The Air Force’s future fears

Service officials worry that parts of the fleet they've been counting on could vanish before they even get their hands on the aircraft.

Although lawmakers and defense observers continued to bang their heads on their desks this week over the Pentagon’s official messaging — bad stuff might happen someday if stuff happens but we won’t say what — there were a few telling details if you listened closely.

The Air Force in particular seems to have been the most forthcoming about the specific fears it has under the DoD budget nightmare scenario. Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told House lawmakers on Wednesday that he might be forced to eliminate “hundreds” of aircraft and “thousands” of airmen, and he and other top leaders even named a few names.

The Air Force’s C-27J Spartan cargo plane, for example, is hanging in the balance. The airlifter originally was an Army program; its entire existence was an unsubtle complaint about how poorly green-suited ground-pounders felt they were being supported forward in Afghanistan by the blue suits. There was time, in fact, when ground troops were getting as much small-aircraft, rough-field support from contractors like Blackwater as from their own Air Force, which loves glamorous strategic bombers more than boring ‘ol cargo planes. OK, ancient history — that food fight over, now Schwartz told lawmakers he is worried about whether the Air Force will be able to buy the 17 additional C-27s it originally wanted. More personally, Schwartz said he worries whether he’ll be able to keep his promise to former Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey about taking care of this program.

But Air Force officials have said aren’t even sure when they’ll use the C-27s as envisioned for forward support or whether to give that job to the C-130 Hercules — it’s all tied up in the always-pending, never-finished rolling “review” that may or may not ever appear.

Another program in doubt is the Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance bird, the Air Force’s theoretical small, slow crop duster of death that was supposed to help troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Although companies are lining up to try to sell the Air Force their offerings for this — including Hawker Beechcraft’s much-discussed AT-6 and Boeing’s suggestion for a new version of the old OV-10 Bronco — top acquisitions officials told lawmakers Wednesday the program may never be.

Any one of these items could be the kiss of death, but all of them taken together constitute a tough set of hurdles for any new program to clear: Congressional committees have zeroed out its funding. Maj. Gen. Jay Lindell told the House Armed Services Committee’s air power subcommittee that the aircraft’s acquisition strategy “has not been approved at this time. It is on hold.” His colleague, Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, told lawmakers that “given the budget constraints we’re under, we are looking at everything, and LAAR is certainly not an exception.”

It goes on: The generals confirmed the Air Force’s legendary U-2 reconnaissance aircraft will go away in 2014 or 2015, by which time they hope versions of the Global Hawk unmanned surveillance jet will be ready to take its place. And although the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps say they’re waiting on a new integrated schedule to codify the official future of the F-35, Carlisle admitted Wednesday the Air Force already knows its date for initial operating capability will probably slip from 2016 to 2018.

That means a service life extension program for newer-model F-16s, pushing them from life spans of 8,000 flight hours per jet to about 10,000 hours. Carlisle said the Air Force will SLEP between 300 and 350 of its Block 40 and Block 50 F-16s — though it has enough aircraft that it could upgrade around 600, if it ever needed to.

Lindell said officials expect that to cost about $9.4 million per airplane, enabling the fighters to stay in service until around 2030. “We expect some viability out of the F-16 fleet if we’re going to spend that much money to SLEP the aircraft,” he said.