(Adds Air Force comment, paragraph 6)
WASHINGTON, Oct 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is seeking to retire early more than 300 fighter aircraft next year to save $3.4 billion in the hope of funding advanced Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) fighters and other modernization efforts, a published report said on Wednesday, citing internal Pentagon documents.
The plan would retire 137 F-15 and 177 F-16 fighters plus nine A-10 close air support attack aircraft as much as 11 years before the end of their scheduled useful lives, InsideDefense.com, an online news service, reported.
“Without accelerating these retirements, we are left with a larger, less-capable force unable to penetrate anti-access environments,” the Air Force was quoted as telling John Young, the Pentagon’s top arms buyer, in defense of a fiscal 2010 spending plan it submitted in August.
“Anti-access” is Pentagon jargon for spots defended by advanced surface-to-air missiles and state-of-the-art fighters such as those used or planned by Russia and China.
A key Air Force concern is what it calls a potential fighter gap until Lockheed’s radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is produced in large numbers.
An Air Force spokesman said it would be inappropriate to discuss an internal working document that will continue to change until it is incorporated into the next president’s fiscal 2010 budget submission.
The document was quoted as saying an Air Force analysis showed a “smaller but modernized fighter force, when coupled with a robust bomber fleet, can effectively bridge the gap until the F-35 can be produced in required numbers (ramping to 110) and the F-22 can be modified to a common configuration.”
Air Force officials have said they plan to increase F-35 production over the next five years to address the fighter gap, InsideDefense.com said.
Two F-35s have entered flight test, two are in ground test and 17 are in various stages of assembly, including the first two production-model jets scheduled for delivery to the U.S. Air Force in 2010, Lockheed said last month.
The president of the Air Force Association, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn, said it remained to be seen if Congress would let the Air Force get rid of so many aircraft so early and if Pentagon leaders would grab the savings to fund competing priorities within other armed services.
“There will have to be a lot of dialogue inside the Pentagon between the Air Force and the office of the secretary of defense, probably the secretary himself, before a decision is made,” Dunn, a former president of the Pentagon’s National Defense University, said in a telephone interview.
Old warplanes typically involve high maintenance costs and may require big outlays for structural upgrades. Still, lawmakers often have blocked Air Force attempts to retire aging warplanes early, partly to preserve jobs — in their voting districts — at bases from which they are flown.
In the fiscal 2010 budget request being readied at the Pentagon for the next president, the Defense Department is seeking ways to continue production of Lockheed Martin’s F-22, the top U.S. dog fighter, while boosting F-35 output to capture economies of scale quickly, Pentagon officials have said.
The final say on whether to go on building the F-22 is being left to the next president, who is to be elected Nov. 4 and take office Jan. 20 — only weeks before the administration’s budget request normally is sent to Congress.
The proposed early retirements represent accelerations of seven years in the case of the F-15, six years for the F-16 and 11 years for the A-10, according to the document cited by InsideDefense.com.
The savings would fuel a push to modernize the Air Force’s bombers, late-date fighters and go toward a new “nuclear-specific” B-52 bomber rotational squadron and Northrop Grumman Corp’a (NOC.N) RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial system expansion, the document was quoted as saying. (Reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by Carol Bishopric, Gary Hill)