Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz testify before the House Armed Services Committee. (Edwin Rios / Medill)

WASHINGTON – The best course of action for tomorrow’s Air Force under President Obama’s new budget is to trade size for quality, top brass told a key House committee Tuesday.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz testified before the House Armed Services Committee to discuss proposed cuts to the military branch in 2013.

Donley said the Air Force’s budget request sought a balance that would allow aircraft modernization and maintain a capable force for the future.

The Air Force is requesting $154.3 billion in the budget — a five percent reduction from the spending plan for this year. The cuts represent the military branch’s attempt to create a smaller, more agile fleet. It requires a personnel reduction of 9,900.

The budget foresees fewer aircraft with specific uses to “maximize operational flexibility and minimize sustainment costs,” according to an Air Force statement.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon, R-Calif., said the Air Force restructuring and modernization plans are based on budgetary constraints, not on the current security environment.

“Everyone should fully understand that our vital interests have not changed since last year,” he said. “The threats to those interests have not decreased and are not likely to diminish over the next five years. What has changed is that the president directed at least $400 billion in cuts to our military.”

McKeon said the budget request does little to “mitigate the consequences of aging force structure.”

Gen. Schwartz pointed to the elimination of aging fleet programs such as the C27J aircraft – a military transport plane — in favor of “more affordable alternatives that still accomplish the mission.” The Air Force will instead maintain 318 of its C-130s because, Schwartz said, it wanted to shift toward owning a flexible fleet ready for multiple forms of conflict rather than a fleet with singular purposes.

The stance signaled the different ways the Air Force will cut costs while maintaining strategic capability. The Air Force will also give up 227 aircraft in the coming budget.

Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the panel’s top Democrat, said Obama’s 2013 budget takes into account strategic considerations and personnel needs. But Smith said the military faces challenges ahead.

Much of the discussion surrounded the Air Force’s plan to divest all 18 RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 aerial vehicle – an unmanned spy plane –in favor of the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Rep. McKeon asked why the Air Force opted for the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, even though the budget generally cut older aircraft in favor of more modern aircraft.

Donley said the Air Force could not justify the high operational costs of the RQ-4, including the need to upgrade its sensors.

In the budget, the Air Force seeks $35.8 billion geared toward modernization. It focuses investment on programs like the F-35 joint strike fighter, Long Range Strike Bomber and KC-46A refueling tankers. The force would also continue investment of the F-16 fighter jet, Schwartz said.

Donley said the Air Force decided to curb the production of the F-35 because Lockheed Martin, the fighter’s manufacturer, lacked the ability to ramp up production. As a result, Donley said, the Air Force would continue the F-16 fighter program.

Donley said the Air Force is “slowing the pace and scope for modernization while protecting programs critical to future capabilities.”

“If we’re going to get smaller, we have to be prepared,” he said.