The “divest to invest” plan of the US Air Force is too risky.

The US Air Force has started to phase out aging aircraft in order to fund new replacements. The Air Force plans to retire F-15Cs, F-16s, B-1s, and B-2s in order to purchase the F-35 Next Generation Air Dominance fighters, the B-21, and the F-15EX. While this strategy may seem appealing on paper, it has failed in the past.

US Air Force’s Failed Investment Transitions

Because budgets for new aircraft are in research, development, and acquisition accounts, where budget savings from retiring current aircraft are accounted for, Congressional approval of current-year operations and maintenance reductions (not savings) is guaranteed. However, future appropriations in the more competitive and more scrutinized research, development, and acquisition accounts are not guaranteed. The two are not interchangeable. The Air Force has had to learn these lessons the hard way. Congress does not issue IOUs, nor would it feel compelled to honor them if it did. Three recent examples illustrate these points.

The B-1 and B-2 bomber fleets have been significantly reduced from their planned quantities. The Air Force was forced to cut the number of B-1 bombers gradually from 100 to just 44 due to high operating expenses. Congress has prevented any B-1 retirements until B-21s are delivered in order to keep them operational. As a result, there are only 21 B-2s today, a far cry from the planned quantity. These B-1 and B-2 retirements result in a gap in Air Force bombers until the B-21s arrive.

F-22 Raptor
Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor (Source: wallycacsabre/Wikimedia)

In 2003, the Air Force established a desire for 381 F-22 Raptors, but Congress cut the number down each year to 187 with a pledge to fund enough F-35As to make up for the missing F-22s. Congress reduced the number to 187 each year, promising to fund enough F-35As to compensate for the lost F-22s. However, Congress continues to reduce the F-35A quantity. As a result, the Air Force intends to phase out its F-22s in favor of an unknown Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft.

The F-15EX fighter jets were supposed to provide homeland defense, replacing worn-out F-15Cs. However, this plan is already in ruins. Congress is cutting the number of F-15EX fighters in half—which won’t be sufficient to replace the retiring F-15Cs completely. Despite this, the defense of the homeland is listed as the nation’s highest priority in the National Defense Strategy.
Every time the Air Force relies on Congress to provide next-generation aircraft to replace outdated, current-generation aircraft, it ends up on the short end of the stick with a deficient, hollow next-generation aircraft fleet.

Every “divest to invest” program creates a shortfall in capability between retirement and replacement. Because the majority of B-1 bombers were retired without being replaced, the already insufficient F-22 fighter fleet was reduced further before the F-35As were delivered to replace them. Even before the F-15EXs are created and delivered, aging F-15Cs will be retired. In the Indo-Pacific region, the retirement of F-15s, F-16s, B-1s, and B-2s will cause significant shortfalls in quantity and capability as threats increase.

Air Force’s Challenging History of Weapons Acquisition

The US Air Force has long been a leader in weapons development and has been responsible for many of the most impressive advances in military technology over the years. However, this leadership has not come cheap; the Air Force has invested billions of dollars in weapons development over the years, and the cost is only increasing.