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Welsh on Aging Fleets: 'Airplanes Are Falling Apart'

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Top U.S. Air Force officials said the service must protect funding to upgrade aging fleets of aircraft while investing in new technologies despite automatic budget cuts.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh was blunt in his warning about the condition of such aircraft as the F-16 fighter jet and the B-1 bomber, both of which have been flying for decades. The service recently grounded dozens of F-16D two-seater models made by Lockheed Martin Corp. after finding cracks between the front and rear pilot seats in a section called the canopy longeron sill, a strip of metal that affixes to the fuselage.

"Airplanes are falling apart," he said during a presentation Tuesday at the Air Force Association's annual conference. "I don't care if it's B-1 oil flanges that are breaking and starting fires or if it's F-16 canopy longerons that are cracking. There's just too many things happening because our fleets are too old. They're just flat too old. We have to re-capitalize."

Like other military services, the Air Force is grappling with how to properly fund such accounts as equipment, personnel and training amid an era of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

"Right now, the things we have in our plan we cannot afford," Welsh warned. "Something has to change, whether it's more money, support from outside the Air Force or re-prioritization from inside the Air Force."

The service's six acquisition priorities remain the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; long-range strike bomber; the KC-46A refueling tanker; the combat rescue helicopter; joint surveillance target attack radar system replacement; and the T-X trainer, Welsh said.

After his speech, Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James sat down for a briefing with reporters. James said she envisions a smaller force with more modern equipment.

"As we look into the future, we see probably a smaller Air Force than we have today," she said. "We see an Air Force that will continue to rely probably more on our National Guard and Reserve forces ... We see a more modern Air Force ... We see an Air Force that remains to be ready."

Both officials highlighted the Air Force's role in recent air strikes against Islamic militants in Iraq. The service has conducted about 80 percent of the air strikes, including about 500 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties and almost 1,000 refueling missions, they said.

James also said, "You're all aware of the tough choices we've had to make as part of our FY15 budget submission. We basically traded off force structure and some of our aircraft of today and instead we are investing more heavily in readiness and in our modernization for tomorrow." She urged Congress to support the service's proposals to save money in part by curbing military compensation and consolidating military bases.

In the absence of approving a full budget, James urged lawmakers to adopt a stop-gap funding measure known as a continuing resolution, or CR, for fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1."We need a CR. We need it promptly," she said. "We don't need a government shutdown. That's a bad deal for everybody."

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