US Plans to Retire B-52s, C-21s, F-117 & U-2 for more F-22s
DefenseTech notes that a draft plan from the US Air Force plan (“program budget decision 720”) intends to retire the USA’s 33 U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, its 55 F-117 stealth fighters, 38 of its 76 C-21 Learjets, and about 40% of its B-52 bomber fleet between FY 2007-2011, in order to free up around $2.6 billion for the purchase of more F-22 Raptor fighters. The EB-52 SOJ [stand-off jammer] aircraft project would also be cancelled.
Some of these measures will be more controversial than others…
The most controversial aspect to this aircraft retirement plan is likely to be the cut of 38 B-52H Stratofortress bombers. Program Budget Decision 720 would apparently reduce the B-52 fleet from 94 to 56 aircraft, and kill the EB-52 SOJ [stand-off jammer] derivative that would have added long-range, persistent jamming capability to US forces.
Flight International reports that a Congressional Electronic Warfare Working Group, led by Rep. Joseph Pitts [R-PA] is gathering to oppose the EB-52 cuts, citing improvements in integrated air defense systems around the world and drawing comparisons to the USAF’s 1990s retirement of the EF-11 Raven.
The C-21 Learjets are unlikely to be hugely missed, though some have been performing light resupply runs and medical missions to front line bases. It will be interesting to see whether these missions stop if and when the fleet is cut, or VIP transport billets become more scarce instead.
The USA’s 55 F-117A Nighthawks, aka. “Wobblin’ Goblin” stealth attack planes, would be withdrawn from service before their original date of 2018. They would be replaced by far more capable F-22 stealth aircraft currently in inventory, which would combine attack (via the Small Diameter Bomb) and self-escort capability.
Candidly, the F-117 was a wonder weapon in its day, but the F-22/SDB combination more than replaces it. Meanwhile, the J-UCAS UAV program (UPDATE: if it isn’t cancelled, too) offers an unmaned alternative that could closely approximate the Nighthawk’s capabilities for less money by 2011. Even so, this proposed move to cut the F-117 already faces some opposition from Congress.
The famous U-2 Dragon Lady ultra-high altitude reconnaissance plane is increasingly being supplanted by unmanned platforms like the RQ-4B Global Hawk UAV, which recently flew with new SIGINT/ELINT sensors and continues to upgrade its capabilities. Meanwhile, the F-22 brings formidable intelligence and data-sharing capabilities of its own to the table.
Intense nostalgia is a more likely reaction to the U-2’s demise than ferocious opposition, though Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute disagrees. UPI provides more details re: PBD 720’s U-2 retirement plans, and also points out that the US Congress has killed attempts to shelve the U-2 before.
Nevertheless, Congress has historically been extremely resistant to retire weapons systems, and has denied past Pentagon requests to reduce some of these same systems before. In addition to any military considerations that may motivate Congressional action, it’s also worth noting that retired weapons systems tend to mean personnel cuts in the modern era. This means fewer jobs on local bases, of course, and increased likelihood of base closure in US BRAC rounds.
Note that according to this detailed InsideDefense.com report, most of the savings in Program Budget Decision 720 would come via personnel cost reductions.
- March 2011: A USA Today article notes that the 32 plane U-2 fleet is set to continue receiving upgrades, and will operate until 2015.
- May 2009: The USAF plans to withdraw the U-2 from the Korean peninsula, following North Korea’s renunciation of the 1953 ceasefire that ended the Korean war. It will be replaced by USAF RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs.
- In 2008, the USAF discussed extending the U-2 fleet’s service even further, to 2014 instead of the now-planned 2012
- The U-2’s days aren’t over just yet. The USAF can’t replace its broad area synoptic imagery capabilities with Global Hawk UAVs just yet, so the phase-out is on hold.
- StrategyPage (Oct 26/09) – The Toughest Bird In The Upper Atmosphere