The U.S. Air Force is proposing to cut 123 fighters and 133 airlifters as it manages spending reductions triggered by a flattening defense budget and declining operational demands. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, at an Air Force Association event in Washington on Feb. 2, previewed more details of the USAF portion of the fiscal 2013 budget request that comes out Feb. 13.

Overall, the Air Force will be reduced by 286 aircraft. Of these, 123 will be fighters, the equivalent of seven squadrons — six tactical, one training — out of 60 squadrons. Of these, 102 will be A-10Cs and 21 will be older model F-16s — a response to the smaller size of the ground forces they will support. There will be 246 A-10s remaining.

The service is retaining multimission aircraft that can address a broad spectrum of threats and those that can be converted to a common configuration such as the C-5M Globemaster III. Service planners also are looking at common, extended-range C-17s. The F-22 also is being modified to a common configuration to ensure operational flexibility.

Programs that are being slowed are having their funding protected. Those include the Long Range Strike family of systems and its new bomber, the KC-46A tanker, advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and the F-16 fleet.

Not all modernization programs will slow, however.

“As we worked through the implications of the delays in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, we have made a commitment to modernize about 350 F-16s with additional capabilities,” Donley says. “We have delayed F-35 full-rate production, but there are no changes in the program of record involving the projected size of the F-35 fleet. Those decisions will be made in the 2020s when production has reached about 1,000-1,600 aircraft.

Air mobility will take a 133-aircraft divestment. The Air Force will retain 222 C-17s, 52 C-5Ms and 300-plus C-130s. Divestments will include 27 C-5As, 65 older C-130s and all 38 existing and planned C-27s.

There will be adjustments to the number of ISR platforms. The remotely piloted aircraft force will be sized to 65 orbits with the ability to surge to 85. There will be no change in the number of manned aircraft among the 55th Wing’s special missions platforms that include the RC-135 Rivet Joint, Cobra Ball and Combat Sent fleets. Regular upgrades of the signals, infrared and measurements and signatures payloads will continue. The fleets’ technology upgrades will remain well funded.

“We will retire the RQ-4 Global Hawk block 30 fleet, which is about 18 aircraft, 11 RC-26s and one battle-damaged E-8C Joint-Stars aircraft,” Donley says. “There was increasing cost [in the Global Hawk] program that passed our level of tolerance. We like the capability, but not at any cost. We had a good alternative with [continued use of the manned] U-2. We still have the Global Hawk Block 20s, which are important to communications, and we intend to buy the Block 40s with ground moving target indicator capabilities.”

Personnel loss will be 9,900 in the Air Force — 3,900 active duty, 5,100 Air National Guard and 900 reserves. The active and reserve components will be more integrated. Associate units will go up to 115 units from 100. Every state will be affected by either equipment or manpower adjustments. The Air Force is mitigating manpower reductions by re-missioning Air National Guard units to remotely piloted aircraft and ISR.

Beyond budget reductions that stem from last August’s deficit-cutting and debt-ceiling law, the Budget Control Act of 2011, the Air Force secretary noted changes to operational tempo that are helping to drive these changes. “Dec. 17 was the first day in over 20 years that the U.S. did not fly a sortie over Iraq,” Donely noted. On the other hand, the Libyan campaign forced the Air Force to respond to a military emergency “in a matter of hours,” which means a demand for flexibility from that smaller force.