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USAF Legacy Fleets Survive Budget Review, in Part

 - February 11, 2020, 7:02 PM
The U-2 Dragon Lady has survived yet another attempt to retire it. Instead, the USAF will eliminate most of the Global Hawk UAVs that perform the same high-altitude reconnaissance mission.

The Pentagon has decided not to retire multiple legacy aircraft, after all. There had been speculation that the A-10, B-1, KC-10, and U-2 fleets would be eliminated in the U.S. Fiscal 2021 defense budget. In addition, early block F-16s and some MQ-9 Reapers would also get the chop.

But although the FY2021 budget request, released on Monday, reduces the number of A-10s, B-1s, KC-10s, and MQ-9s in service, most of them survive. The U-2 Dragon Lady fleet is retained in its entirety. Instead, most of the Global Hawk UAVs that fly a similar high-altitude reconnaissance mission are withdrawn.

The total budget for the Defense Department is $705 billion, only marginally up from FY2020. But it was shaped by what the Pentagon described as a comprehensive Defense-Wide Review in which numerous hard choices were made to achieve savings of almost $5.7 billion. Savings from the U.S. Air Force fleet cuts, and from cuts in the Army and Navy budgets, will be used to boost spending on research, development, testing, and evaluation to an unprecedented $106.6 billion.

Forty-four A-10 attack aircraft are being retired. The Pentagon tried to retire the entire fleet a few years ago, but was thwarted by an outcry from Congress and some military commanders. 

Seventeen B-1 bombers will be axed. They are early-production aircraft, perhaps because they have the highest airframe hours. The B-1 has been used extensively in Operation Inherent Resolve over the Middle East.

Sixteen KC-10 tankers are going. The number might have been higher perhaps, were it not for the problems introducing the KC-46. Sixteen venerable KC-135s are also to be retired, but this leaves a substantial fleet pending full introduction of the troubled new Boeing tanker.

A debate has raged for years over whether the U-2 should be replaced by the Global Hawk. The Pentagon tried to retire the Dragon Lady twice in the last decade, but like the A-10, Congress objected and so did the combatant commanders. Instead, the 30 Block 30 Global Hawks that are based alongside the U-2s in the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB are going, along with the early-model Block 20s. The USAF will retain the 10 Block 40s based at Grand Forks AFB that have a modern radar sensor.

Some 40 of the USAF’s large fleet of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs are being removed. They are the ones operated by a contractor, rather than the service itself.

On the plus side, $2.8 billion is allocated for the stealthy B-21 bomber. The controversial F-15EX upgrade is funded again, for 12 aircraft worth $1.6 billion. Other investments include $11.4 billion for 79 F-35s; a whopping $7.5 billion for only seven CH-53Ks; $3 billion for 15 KC-46s; $2.1 billion for 24 F/A-18E/Fs; $1.2 billion for 52 AH-64Es; $739 million for five VH-92 presidential helicopters; and $269 million for P-8As.