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February 2, 2006—The Air Force would radically alter its plans for long-range strike under the budget proposed for fiscal 2007, but it will have to get Congress to drop a long-held refusal to permit the retirement of “old iron.”

The plan calls for a sharp reduction in the number of current bombers, the accelerated launch of a new, unmanned bomber program, and the demise of an interim project that might have seen a new variant of the F-22 Raptor.

Topping the list of Air Force proposals in long-range strike is a move to cut the B-52H inventory from 94 aircraft to 56. The Air Force has long wanted to reduce the B-52 fleet, which is now well over 40 years old. Eighteen of the aircraft are kept on the books in a twilight zone status of “attrition reserve;” they draw off funding and personnel from the rest of the fleet, but don’t add much combat capability. The reduction would save about $600 million through 2011, not including the cost of future enhancements.

What the service wants to do is retire the most problem-prone of the aircraft and use the savings to upgrade the remainder with new weapons and capabilities.

However, when this was tried before, USAF took a beating. In 2001, the service asked Congress for permission to retire a third of the B-1 fleet, to save money on chronically problem-prone airplanes and improve the rest of the fleet. After heated discussion and Capitol Hill battles, USAF got its way, but was forced to bring some of the retired aircraft back out of mothballs a couple of years later. Legislators didn’t like removing aircraft that employed many Guard and Reserve members, especially in the run-up to the Base Realignment and Closure process.

Congress has also refused so far to allow the Air Force to retire some of its oldest KC-135E tankers, despite corrosion and other age-related problems that have caused maintenance costs to skyrocket and safety issues to be raised.

The Air Force shouldn’t expect any easier ride on the B-52 request.

New in the Air Force’s plan is the Next Generation Long Range Strike Aircraft program, leaked to the press in January. The new project would replace the Joint Unmanned Combat Aircraft System--slated for termination--with a larger, faster unmanned bomber. The aircraft would have to cover very long distances and be able to loiter in the target area with a good-sized bomb load.

The Air Force’s bomber roadmap has long said that the service doesn’t really need to replace any of its bomber fleet until 2037, although USAF has been contemplating an “interim” capability that would begin production around 2014. However, the due date for the new program would be 2018, apparently eliminating the “interim” step.

At Congress’ behest, the Air Force was considering various interim long-range strike  options, and seemed to be promoting a two-seat, enlarged version of the F-22, called the FB-22, for this purpose (See, “The Raptor as Bomber,” January 2005). The FB-22 now seems to be an abandoned idea.

The Air Force has deferred numerous congressional prods to begin a new long-range strike program. USAF said it wants a quantum leap ahead in capability, but that technologies like hypersonics have not yet reached the necessary level of maturity.

The qualities the Air Force wanted in a next-generation strike aircraft were trending toward a larger and larger platform, equipped with a sizable bomb load and able to loiter in enemy territory for long periods, with periodic refuelings from a tanker. The size of the objective Air Force version of J-UCAS had been upped several times, and likely would have been enlarged again.

Also influencing the Air Force move is new push by the Air Force Research lab to investigate hypersonic vehicles. A joint USAF/NASA project is in the works, expected to yield vehicles that can sustain speeds of  Mach 10. The first application of the technology is expected to be an air-launched missile.

The Air Force has been interested in converting some of its Minuteman ICBMs into conventional weapons that could put destructive power on a target anywhere in the world within 20 minutes. In fact, the “conventional ICBM” was deemed the most near-term and low-cost solution to obtaining a rapid global strike capability in studies conducted two years ago. Congress balked at the notion, however, out of concerns that a conventional weapon launch would be indistinguishable from the start of a nuclear attack.