Air Force officials began hinting at plans to begin retiring legacy aircraft last fall, and service budget documents released Feb. 10 reveal plans to pull its oldest aircraft from across the fleets to fund technology priorities for joint all-domain command and control and next-generation air dominance in the fiscal year 2021 presidential budget request.
The service plans to realign $4.1 billion across its portfolios away from aging systems that have become increasingly difficult to maintain and upgrade to invest in new critical technologies and capabilities that will serve the Pentagon’s overall National Defense Strategy goals of great power competition and kickstart the Air Force’s ambitions for a fully networked force.
According to Air Force documents released Monday, nearly 30 of its oldest aerial refuelers could be retired years earlier than anticipated, including 16 KC-10 Extenders and 13 KC-135 Stratotankers – eight from the active Air Force and five from the Reserves – as the service partners with Boeing [BA] to bring the next-generation KC-46A Pegasus online. Fifteen KC-46A aircraft are requested in the budget.
Seventeen of the service’s “least-capable” B-1s will retire in FY ’21 in anticipation of the Northrop Grumman [NOC]-developed B-21 Raider next-generation bomber being fielded in the mid-2020s, a service spokesperson told Defense Daily.
Forty-four “least-capable” A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft would also be retired, including two from the active Air Force, 39 flown by the Air National Guard and 7 from the Air Force Reserves. In the meantime, the service would continue to modernize the remaining fleet of 218 aircraft through the 2030s.
The service is also considering retiring its aging T-1 training aircraft as it progresses with its “Pilot Training Next” program “as a faster, more cost-effective way to produce pilots,” the spokesperson said. The service currently has 178 T-1s in its inventory, and would not retire the aircraft in FY ’21.
The Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft portfolio could look very different in FY ’21 if Congress approves its proposed retirement of 24 Block 20/30 RQ-4 Global Hawks, including three EQ-4B drones equipped with Northrop Grumman’s Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) system. The service also plans to reduce the General Atomics Aerospace Systems Inc.-developed MQ-9 Reaper combat lines from 70 to 60 by eliminating 10 contractor-operated lines while maintaining all MQ-9 aircraft.
In order to provide sufficient levels of ISR with the divestment of the Global Hawk 20/30 assets and reducing MQ-9 combat lines, “The Air Force will maintain and modernize the U-2 [Dragon Lady ISR aircraft] and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleets and maintain 60 government-owned/government operated MQ-9 combat lines,” the spokesperson said.
The service also plans to procure one Bombardier E-11A BACN-enabled aircraft through the five-year future years defense plan (FYDP), with plans to bring the total fleet up to eight by FY ’26. One E-11A aircraft suffered a fatal crash in Afghanistan last month, leaving the Air Force with three in its current inventory.
Should Congress approve the retirement of these 100-plus aircraft in FY ’21, the service will used the saved investments to expand Joint All-Domain Command and Control (C2) integration, to include $302 million for the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) meant to replace the service’s aging Joint Surveillance Targeting Attack Radar System (JSTARS) program. That’s over twice the amount the Air Force received for ABMS in FY ’20 at $144 million.
The service also requested over $1 billion to continue R&D work on its Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) efforts to field new fighter aircraft over the next several years. Divested funding would also help lay the foundation for digital modernization through the service’s “Enterprise IT as a Service” effort and prototype directed energy solutions, the service spokesperson said.
The aircraft retirement funds would provide resources for the Space Force for programs including the National Security Space Launch program and rapid development of the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) program in development by Lockheed Martin [LMT]. Realigned funds could also contribute to advancing current programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, B-21, KC-46, hypersonic programs and the T-7A Red Hawk next-generation trainer system.