Gates Clips Air Force Wings

President Obama’s broad plan to cut weapons spending strikes particularly hard at tactical aicraft and relies on a yet unproven futuristic fighter to fill the gap.

As the Obama White House looks to ring more money out of the Pentagon to offset huge domestic increases, the Air Force has offered up a plan to retire 250 fighters and light bombers in a single year — 2010. Defense Secretary Robert Gates gladly accepted, declaring there is an “excess” of F-16s and other fighters.

But experts say such a huge wound in the inventory will surely force the Air Force to take down some of its active and Air National Guard fighter wings. In other words, Gates’ defense budget press conference April 6 did not tell the full story of a shrinking military under Obama.

What’s at stake? In the post-September 11 world, the Guard does most of the flying to protect domestic U.S. air space. Plus, the Pentagon has called on its F-16s and F-15s to mobilize repeatedly for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Governmental Accountability Office warned earlier this year that, “If aircraft are not replaced by 2020, 11 of the 18 current air sovereignty alert sites could be without aircraft. The Air Force has not developed plans to mitigate these challenges because it has been focused on other priorities.” This report would seem to contradict Gates’ assertion there is a figher “excess.”

On the active force side, fighter wings have specific war missions in the Middle East and Asia, where a beligerent North Korea and a muscle-flexing communist China could one day trigger a military crisis. There is no more important goal in the early days of a conflict than commanding the skies — called air superiority. Without sufficient F-16s and F-15s, Air Force combat pilots would assume much more risk of failure — and death.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a fighter pilot in Vietnam who has commanded aircraft units and bases, told HUMAN EVENTS the 250-aircraft reduction means the service will, at the least, be forced to take down four to five wings.

“When you take down that many airplanes you have to take down complete organizations to get the dollar savings,” he said.

The problem, he said, is that there is no assessment that the U.S. faces any lesser enemy threats today than a decade ago, yet the Air Force will lose a big chunk of its fire power.

McInerney, who frequently speaks with active duty officers, said “It drastically decreases our capabilities and creates more risks in the Middle East, Asia or Georgia [the country invaded by Russia].”

He added, “Nowhere in Gates’ decision process does he talk about a decreased threat in the future. I think the overarching discussion should be, why is the defense budget being cut in time a war?”

Couple this with other pull-backs Gates announced, and you get the picture of a stretched military unable to carry out what is still its overriding strategic mission — fight two wars at once.

Gates wants to reduce the Navy’s 11 aircraft carrier battle groups from 11 to 10, meaning there will be fewer American ships at sea; bring the number of planned active Army combat brigades from 48 to 45; and freeze construction of new anti-missile ground stations in Alaska — the very weapon that would shoot down a North Korean nuclear weapon aimed at our continent.

Not only is Gates retiring 250 tactical aircraft, he is cutting the Navy’s buy of all-purpose F-18 Hornets from 40 to 31 in 2010. In another blow to the Air Force, Gates is stopping production of the Air Force’s future top-line fighter, the F-22, at 187.

To justified his risk-laden decision, Gates is gambling on the Lockheed F-35, a single-engine all-purpose fighter to be flown by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. It will one day replace the venerable F-16, which will make up most of the 250 tactical jets to be jetisoned next year.

But according to the Government Accountability Office, Gates is making the wrong decision. In a report finished a few weeks before Gates April 6 press conference, the GAO said the F-35 remains a troubled program. Lockheed has been late in delivering test aircraft. This means Gates will be accelerating the purchase of 513 planes over the next five years without sufficient testing. There are also problems in manufacturer enough spare parts.

Warned the GAO, “Procuring large numbers of production jets while still working to deliver test jets and mature manufacturing processes does not seem prudent, and looming plans to accelerate procurement will be difficult to achieve cost effectively …. Under the accelerated procurement plan, DoD may procure 360 aircraft costing an estimated $57 billion before completing development flight testing …. The program is still recovering from earlier problems that resulted in design changes, late parts deliveries, and inefficient manufacturing.”

What’s more, the Air Force F-35 will not reach operational capability until 2011 at the earliest, a year after the Air Force loses 250 jets. And overall, the Gates plan buys no more than 2,443 F-35s, 13 less than planned.

The Air Force is not commenting on how it will retire so many planes so fast. A spokesman at the Pentagon issued this statement to HUMAN EVENTS:

“The Air Force supports the holistic, strategic approach to next year’s budget adopted by the Administration and the Secretary of Defense, and we will continue to provide our best military advice to DOD and Congress as they propose and approve a fiscal year 2010 budget. As a Service, we understand the need to balance current and future requirements and to exercise fiscal discipline. We’re ready to move forward with the guidance Secretary Gates has provided to make the most of the resources we’re given and to work as a member of the joint team in accomplishing our nation’s military objectives.”

Insiders say Gates would not have gotten his way — at least not without a fight — if Gen. T. Michael Moseley still ran the Air Force. But Gates fired Moseley over poor oversight of nuclear assets.

He replaced fighter pilot Moseley as Air Force chief of staff with Gen. Norton Schwartz, a career cargo flier and one of the few non-combat pilots ever in that post. It was Schwartz who offered up the 250 retirements and agreed to cap the F-22 at 187.