At the recent annual meeting of the Air Force Association, senior uniformed and civilian leaders of that service warned the assemblage of serving and retired military personnel, civilian employees, contractors, think tankers and reporters that meeting the fiscal and operational constraints imposed by sequestration would require radical downsizing strategies. The Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh, floated the idea of eliminating in their entirety the A-10 ground attack fleet as well as all KC-10 tankers. General Welsh observed that the traditional approach to saving money, termed “salami slicing,” would not work, given the severity of sequestration-mandated cuts. The only way to achieve significant and near-term savings was by eliminating entire fleets. Another criterion proposed by Air Force leaders was to target single mission platforms, a standard which arguably applies at least to the A-10. Eliminating a block of aircraft would allow the Air Force to save not merely on the aircraft and pilots themselves, but on the entire sustainment chain, including spare parts and specialty tools as well as on infrastructure such as training, maintenance activities, inspections and basing.
What is significant about the Chief’s trial balloon is not what he is proposing to do but the systems he is suggesting for elimination. He was not speaking of poorly performing aircraft. Nor are these systems so old that they suffer from out of sight operations and maintenance costs. Both the A-10 and the KC-10 are world-class platforms. The A-10 is without question the best ground attack/close air support platform in the world. Its slow speed, 30mm gun with large magazine and ability to carry heavy bomb loads makes it ideal in this role across the entire spectrum of conflict. Designed to decimate armor-heavy Warsaw Pact conventional armies, the A-10 proved its effectiveness in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In Afghanistan, the A-10 has flown around one third of all close air support missions. In terms of flying hour costs, the A-10 is significantly cheaper to operate than any other existing or planned tactical aircraft. When the current upgrade program is completed in a couple of years, the Air Force’s 280 A-10s will be ready to support joint and coalition forces for at least another two decades.
Similarly, the KC-10 is the newest and, in some significant ways, the best aerial refueling aircraft in the Air Force inventory. The oldest KC-10 is fifteen years younger than the newest KC-135 which is the Air Force’s other strategic tanker. Unlike the KC-135, the KC-10’s hose-and-drogue system allows refueling of Navy, Marine Corps, and most allied aircraft in the same mission. The KC-10 also can carry 50 percent more cargo than the KC-135 as well as 75 passengers. Or with extra internal fuel tanks, the KC-10 can carry nearly twice the offloadable fuel of the KC-135. Consequently, the KC-10 is a cheaper way of gas delivery than the KC-135. The problem is that it, like the A-10, is a small fleet. Just cutting some fraction of either fleet merely drives up their overall O&M costs without realizing much in the way of savings.
The Air Force will readily admit there is nothing bad about either of these platforms. This is the point. The Air Force is at the point when it has achieved all the budget savings attainable by eliminating low-hanging fruit or at least all they are allowed to cut given Congressional opposition to simple steps such as base closure and rationalization of the Active/Reserve Component mix. Nor can the Air Force or the Pentagon as a whole eliminate overhead expenses, unnecessary regulations and specifications so as to avoid having to cut real combat capability.
The Air Force has cut the fat. Now it is being required to cut muscle.
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