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Legacy U.S. Air Force Fighters, Bombers Are on the Chopping Block

The Pentagon will propose retiring many of its older aircraft as new capabilities come online, but the cuts aren’t as steep as initially planned.

U.S. Air Force Rockwell B-1 Lancer
A U.S. Air Force Rockwell B-1 Lancer flies in Byneset near Trondheim, Norway, on Oct. 30, 2018. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

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, sources tell 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 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.

But despite Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s push to tighten the Pentagon’s belt, his office, along with the military combatant commanders, actually rejected a series of even deeper cuts proposed by the Air Force—including its armed MQ-9 Predator drones—according to four sources with knowledge of the discussions.

The Air Force’s original proposal was designed to shift money toward new capabilities, including new fighters, bombers, 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 final proposal includes “less money shifted, and a slower migration” to new capabilities, the source said.

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, a number of the Block 25 F-16Cs, which were introduced in 1984, will retire in the next five years, replaced by the F-35.

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.

The Air Force’s then-top civilian previewed the cuts in September 2019, saying that the service planned to slash certain legacy programs to invest in advanced technology.

“The Air Force is leading the way with bold and likely controversial changes to our future budgets,” said Matthew Donovan, who at the time was serving as the acting Air Force Secretary. “There’s no way around it.” 

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 has been saying since 2018 that it intends to shift focus away from the counterterrorism fights of the last two decades toward building new capabilities for a future conflict with “near-peer adversaries” Russia and China. Both countries are increasingly able to challenge the U.S. military’s superiority through a wide variety of sophisticated missiles, air defenses, and electronic capabilities that could destroy key U.S. and allied forces—even U.S. aircraft carriers

But the persistent threat of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Shabab, as well as new tensions with Iran, has slowed the effort.

Just in the past few months, the U.S. military has deployed more than 10,000 additional troops, along with an aircraft carrier, fighters, bombers, missile defenses, and other capabilities to the Middle East.

It is becoming clear that legacy U.S. aircraft are increasingly vulnerable, even in the comparatively permissive airspace in the Middle East. Iran shot down a Global Hawk drone operated by the U.S. Navy in June 2019. And news emerged last week that an Air Force Bombardier E-11A, used to link troops in the field to headquarters and described as “Wi-Fi in the sky,” crashed in Afghanistan, killing two service members. 

The White House will release its budget proposal next week, but Congress still has to approve the changes as part of annual budget negotiations. As in years past, it’s likely lawmakers will push back on some of the proposals, and not all of them will make it into law. 

Update, Feb. 4, 2020: This article has been updated as further information about the fleet retirements became available.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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