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Defense Secretary Hagel should push to save aircraft weaponry

By Ted Terpstra
On February 27, 2014

On Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the proposed Department of Defense budget for 2015. Secretary Hagel plans to mold the US military into a smaller but more flexible force while maintaining America's technological edge. The main highlights of the proposed budget are the purchase of 24 new F-35 jet fighters, the reduction in Army forces from 520,000 to 450,000 men, the elimination of all A-10 attack planes and the retirement of the U-2 spy planes along with the acquisition of Global Hawk drones as their replacement. This budget for 2015 has two big flaws, both of which involve changes to the US Air Force.
The first flaw concerns one of the most famous planes ever built, the U-2. While the U-2 is most often associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the planes have served since then for over 50 years. In the 1980s, the Air Force spent billions modernizing the spy planes to ensure that they would last another 50 years. The U-2 can carry more sensors than its proposed replacement, the Global Hawk UAV and has a larger power system to keep all sensors running at once. The U-2 can also fly 20,000 feet higher than the Global Hawk, giving its sensors better coverage. There is also an added benefit to having a human directly in the cockpit of a spy plane. Recall how Iran managed to electronically hijack a RQ-170 drone in 2011. A manned spy plane, like the U-2, removes that possibility from the equation. For a military grappling with a reduced budget, choosing the Global Hawk over the U-2 seems like a more costly option. Consider that the current price for a Global Hawk UAV is $100 million, while the U-2s are already modernized and ready to fly. It would make more sense to keep the U-2s flying and wait until drone technology improves enough that a UAV with superior payload, onboard power generation and service ceiling is designed.
Another plane which is scheduled to be retired is the A-10 Warthog. The rationale is that the retirement of the A-10 will free up $3.5 billion for the military to spend on other projects. Designed during the Cold War primarily for tank-busting, the A-10 has found a new life in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The A-10's close air support role is supposed to be filled by the newer F-35 sometime in the 2020's. Secretary Hagel believes that the F-35 is more capable than the A-10 and also has greater survivability against modern anti-air systems. Slow acquisition of the F-35s compounded with frequent developmental problems, such as cracks in the bulkheads, make a compelling case for continued service of the A-10 beyond 2020. Retiring the A-10s without having enough F-35s already in service to sufficiently replace them would lead to a gap in the US Air Force's close air support capability. It should also be noted that while the F-35 is better equipped for a future conventional conflict, the A-10, with its 30mm cannon, has proved to be a devastatingly effective weapon when used in counter-insurgency operations. The plane is superior at delivering close air support below 800 feet and accurate enough to provide effective fire to troops in close contact. At least two senators have spoken out against the planned retirement of the A-10, citing the plane's successes in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) called the retirement of the A-10 a "serious mistake". While the eventual retirement of the A-10 is inevitable, it would seem prudent to keep at least some of the Air Force's 300 A-10s in reserve for future low-intensity conflicts in places like the Middle East.
Whenever there are substantial proposed reductions to the military, all of Washington gets up in arms. No doubt part of the reason is that military bases and armament manufacturers within certain Congress members' respective districts will be affected, however, another reason is that the United States has historically been unprepared for major wars. It is precisely for this reason that Secretary Hagel is pursuing a plan for a flexible future military, one suited for both conventional and low-intensity conflicts. In order to accomplish this goal, the United States military would be best served if the U-2s continued to fly and at least some of the A-10 fighter planes were reserved for future counter-insurgency operations.  


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