US Air Force may cut five squadrons

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The US Air Force may cut five squadrons of tactical aircraft and reduce the fleet of Lockheed Martin C-130s in service, should a long-term fiscal sequestration policy be implemented, says Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

The cuts to aerial capability could be made "at minimal risk," Hagel said during a 31 July media presentation. 'Tactical' is a description generally applied to aircraft like the Fairchild Republic A-10, Boeing F-15 and Lockheed F-16 - types meant to serve as air superiority, air defence and light strike platforms.

Despite cuts to tactical platforms, Hagel suggests that the USA must "protect investments to counter anti-access and air denial threats, such as Long Range Strike (LRS), submarine cruise missile upgrades, and the [Lockheed F-35] Joint Strike Fighter."

The F-35, which is in the midst of a multinational procurement and test-flight process, is meant to replace legacy tactical platforms, namely the F-16, and Boeing F/A-18 and AV-8B. The JSF is also the most expensive military programme in history. The nascent Long Range Strike programme is meant to develop a large stealth bomber to augment the Northrop Grumman B-2.

"There are no specifics decided yet," says the USAF. "As the secretary said, those are choices but we're awaiting a decision, and we expect those to be part of future budgets."

The threatened cuts appear aimed exclusively at the USAF tactical fighter fleet. The number of combat-coded fighter squadrons is now at 54, following a round of cost-cutting that trimmed seven units from its roster.

The US Army could suffer cuts as well, including to its large aviation capability. Hagel notes that in one scenario, the service could cut from over 550,000 active-duty soldiers to as few as 420,000 and still meet essential requirements.