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.