By Andrea Shalal-Esa
NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland (Reuters) - The top U.S. Air Force official on Monday vowed to protect three weapons programs from sweeping federal budget cuts: Lockheed Martin Corp's (NYS:LMT) F-35 fighter jet, a new refuelling plane built by Boeing Co (NYS:BA) and early work on a new bomber.
Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said the Air Force was convinced of the need to invest in those three programs to ensure continued U.S. military superiority the future. But he said other single-mission aircraft programs would likely face cuts if lawmakers did not reverse a second round of across-the-board cuts due to hit the Pentagon in fiscal 2014.
"You can't get savings of the magnitude necessary by reducing all of your fleets. You have to take out some fleets entirely in order to get the whole tail that comes with it in terms of savings," Fanning told reporters at the annual Air Force Association conference.
Fanning declined to comment directly on reports that the Air Force's plan for coping with continued budget cuts called for retirement of its fleet of A-10 attack planes and KC-10 refuelling planes, saying only that some single-mission aircraft would clearly be affected.
He said the Air Force was still seeking to retire its fleet of Block 30 Global Hawk high-altitude unmanned planes, built by Northrop Grumman Corp (NYS:NOC). Instead, it wants to rely on its older, manned U2 planes, despite new data showing the cost per flying hour of the new planes had come down by more than half.
So far, lawmakers have blocked the Air Force's plans to mothball the Global Hawk planes.
Fanning said the Air Force remained committed to Lockheed's F-35 fighter because of its size and importance to the other military services and foreign buyers. But he said rapid gains by Russia and China in developing their own radar-evading fighters made it the Pentagon's top modernization priority.
He said the Boeing tankers were another big priority for the Air Force because of the advanced age of the current fleet of KC-135 tankers, a fleet he said would "older than any human alive" when the last ones were retired.
He said the fledgling bomber program was also important, and cancelling early work on the program would not generate sufficient savings at a point when they were needed.
Under the 2011 Budget Control Act, the Pentagon must cut spending by $500 billion over the decade that began in fiscal 2013. Those cuts would be in addition to $487 billion in cuts already planned for the same period.
Officials have warned that the automatic budget cuts known as "sequestration" will erode the U.S. military's ability to deal with crises around the world. But lawmakers have not agreed on alternate measures that would allow them to lift those cuts.
Fanning said the Air Force, Army and Navy would submit two sets of budget proposals to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on September 23. One would continue the president's budget plan for fiscal 2014, and another would implement the bigger cuts.
At that point, Hagel and his staff would have to evaluate the potential cuts and make strategic decisions about the future of the U.S. military.
He said the Air Force could not achieve the deeper cuts by closing facilities because Congress was resisting such moves, or by eliminating personnel, because it took too long to reap those savings. As a result, the cuts would fall largely on operating and investment accounts, he said.
"It's a series of very painful decisions and painful cuts that are really damaging, in my view, to readiness and national security, and will be very expensive to fix later in the future if we try to," Fanning told reporters. He said the Air Force's sequestration budget envisioned a smaller force but gave no details.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa)