The Complex

Warthogs Go Extinct, U-2's Fly Off Into The Sunset, And Other Highlights Of The Pentagon's New Budget

As the United States got its bearings after World War II, it began building a massive spy plane designed to slip into Soviet airspace without being detected to snap photos of military bases, government buildings, and other facilities of interest. The ambitious effort was kept secret at first, with the CIA providing cover stories for aspects of the program to make U.S. intentions unclear. It was also risky: U.S. officials feared that if the aircraft was shot down in Soviet airspace, it could be the spark that ignited armed conflict between the two superpowers.

Fifty years later, the Pentagon is pressing to retire the U-2 "Dragon Lady." Unveiling their controversial fiscal 2015 budget Monday, top Defense Department officials said they intended to basically replace the historic aircraft with more of the plus-sized Global Hawk drones. The drone can't do everything the U-2 can -- the drone doesn't have as many sensors, for instance, so it can't monitor as much from the sky at the same time as the plane -- but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Global Hawk was a better option for the future.

The U-2 move had been predicted by some analysts in recent weeks. Still, it's a somewhat surprising reversal given that the Pentagon had tried to kill the Global Hawk two years ago after determining it was "not operationally effective" and too expensive to fly. The Defense Department favored keeping the U-2 in service then, saying that they could not afford to fly both the spy plane and the spy drone given budget cuts. Clearly, that changed over time. The Pentagon's plan calls for all U-2s to be retired, although it isn't clear how quickly.

"This decision was a close call, as DoD had previously recommended retaining the U-2 over the Global Hawk because of cost issues," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday. "But over the last several years, DoD has been able to reduce the Global Hawk's operating costs. With its greater range and endurance, the Global Hawk makes a better high-altitude reconnaissance platform for the future."

The U-2 isn't the only Cold War-era plane in the Pentagon's crosshairs. Hagel also announced Monday that the military intends to kill the pugnacious A-10, lovingly known as the "Warthog." The plane was designed to provide close-air support to U.S. ground forces by destroying tanks and other armored vehicles, but has an uncertain future as the Pentagon scrounges for money to fund its next-generation jet, the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

"Retiring the A-10 fleet saves $3.5 billion over five years and accelerates the Air Force's long-standing modernization plan -- which called for replacing the A-10s with the more capable F-35 in the early 2020s," Hagel said.

A-10 fans on Capitol Hill already have launched a fight to save the plane. Thirty-five members of Congress told the Pentagon in the fall that they would oppose any measure to kill the plane -- in part because the Air National Guard flies it from bases in many of their congressional districts. A-10 advocates also point out that the plane, unlike the far more advanced F-35, has a strong record of reliability. On Monday, though, Hagel said the Warthog's time had passed.

"The Warthog is a venerable platform, and this was a tough decision," he said. "But the A-10 is a 40-year-old single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield. It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft or air defenses. And as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, the advent of precision munitions means that many more types of aircraft can now provide effective close air support, from B-1 bombers to remotely piloted aircraft."

Hagel also said Monday that the Air Force will slow the growth of its armed drone programs, especially the Reaper and Predator. The move won't likely change much, Hagel said -- instead of increasing to a force that can fly 65 around-the-clock combat patrols, it will be able to fly 55, with flexibility to fly up to 71 if needed. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said last fall that reducing to "in the vicinity of 45" combat air patrols after the war in Afghanistan would be a good idea. Air Force officials did not have an immediate answer on whether that means fewer drones are necessary, or whether operations will simply dwindle.

Other military equipment and programs got a reprieve in the Pentagon's budget proposal. In one example, the military had considered retiring the massive USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier, but the White House decided against it in recent weeks to cut off a political fight, according to the Wall Street Journal. Still, Hagel warned Monday that its future could yet be in jeopardy. If the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration are in place for the fiscal 2016 budget, the secretary said, the Navy will have to retire the carrier.

"That would leave the Navy with 10 carrier strike groups," Hagel said. "But keeping the George Washington in the fleet would cost $6 billion -- so we would have no other choice than to retire her should sequestration-level cuts be re-imposed."

Air Force photo

The Complex

Did A Former Auto Mechanic Keep Ukraine From Civil War?

This story has been corrected.

The man who may be responsible for helping to keep the violence in Ukraine from escalating has reportedly left Kiev and gone to Crimea. But Ukrainian Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedyev's work may essentially be done: by helping to keep the Ukrainian military on the sidelines during the massive protests that have rocked the country in recent weeks, he set the stage for a what could be a relatively peaceful transition to a new government.

The situation on the ground in Kiev has changed radically, and rapidly, over the past two days.   On Friday, President Viktor Yanukovych signed a deal to limit his powers, an acknowledgement that his move to align the country closer to Russia was not politically sustainable. On Saturday, with pitched battles raging in the streets between Ukrainian police and tens of thousands of protesters, parliament voted overwhelmingly to remove Yaunkovych from office and his nemesis, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was freed from prison. While Yanukovych insists that he remains in power, the moves were a hopeful sign that a violent chapter in the country's history was ending.

But despite the battles between security forces and protesters in recent weeks -- fighting that left at least 100 people dead -- the Ukrainian military never got involved. That may be largely due to the efforts of Lebedyev, a thick-necked former auto mechanic and businessman whose complete lack of defense-related experience sparked intense public criticism when his appointment was announced in December 2012. Lebedyev was derided as a Yanukovych crony, which makes his refusal to use military force of behalf of his former benefactor all the more striking.

On Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with Lebedyev to seek assurances that the Ukrainian armed forces wouldn't intervene in the fighting or turn its guns on the protesters, jibes that could have caused a drastic spike in the carnage.

"Minister Lebedyev assured the secretary that the Ukrainian armed forces remain the protectors of the Ukrainian people, that their deployment inside the country has been focused on protecting defense facilities and equipment, and that his forces would not use arms against the Ukrainian people," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement late Friday.

Kirby's statement said Hagel was "encouraged" by the apparent agreement reached between Yanukovich's government and the opposition in that it could prevent further violence. "He commended the government's decision to keep the military on the sidelines of the crisis thus far and urged continued restraint," Kirby said.

But by Saturday, it looked as if Lebedyev had left for Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea. Pentagon officials said they were aware of the media reports about Lebedyev's whereabouts and that there had been no further contact between the Defense Department and the Ukrainian military.

It had taken days to link Lebedyev and Hagel together despite efforts by the Pentagon to get the two on the phone. On Thursday, Kirby indicated that the Ukrainian armed forces were only being used to protect military facilities like weapons and ammunition storage sites - not, he stressed, against the protesters. Still, Kirby expressed frustration Thursday that Lebedyev hadn't been taking Hagel's calls.

"We are continuing our efforts to arrange for the secretary to communicate directly with Minister Lebedyev, but so far, the Ministry of Defense has been unresponsive to our requests," Kirby said Thursday. The two men finally spoke on Friday.

Protests in Ukraine began last fall but have heated up in recent days. Although the country is divided over its future, the protests reflected many Ukrainians' desire to be more politically and economically connected to Europe. Yanukovych had rejected a deal in November to be better integrated with the European Union.

He is now out of power, and the country is preparing for elections that could be held as early as May. Still, a lot can change between now and then, and the next weeks will be critical. Retired Admiral James Stavridis, the former head of the military's European Command, warned that when the glow of the Olympics in Sochi fades, Russian President Vladimir Putin's ambitions to try to pull Ukraine closer will reawaken.

"The next shoe to drop will be the post-Olympic attitude of Russia and Putin," Stavridis said. "As the Olympic torch goes out, buckle up -- Putin will not go gently off the stage of Ukraine."

Correction:

 

The Crimea is a region of Ukraine. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said it was a separate country. 

 

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