Pentagon Plans to Retire A-10s and U-2s—AGAIN
Budget proposal tries to cull spy planes and ground attack aircraft, and not for the first time
The Pentagon will propose retiring its entire fleet of A-10 tank-killers and U-2 spy planes in the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal.
And this is not the first time the military has tried to get rid of these planes.
The cuts are designed to save money for the Air Force’s three highest priority programs—Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighter, the Boeing KC-46 tanker and the secretive Long-Range Strike Bomber.
The Air Force tried to retire all 340 A-10s last year, but Congress blocked the move until 2015. Likewise, the flying branch wanted to decommission its 30 or so U-2s years ago, but for a long time couldn’t quite produce a drone able to replace the high-flying manned spy jet.
“The Air Force will reduce the number of tactical air squadrons including the entire A-10 fleet,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon on Feb. 24.
“Retiring the A-10 fleet saves $3.5 billion over five years and accelerates the Air Force’s long-standing modernization plan,” he added.
Hagel said that retiring the A-10 fleet was a tough decision.
The A-10 is a “40-year-old single-purpose” aircraft that was originally designed to kill tanks on Cold War battlefields, Hagel said. And while the A-10 is an exceptionally capable aircraft for its intended role, its time has passed, the secretary insisted.
“It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses,” Hagel said. “And as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, the advent of precision munitions means that many more types of aircraft can now provide effective close air support.”
The fleet is also getting increasingly difficult and costly to maintain as they age, Hagel said. “Significant savings are only possible through eliminating the entire fleet because of the fixed cost of maintaining the support apparatus associated with the aircraft,” he added.
The Air Force is also proposing to axe the entire fleet of U-2 high-altitude spy planes in favor of drones. The flying branch wants to replace the planes with Northrop Grumman-made RQ-4B Global Hawks.
“This decision was a close call as [the Defense Department] had previously recommended retaining the U-2 over the Global Hawk because of cost issues,” Hagel said. “But over the last several years, DoD has been able to reduce the Global Hawk’s operating costs.”
Before, the Air Force insisted that the sensors on the Global Hawk couldn’t match the performance of those on the U-2. Air Force officials said that the Advance Signals Intelligence Payload, for one, was more effective at the U-2’s much higher cruising altitudes—a simple matter of physics.
Plus, the Global Hawk is unable to carry the U-2’s vaunted Optical Bar Camera, a massive device that produces extraordinarily high-resolution images on six-foot strips of film.
A senior military official said the Global Hawk would have to be upgraded to meet the Pentagon’s requirements, but did not say what the scope or cost of those modifications would be. Nor did the official say if the upgraded Global Hawk would be able to match the sensor performance of the U-2.
“With its greater range and endurance, the Global Hawk makes a better high-altitude reconnaissance platform for the future,” Hagel claimed.
The secretary said that if the Defense Department is forced to go back to sequestration-level funding in 2016 or beyond, the Pentagon will have to make other painful cuts to the Air Force.
“The Air Force would have to retire 80 more aircraft including the entire KC-10 fleet and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleet, as well as slow down purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter,” Hagel said.
As with previous attempts to retire A-10s and U-2s, the current proposals are subject to Congressional approval. And getting lawmakers to sign off on the cuts could be easier said than done.