WASHINGTON — The US Air Force will include both the U-2 spy plane and Global Hawk unmanned system in their FY16 budget request, but will once again ask to retire the A-10 Warthog, sources tell Defense News.
Both the Global Hawk and the U-2 perform the high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission, and for several years the Air Force attempted to retire the Global Hawk in favor of the U-2, claiming the older platform was still cheaper and had greater capabilities than the Global Hawk.
In its FY15 request, the Air Force flipped, arguing that per-flying hour costs had come down enough on the Global Hawk that the unmanned system was now the cheaper option. The service claimed that retiring the U-2 could save $2.2 billion. Those savings dropped dramatically, however, when factoring in the costs for needed upgrades to the Global Hawk that would allow it to fill current U-2 capabilities.
It appears the service has now given up on plans to retire either aircraft, and instead will request funding for both.
“In the budget they got the topline relief to keep both U-2 and Global Hawk,” one source with knowledge of the budget said. “OSD put it in for the FY16 budget proposal.”
Also included in the budget request are “modest” upgrades to the U-2 technologies, the source said.
A second source, also familiar with the budget, noted that the number of current and potential conflicts around the world, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to ongoing operations against ISIS and the continued growth of China as a military power, may have made the case for the service that both high-altitude assets are needed.
“Of all the areas to be cutting, specialized high-altitude reconnaissance would not be near the top of my list to cut,” the second source said. “I think Global Hawks are really important, really necessary. U-2 seems to be getting a lot of use and it’s amazing they keep it going. I would far rather see cuts someplace else than those two systems.
“So if we don’t waste time on sparring between Global Hawk and U-2 this year, that’s a good thing.”
While the U-2 may be saved, the A-10 Warthog remains on the cutting board, sources also said.
That is not a major surprise, as the Air Force has spent a significant amount of its political capital on trying to retire the jet, which remains very popular in Congress. Speaking in January, service Secretary Deborah Lee James hinted that the service remains likely to retire fleets of planes.
“The Air Force will take another run at retiring A-10,” the first source said. “It’s in the category of, ‘no one thinks this is a great idea,’ but under the pressures of sequestration it does the least harm.”
That same source added that the KC-46A tanker, F-35 joint strike fighter and Long Range Strike-Bomber programs will remain on track in the new budget request. The service has identified those as its three biggest recapitalization priorities.
The sources all agreed that the FY16 budget will look very similar to the FY15 budget request.
“We would expect the Air Force to not be making any dramatic changes at this point, because they said last year this was all based on analysis they had done out to 2023,” the second source said. “Expect to see a lot of continuity from the Air Force in this budget.”
That argument was laid out by Gen. Mark Welsh, service chief of staff, in an August interview with Defense News.
“If something is the right answer one year, it is probably the right answer the next year,” Welsh said then. “If you try to change the right answer each year, all you do is run into a different group of resistance.”
The biggest question now is whether Congress will work to change the budget caps put in place by the Budget Control Act (BCA). The Air Force’s portion of the budget request is expected to be $152.9 billion, $16 billion over the enacted amount for 2015; the overall Pentagon budget is expected to blow well past BCA levels at $534 billion.
With Congress not showing much hope for changing BCA levels, the Air Force could find itself having to make more difficult cuts. A source familiar with Air Force thinking said that could include cuts for the the KC-10 tanker fleet or, potentially, future Global Hawk procurement.
“There will be a lot of rhetoric, a lot of debate, but not a lot of progress toward relief of BCA funding,” that source said. “The services will have to comply with reduced funding and they are going to put more things on the table that the Congress won’t like, and the services won’t like. But what can you do? If we, as a nation, want a first class military, then it takes resources to do that. It is really that simple.”