The U.S. Department of Defense plans to propose retiring hundreds of the Air Force’s aging fighter jets and bomber aircraft over the next five years to shift resources toward building new capabilities to counter China and Russia, reported the Foreign Policy.
On the chopping block are a significant chunk of the older F-15s and F-16s, 17 of roughly 60 nonnuclear B-1 bombers, along with 21 of the service’s unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk drones. The proposed cuts over what is called the “five-year defense plan” will be included in the White House’s annual budget submission for fiscal year 2021, which is set to be released on Feb. 10. Congress must approve the plan before it goes into effect.
As the legacy aircraft retire, the US Air Force will bring on new capabilities: Boeing’s new F-15EX, Lockheed Martin’s F-35, and Northrop Grumman’s B-21 stealth bomber. Defense contractors like the Boeing Defense and Northrop Grumman are privately working towards sixth generation fighter aircraft.
The Air Force’s original proposal was designed to shift money toward new capabilities, including new fighters, bombers, hypersonic missiles and building a sophisticated network that will provide more accurate real-time data to operators. But “they were trying to take tremendous near-term risk to do that,” said one source with knowledge of the discussions.
The Air Force has tried to retire its 250 aging F-15Cs and two-seat F-15Ds over the years due to structural issues with the aircraft, including most recently in 2017. Now, instead of paying to upgrade the older aircraft in the fleet, the Air Force hopes to use that money to buy Boeing’s F-15EX, a new and improved variant.
Meanwhile, almost 700 F-16s, which were introduced in late 1990s, will retire in the next five years, replaced by the F-35. The US Air Force plans to upgrade more than 300 F-16C/D to F-16V Block 70 standard with new AESA radar to increase capabilities of the force.
As for the B-1, the Air Force has previously said the aircraft would retire as Northrop Grumman’s new B-21 stealth bomber comes online, starting in around 2025. The 2021 budget proposal appears to be an acceleration of this plan.
During initial budget discussions this year, the Air Force also proposed retiring its fleet of armed MQ-9 Predator drones, its RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft, additional B-1 bombers, and the storied U-2 spy planes. However, those cuts were rejected by the Office of the Secretary of Defense as well as the geographic combatant commanders, who argued they couldn’t afford to lose any more surveillance capability.
The Pentagon intends to shift focus away from the counter-terrorism fights of the last two decades toward building new capabilities for a future conflict with “near-peer adversaries” Russia and China.
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