore the F-15C has limited utility against asymmetric threats such as ISIS and other “terror states” in-vogue with military and political planners. Most of all, the F-15C is simply becoming worn out with increased use, and rather than throw money at keeping aging and fatigued airframes in the air (and the money and manhours needed will only increase even moreso with more fatigue), perhaps that money is best put to use bring in fresh fighters with better technology to our air defense needs. In a perfect world, this shouldn’t even be a serious consideration - but if a shrinking budget and rising F-35 development costs means choosing between the F-15C and the A-10, one only needs to think of which platform is actually currently benefiting the actual warfighters on the ground.

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Dump - RQ-1 Predator

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Other than “smart” munitions no other airborne weapons system has been so transformative in the hearts and minds of the media-consuming public as pilotless drones - and specifically the RQ-1 Predator, the Ur-Example of all-seeing all-the-time omnipresence, whose very name is virtually synonymous with unmanned systems and coined the act of assassination by Hellfire missile as “droned.” As such, there is justifiable hesitation towards the Air Force’s plan to retire the craft within three years - but I do think the Air Force’s plan to retire the drone by 2018 is a smart one. Here’s why.

Other than effectively having its cockpit be physically separated from the craft itself by up to thousands of miles, there’s not much remarkable about the RQ-1. It’s powered by a relatively tiny Rotax piston engine with a displacement as equally at home in a subcompact car. As with the F-15C, many of the airframes are simply becoming worn out by near-neverending use and require either additional upkeep (and expenses) to fly or simply forced into retirement anyway. Its bigger cousin, the RQ-9 Reaper, is powered by a Honeywell TPE-331 turboprop engine that, if you took the propeller off, would be equally at home on some pretty high-end business jets. That means it can carry more warload than its smaller brother including sensor packages the little Predator hopes to carry when it grows up big and strong too. To put it one way, the Reaper just got that big signing bonus with the San Francisco 49ers while the Reaper is still bragging about “being just like my brother one day” during after school peewee practice.

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The needs of tactical surveillance and “droning” ISIS/Al Qaeda asswipes has evolved, and so should the platform. The attrition rates from used-up Predators demand it. While the Predator and Reaper share commonality, retiring one type still eliminates a unique peg that can only fit into a unique hole - and that means costs savings that can go elsewhere. A bigger Reaper fleet, upgrades for manned aircraft, or that pesky F-35 program. Additional revenue can be had by passing down still airworthy Predators to other nations through Foreign Military Sales or even private civilian firms - bringing with it a new age of airspace use and regulation. But hey, with the rise of civilian drones it’s an inevitability anyway. Imagine TV news stations using ex-Air Force Predators to report the morning traffic. The Department of the Interior and NASA can also use a boost in their already existent drone fleets to do real good for humanity and the environment, too. Laws, regulations and just plain old common sense should carefully dictate how ex-military drones are used outside the realm of the military, but when done in such accordance gives civilians valuable tools and the Air Force a budgetary break.

Dump - The Air Force’s Entire Small/Midsize VIP Fleet

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I don’t mean, for example, the Air Force’s fleet of modified 737/757 aircraft (or C-40 and C-32 as they call them) and certainly not the VC-25 that goes to duty as Air Force One. Those aircraft are usually kitted with special equipment that, again, civilians are kept in the dark about. There are also many modified bizjets or executive turboprops that are gutted and modified with sensitive sensor equipment for a variety of purposes from sniffing out IEDs to things that might constitute an act of war if revealed to the “white world.” Many other bizjets and executive turboprops...just ferry a colonel or general around from base to base like a pampered Wall Street bigshot. Perhaps retiring these planes in favor of a NetJets contract would be more appropriate given the Sequestration environment.

In Limbo - B-1B Lancer

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It’s big, it’s loud, it’s fast and it’s friggin’ cool. It’s also immensely expensive, perhaps second only to the B-2A Spirit “Stealth” bomber. It’s as amazingly complex and old as it is all those previous descriptors, and that complexity and age comes back to hurt it. Basically, all the downsides of the B-2A, but not as much return in benefit aside from sheer numbers (and with just 60 active frames even that isn’t much). Still, it has real capability behind all that raw power and gas guzzling, and remains a survivable asset against even a medium-level air denial threat. The future will just have to see whether or not the Air Force can justify these killer beasts in an age of both asymmetric and “conventional” warfare. Is being able to strike several dozen targets at once with Small Diameter Bombs really a critical mission function over an F-35’s or F-15E’s ability to strike “only” a baker’s dozen worth of targets on a single sortie with the same munitions type?

Keep - A-10 Thunderbolt II

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Other than high-mileage Predators, this is the one platform the Air Force is half-serious about getting rid of. USAF top brass and Congress constantly bitch at each other about it, with the guys making the actual war decisions wanting to shove them all to the boneyard and the guys making the actual funding decisions saying, “Nah, maybe we should keep these, here we’ll even give you the money for it.” If that’s the case, then it should be a no-brainer to keep them. Duh. Detractors say that the A-10’s massive armor-chewing rotary autocannon, a mechanism that might as well be ripped right out of the most imaginative steampunk webcomic, has no actual practical use or value either in the current low-intensity asymmetric conflicts or the high-intensity armor-vs.-armor-fests the cannon was meant for and that the plane itself will be ripped to shreds in any serious anti-air environment. The debate shouldn’t be just about the cannon - it’d be like arguing about the GT-R’s merits just on its all wheel drive system alone. It isn’t even the most critical performance asset of the plane, just the one feature everyone loves to focus on. Its loiter time, warload and ability to bring its pilots back home against the shoulder-fired and artillery-based anti-air threats typical in current campaigns may not make it a perfect choice, but a more suitable choice compared to the F-15s and F-16s otherwise used. Gun or no gun.

Keep - KC-10 Extender

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Along with the A-10, retiring the entire KC-10 fleet was also floated around a while ago. It would be a sad loss as the KC-10 pulls priceless double-duty as an aerial gas station and the Air Force’s very own FedEx service. The KC-10 might lack the raw numbers of the KC-135 fleet at just under 60, but is a much newer and versatile platform able to switch from hose-and-drogue to boom-style refueling mid-sortie, something not possible with the KC-135. The KC-135 is a mechanic’s nightmare of a loose flying formation of parts in some cases equal in vintage to what’s found on Jay Leno’s YouTube channel - and sometimes getting replacement parts requires the same extremes also demonstrated on that channel. The KC-10, on the other hand, has ready replacement parts on-hand in the form of its civilian DC-10 and MD-11 brothers which can commonly be found in boneyards everywhere. Some have even taken to the skies again as civilian-operated “KDC-10s” under military contract, boosting the always in-demand tanker service. With the tanker and transport fleets stretched thin as they are retiring the most versatile and valuable of those assets might not be a desired move.

Keep (I Guess) - The F-35 Program

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Since keeping the F-35 program afloat is the usual citation for making all these cuts in the first place, many people have concluded that perhaps the biggest cut the Air Force needs to make is the F-35 itself. Well, love it or loathe it the Air Force is just stuck with it anyway, whether it wants it or not. At this point, cutting the F-35 out of the Air Force is like cutting the core out of the Earth itself - never mind if it even makes sense, it’s not even really a possibility anymore. With airframes now being delivered, all that sunk cost is long-gone. And the Air Force needs a mass-deployment fifth-generation fighter. The F-15 and F-16 will not remain combat-viable forever, not with even smaller air forces deploying “Super Flankers,” “double-digit SAMs” and other buzzword jargon that might be hard to understand but at least sounds scary enough. China and Russia are flying fifth-generation stealth fighter prototypes. Russia is having trouble even affording their test articles. China...probably not so much even with their recent “economic meltdown.” Should we fear Chinese stealth planes? Probably not. But we should fear someone else’s stealth planes that are Russian or Chinese-sold. The Russians don’t fly the most advanced combat-ready aircraft they themselves make - the Malaysians, Venezuelans, Vietnamese and Indonesians do. Canceling the F-35 means starting back to Square 1 and spending potentially billions and decades to climb back up - and if you’re going to argue that costs and time can be recouped by using systems and lessons learned from the F-35 debacle, then, well, why not just stick with the F-35 then? The F-35 may not be perfect now but it does represent a (hopefully) more survivable and viable tactical aircraft option than holding onto fleets of aircraft that were designed in the 70s and have stamped manufacture dates from the 80s.

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