Budget cuts won’t make the Air Force give up any of its current missions, the service’s Chief of Staff promised today. But, Gen. Mark Welsh acknowledged, the cuts will force it to do those missions with different and perhaps not optimal aircraft.
Yes, the famous A-10 “Warthog” is “the best at close air support” – i.e. hitting targets right in front of the troops on the ground – but it’s an aging aircraft that has to retire sooner or later and other planes can do CAS just fine, said Welsh, a former A-10 pilot himself. Yes, the combat search and rescue mission – flying in to rescue downed pilots – is “a sacred trust,” he said, but we may not be able to afford a new CSAR helicopter any time soon.
In either case, Welsh told reporters at the Pentagon today, “the mission will continue to get done, guys.”
“We’re talking about lots of things we must have,” Welsh said. “The question is in what order do we recapitalize as the budget comes down, [and] the top three for us are clearly the F-35 [fighter], the KC-46 [fuel tanker], and the long-range strike bomber.”
Yes, the budget deal that passed the House last night 332 to 94 – the Senate will vote next week – “provides some relief over the next two years,” said Eric Fanning, the acting Air Force Secretary, “and it provides some stability.” But military training and readiness were badly shortchanged in 2013 and have dibs on the $20 billion the deal gives back for fiscal year 2014, he said. In the long term, he went on, though the 10-year, $500 billion defense cut known as the sequester is slowed down, the budget numbers still up in the same place. The deal will give the military more time and leeway to make cuts less “destructively” than the mad scramble for savings in ’13, he said, but the cuts are still coming.
“This will entail a budget with cuts that none of us likes and each of these cuts will have a constituency both in the Air Force and on Capitol Hill,” Fanning said. “If something’s restored to the budget we present to the Hill, something else will have to go.”
“There’s proponents for all these systems and I agree with all of them,” Welsh added, “but someone has to balance this.”
The current defense policy bill – the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act – does prohibit retiring A-10s in this fiscal year, but that doesn’t affect the Air Force’s plans because they’re looking at the 2015 budget and beyond, Welsh said. Conversely, said Fanning, while the Air Force may well not award a CSAR helicopter contract this year, that doesn’t kill the program forever. The service was always going to have to retire the aging A-10 at some point, and it was always going to have to buy a new search and rescue aircraft eventually: What the budget changes is not whether but when.
And sequestration’s not the only thing driving the cuts: There’s also strategy. Though the Air Force’s big picture vision was often obscured by question after question after specific programs, it was still there in the background, and Welsh made it pretty clear for anyone who’d listen.
For a decade of grueling guerrilla warfare, the Air Force has made close support to ground troops its top priority, from low-level gun runs by A-10s to high-altitude bombing from B-2 stealth bombers to information on the enemy from MC-12 Liberty “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” planes. The Taliban doesn’t have an air force or even many ground-based weapons that can shoot a fighter down. (Helicopters are another question). Nor does an insurgency offer any targets except small bands of fighters: There’s no strategic infrastructure to bomb, no large force held in reserve for the decisive blow.
In the next war, everything might be the opposite. Instead of flying freely wherever the ground forces need support, the Air Force might have to beat dense anti-aircraft defenses and advanced “fifth generation” fighters like the new Chinese J-20 just to get through. Instead of worrying mainly about the guerrillas ambushing their troops right now, ground commanders may be more concerned about an enemy “operational reserve” that their own artillery and rockets cannot reach.
“If I’m a ground combatant commander…I can handle the fight in front of me,” said Welsh, praising the Army and Marine Corps’s combat power. What only the Air Force can do is win the theater-level battle in the air and then go long after those distant but critical targets.
That’s why the Air Force is looking hard at retiring single-mission close support planes like the A-10 and the MC-12 and prioritizing programs it considers essential to the high-end fight. With production of the infamous F-22 cut off well short of the Air Force’s desired numbers, Welsh said, the Air Force needs a lot of F-35s just to have enough advanced aircraft for the air-to-air fight, let alone to hit a lot of targets in high-threat airspace, which was originally the F-35’s main mission. It needs a new long-range stealth bomber to hit far distant targets (tactical fighters like the F-22 and F-35 are painfully short-ranged). And it needs the KC-46 tanker to keep the other planes refueled during long missions.
In short, the Air Force is reorienting itself from close support to the immediate ground fight to the broader picture of an entire theater of war. What the Army fears is that, as so often in the past, the Air Force will make helping out the groundpounders an afterthought. The dilemma is how to handle the theater-level forest without losing sight of the tactical trees – and to do both on ever-tight budgets.