By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States needs the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a new long-range bomber despite the difficult budget climate if it is to maintain U.S. air dominance, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said on Monday.
Donley, the service's top civilian leader, said the Air Force was committed to maintaining key capabilities even as it works to help reduce national security spending by at least $350 billion over the next decade.
"We remain committed to maintaining air superiority and the capability to hold any target at risk," Donley told a convention of the Air Force Association support group, noting the average age of the fighter fleet is 22 years old.
"Modernizing our aging ... fighter force depends on the fifth generation capabilities of the Joint Strike Fighter," he added. "Simply put, there is no alternative to the F-35 program. It must succeed."
The Lockheed Martin F-35 is the Pentagon's largest weapons procurement project. The military plans to purchase 2,443 of the radar-evading aircraft through 2035 at a total cost of some $385 billion.
The aircraft is designed to replace several different types of planes. But cost overruns and production delays have led to greater program scrutiny, with some critics calling for cuts or an elimination of one of the three variants.
The Air Force also is committed to modernizing the rest of its aging warplane fleet, Donley said, including its aerial refueling tankers, which have an average age of 49 years, and developing a new long-range bomber for distant strikes.
"Our modernization needs cut across all of our platforms," he said. "We face a multi-year effort to recapitalize our aging tanker, fighter, bomber and missile forces."
Donley's comments come as the Pentagon and its supporters stepped up their warnings about the potential impact of budget cuts on the U.S. military.
Congress approved $350 billion in spending reductions over 10 years in August but is looking for additional cuts. If a special congressional panel fails to reach an agreement on a new package of overall budget cuts by the end of the year, the Pentagon could face additional across-the-board reductions of $600 billion.
While acknowledging "hard choices" facing the military as it seeks to implement the budget cuts, Donley said the Air Force would strive to protect key capabilities.
In addition to air superiority, he said U.S. interests required it to maintain its air bases abroad, to continue developing unmanned aircraft and maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrence, including the so-called delivery "triad" of bombers, missiles and submarines.
Donley did not specify what areas might be cut. While saying everything was on the table, including changes to the military retirement system, he indicated the Pentagon would "not break faith" with current service members. Any reforms, he said, would be grandfather in as appropriate.
He said the initial round of spending cuts would be achievable but difficult.
"To get these savings," Donley said, "we will need to accept greater risk in some areas, terminate lower priority programs, streamline others, continue driving efficiency in our operations and make some tough choices about the core tenets of our national security strategy."
(Editing by Philip Barbara)