View Full Version : Smaller Fighter Force On The Way

07-19-04, 08:07 AM

Smaller Fighter Force On The Way

By Paul Connors

The voracious desire by the Air Force for newer generation aircraft and other programs continues to threaten existing airframes currently used by the active Air Force, the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve Command.

Under pressure to cut costs and free up budgetary funding, the Air Force is developing plans to retire nearly half of its F-16 Fighting Falcons. Another factor cited for these new plans is the pending 2005 round of base closings.

Pentagon spokesmen have released tentative numbers with a low of 400 and a high of 600 fighter airframes being scheduled for retirement. While most of these aircraft will be F-16s, some F-15 Eagles are also included in the mix.

Of the three Air Force components, the ANG, which has some of the oldest F-16s and F-15s in service, would be the most seriously damaged by the early retirement of significant numbers of fighter airframes. Current plans call for the reduction of the ANG fighter force or 192 airframes around the country. Reducing the number of aircraft assigned to ANG fighter units comes at a time when these units have been asked to step up to support AEF rotations as well as homeland air defense missions with combat air patrols over major cities.

Diminished resources provided the impetus for plans to re-align the fighter force and bring it into line with current needs. That could also be construed as a less than open plan to free up funding for the incredibly expensive F-22 and the not yet in production F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Certain defense industry consultants cite the Air Force’s utilization rates for fighters and offer up statistics indicating that less than 50% of the current inventory is utilized to deal with current threats and operational requirements.

Already unpopular with Congress, the 2005 BRAC also weighs in as part of the planning process. While Congress as a whole opposes the next round of closings as requested by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, senior Air Force planners continued to prepare for the next list of proposed closings. Should that BRAC take place as proposed, the Air Force has stated that the lack of ramp space for fighter aircraft necessitates realistic plans for the re-location of active and reserve component units within the service’s remaining base infrastructure.

As this article is being written, the Air Force has already implemented force reduction measures whereby 18,000 members are being separated to bring the service’s personnel headcount down to the level authorized by Congress. Air Force leadership has conceded that further reductions in the overall size of the service are inevitable. And as people go, so will a number of legacy airframes.

In concert with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s continued insistence that the services use technology to become more efficient and remove people, the Air Force continues to develop weapons systems that rely on stealth, unmanned vehicles and space delivery of munitions. Whether these initiatives prove successful or not, the service continues with its designs to reduce the total number of fighters in its inventory. And in a speech on June 22, 2004 in Crystal City, VA, Air Force Lt Gen Duncan McNabb, Chief of Plans and Programs, stated, “even though the fleet is physically smaller, we actually increase our net capabilities.”

The very next day, General Hal Hornburg, commander of Air Combat Command (ACC) made the following statement to reporters in Washington, D.C.: “I predict that we will be significantly smaller in the next 20 years.” He was answering a pointed question on whether the Air Force planned a reduction in the fighter fleet. General Hornburg went on to stipulate that smaller doesn’t necessarily mean less capable when one compares current generation fighters to their follow-on replacements. The F-15’s successor is the F-22 Raptor and the F-16’s is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. He concluded his answer by saying, “We need to talk in capability, not airframe management.”

While approximate total numbers of airframes to be retired range from 400 to 600, active duty Air Force senior leaders have provided no real details as to how cuts would be made or where. But this lack of a real answer still weighs heavily on the ANG since they are the possessor of the service’s oldest airframes for both F-15s and F-16s.

The ANG is not waiting for answers from ACC on the fate of its F-16 force and the units that employ them. As F-16s are retired with no direct replacements available, many ANG F-16 wings will find themselves without a relevant mission. Without a mission, these same units will lose any reason to remain in existence and thus, become candidates for inactivation. Such moves are anathema to state governors and local congressman, who are also trying to prevent concurrent base closures within their districts.

Realizing that the loss of a large number of airframes could render the ANG irrelevant, the ANG developed its own strategy known as VANGUARD as its vision for retaining its role in national defense.

One ANG unit, the 192nd Fighter Wing, Virginia Air National Guard, offered up its own vision for retaining a place in ACC’s smaller fighter force. Currently operating out of Richmond International Airport and flying F-16s, the Wing Commander and his staff presented a list of options that would see the merger or co-location of the 192nd FW with the active Air Force’s 1st Fighter Wing located at Langley AFB, Va. The proposal is still under consideration.

Despite what appears to be a willful ignorance of history (the December 7th attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field in Hawaii and Clark Field in the Philippines, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has persisted in pushing forward the 2005 BRAC. Despite opposition, it is his policy that there is far too much infrastructure that needs to be taken off the government’s hands. Closing bases means that there will be less ramp space for aircraft. Less room means there is no parking; therefore, we need less aircraft. Rumsfeld has also ordered the services to look at joint bases where aviation assets from the Air Force, Navy, Marines and their reserve components are banded together. These locations have come to be known as “mega-bases.”

While in theory, mega-bases might make economic sense, they also create quite tempting targets. Bases with large concentrations of military hardware make it that much easier to destroy combat capability. These are factors that seem irrelevant to both uniformed and civilian leaders at the Department of Defense.

While the rest of us go about our business, behind the scenes machinations and negotiations continue, and the future of the nation’s fighter force remains questionable. So too does the future of the Air Force’s two reserve components as they rely on the parent service as the source of their combat hardware.

It is an interesting time in our history. People alive today may just get to witness their own government’s lack of resolve as it denies America its once formidable aerial umbrella.

©2004, Paul Connors

Paul Connors is a Senior Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at paulconnors@hotmail.com. © 2004 Paul Connors. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.