Air Force cuts F-117, B-52, adds F-22s

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent  |  Jan. 11, 2006 at 3:22 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- The Air Force wants to retire the entire F-117 stealth fighter fleet by 2008 and cut the fleet of B-52 bombers in half, but increase the buy of its cherished F-22 fighter from 179 to 183 aircraft.

Program Budget Decision 720, the "Air Force Transformation Flight Plan," outlines the service's plan to save more than $21 billion between 2007 and 2011 and direct that money into programs that make the Air Force a "more lethal, more agile, streamlined force with an increased emphasis on the warfighter."

The closely held budget document, 14 pages minus its classified annexes, was approved by the Pentagon comptroller Dec. 20.

The Air Force has 52 F-117 fighters, a plane well known for its first-day-of-battle bombing runs. The service originally planned to retire the aircraft in 2011, but wants to push that up to 2007 and 2008, retiring 10 the first year and 42 the next, saving just over $1 billion by 2011.

"There are other more capable Air Force assets that can provide low-observable, precision-penetrating weapons capability," states the PBD, obtained by UPI.

Retiring nearly half the fleet of B-52s -- from 96 to 54 -- would save the Air Force $681 million in procurement, operations and manpower costs, and allow the service to eliminate or reassign nearly 4,000 airmen.

The document also terminates the B-52s stand-off electronic jammer system, used to jam enemy radar signals to allow fighter jets and other bombers to penetrate air defense systems.

"The Air Force assumes risk ... until transformational capability, not reliant on B-52 legacy platform, is identified," states the PBD, obtained by UPI.

As for the fleet cut, the Air Force recognizes it has an uphill battle to fight.

"Historically, the Air Froce has attempted to reduce the B-52 (total aircraft inventory) and Congress has repeatedly directed the Air Force to maintain the B-52 TAI at 94 aircraft. The Air Force is directed to develop a legislative strategy to gain congressional support to implement this proposed reduction to the B-52," the document states.

The B-52 was developed in the 1950s, and some of the same aircraft flown then are still flying today, with structural enhancements and upgrades. The B-52 has been a workhorse of the fleet. While it lacks the speed and stealth of the B-1 and B-2, respectively, it's ability to carry enormous numbers of weapons and its extra engines have made it a reliable part of the order of battle. It was used to good effect in the Afghan war, particularly when Taliban fighters were arrayed on open battlefields.

Through much of the 1990s the Air Force attempted to retire 18 B-52s and apply saving toward upgrading the rest of the fleet. Congress rebuffed it each time.

The document defers all but one budget "enhancement" to the Pentagon's office of Program Analysis and Evaluation: the F-22 fighter jet. That aircraft is due to receive an additional $1 billion between 2007 and 2011, for a total of $13.5 billion.

The Air Force plans to buy 60 F-22s from prime contractor Lockheed Martin beginning in 2006 and ending in 2010, extending F-22 procurement by two years and keeping the tactical aircraft manufacturing line "warm," which would allow the Air Force to purchase additional F-22s later. If the line is allowed to grow cold, restarting it can add hundreds of millions to the cost.

When it first developed the F-22, it contemplated buying more than 700 aircraft. That number has been repeatedly cut as aircraft prices ballooned and the program was restructured.

Most of the PBDs unidentified cuts come from what the Air Force calls "organizational and process efficiencies," that is, doing the same thing it does now but with less money.

The PBD also terminates the U-2 spy plane fleet by 2011. According to the document, that would save $1 billion by 2011, and allow 3,300 airmen to be cut or reassigned.

The PBD says the U-2 will be replaced by the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle. However, according to briefing charts compiled by an airborne reconnaissance office in the Air Force, the two are similar but not interchangeable.

The most significant difference is that the U-2 provides broad area synoptic imagery -- that is, a static shot of an enormous area, the dimensions of which are unclassified. Such imagery is used both for treaty verification and also in preparation for battles; a single shot can show how an entire enemy force is arrayed on the battlefield. Follow up shots then can track movements. Satellites do not provide those broad pictures, but rather create less accurate "mosaics" through smaller area pictures taken after different times that then must be pieced together. The Global Hawk will not have a broad area synoptic capability, according to the Air Force charts.

In the three areas where the Global Hawk will supplant the U-2 -- Korea, Cyprus and the Middle East -- Air Force charts dated Jan 5, 2006, show a degradation in warfighter intelligence capability across the board in the replacement of one system with another. The Korean theater, first to see U-2 retirement, would be hard hit between 2007 and 2010, when Global Hawk's capabilities are still being built. The Middle East would be the last to make the switch, showing deference to the security situation there. However, according to the charts the broad area synoptic imagery, synthetic aperture radar, electro-optical and infrared capabilities of Global Hawk would fall short of the U-2 at least through 2012 in every theater.

The UAV is being upgraded with a new, larger airframe to carry a heavier payload to bring it more in line with U-2 capabilities, including a signals intelligence and imagery suite. However, it will not be flight tested until 2007.

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