The United States Air Force is concerned that too many of the airplanes the U.S. relies on for defense are too old to be effective in modern battlefields and that the branch has been forced to devote too much of its funding to sustaining these dated platforms. The United States does boast the largest air force anywhere on the globe, as well as many of the most advanced air combat technologies that have ever taken to the sky… but large portions of the Air Force fleet are decades old, with many aircraft still in service long after they were slated to be retired.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States could already see the writing on the wall. Their Soviet allies had been invaluable in the effort to defeat the Nazis, but cultural, ideological, and diplomatic fissures had begun to form before the fighting was even over. The Soviet Union was poised to become the next great threat on the horizon, and America had seen first-hand how willing the Soviet war machine was to throw troops into the meat grinder. America quickly regained a wartime posture and dumped funding into defense programs with two very specific and overlapping aims: to dissuade Soviet aggression through perceived force, and of course, to counter Soviet force with our own if needed. The result was a massive influx of spending on new defense technologies that in many ways continue to serve as the backbone of America’s defensive infrastructure to this day.
The airborne leg of America’s nuclear triad still relies on the B-52, which first took to the skies in 1955. As the Air Force awaits putting its new KC-46 Pegasus in service, it still relies on platforms like 1957’s KC-135 Stratotanker. The many C-130 variants employed throughout the Defense Department for everything from transporting personnel to equipment are derived from the same 1956 platform, and the T-38 Talons many pilots train on are straight out of the early 1960s.
“It’s been shocking to me how much hard work the Air Force puts into sustainment programs,” Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said on Wednesday. “A lot of our programs are in sustainment long past the original design life … and we’re having to do Herculean tasks to keep airplanes flying that should have been retired a long time ago.”
Even the branch’s highest performing non-stealth platforms like the F-15 (fastest U.S. military aircraft) and the B-1B Lancer (America’s only supersonic heavy-payload bomber) are technological advancements from a bygone era — when brute force was America’s only option in the face of Communist expansion. Dominating today’s battle spaces takes far more than speed alone — it requires technology that was developed specifically to operate in the modern and largely digital battlefield.
Earlier this week, Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan said Defense Secretary Mark Esper made it clear that he was open to the idea of “divesting of legacy capabilities that simply aren’t suited” for modern warfare.
“His guidance states that, ‘No reform is too small, too bold or too controversial to be considered,'” Donovan said. “The Air Force is leading the way with bold, and likely controversial, changes to our future budget. We need to shift funding and allegiance from legacy programs we can no longer afford due to their incompatibility with the future battlefields and [instead] into the capabilities and systems … required for victory. There’s no way around it.”
It’s unclear what programs the Air Force may have in mind for a future chopping block, but it seems likely that the troubled B-1B Lancer, a platform the Air Force has already planned to retire for some time, will be among them.
“They need to have an expiration date. … We want to be a cutting-edge Air Force working on the pediatric side of the hospital, not the geriatric side,” Roper said.