What's Ahead for the Air Force in 2017

A-10 Thunderbolt II

A new year, a new administration and new priorities. Here's what airmen need to know in the year ahead.

More Airmen, Squadron Boost

The U.S. Air Force will add 4,000 more airmen to its ranks next year under a compromise version of the defense authorization bill negotiated in December.

The move would boost the service's authorized end-strength for the active component to 321,000 airmen, according to a summary document on the negotiated fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

RELATED: Air Force Wants 350K Airmen by 2024

The Air Force in September had about 311,000 airmen serving on active duty, according to Pentagon personnel statistics. The size of the service peaked in 2004 at nearly 377,000 airmen during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before beginning a steady drawdown. Last year, the service was authorized to add more airmen for the first time in six years.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who is departing from her role in January, in recent months pushed for 4,000 to 8,000 more airmen, in part to address a shortage of fighter pilots and maintainers in the force. The service has not named her successor.

Adding the 4,000 troops will cost roughly $145 million, according to Air Force Times.

Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told audience members at the National Guard Association of the United States this summer that he also plans to review and revitalize the makeup of "the fundamental unit" of squadrons.

Goldfein wants to improve how the Air Force uses joint leaders to better work with sister services, and enhance command and control systems to better network and make faster decisions in any environment, Defense News reported.

While the move is still in planning stages, Goldfein in September named the three one-star generals who will have the task of carrying out his ambitious plan for revitalizing the service.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Davis, currently the Air Force director of manpower, will lead the effort to remake the function and formation of the basic squadron, which Goldfein called the "heartbeat of the Air Force."

Bonuses for Fliers

The Air Force this year asked Congress to increase the Aviator Retention Pay for manned pilots to $48,000 from the $25,000 cap, which has been in effect since 1999.

Pilots will see an increase, but not the hike the Air Force was hoping for.

The NDAA authorizes the Air Force to increase aviation retention pay from $25,000 to $35,000 per year and flight pay up to $1,000 per month "as needed to address manning shortfalls and challenges," the Air Force said in a release.

Simultaneously, the service plans to increase the number of fighter pilots in its ranks by as much as 20 percent a year in part by using more F-16 Fighting Falcons and trainer aircraft. The hope is to boost the number of fighter pilots it trains each year to 1,375 officers.

RELATED: Carter: 'We Have to Be Concerned About' Pilot Shortage

In September, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. James Cody said enlisted drone pilots -- who became eligible to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk in 2015 -- will qualify for the same bonuses the Air Force plans to offer its officers.

Cody, however, did not say when enlisted airmen would start receiving the bonus pay. The first class of enlisted drone pilots began training in October. It will take roughly a year before they're ready for their new duties, Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, the head of Air Education and Training Command, said at the time.

RELATED: Air Force Get More Airmen, No Extra Planes in Defense Bill

Aircraft Buildup

While the service has no plans to add extra warplanes to its arsenal, key programs budgeted in the 2017 request remain on the fast track for upgrades, testing and delivery.

The Pentagon expects to receive $10.5 billion for 63 F-35 fifth-generation fighters -- including 43 A models for the Air Force, 16 B variants for the Marine Corps, and four C models for the Navy.

However, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has found a vocal critic: President-elect Donald Trump.

In the latest discussion about the over-budget aircraft, Trump fired another shot at Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 program Dec. 22 and hinted at the possibility of a renewed competition with rival defense contractor Boeing Co.

"Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!" he tweeted on Dec. 22.

Nevertheless, a smaller price tag may not be out of the question.

James acknowledged recently that the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter program remains an issue. The Pentagon estimates it will spend nearly $400 billion to procure 2,457 of the single-engine fighters -- and some $1.5 trillion in lifetime sustainment costs.

"Can the costs be driven down more? Perhaps," James said Dec. 19, adding that the president-elect may search for other ways to find a better deal for taxpayers.

The F-35 is poised to deploy for the first time this coming summer, James said. After being approved to fly initial operations in August, the aircraft will be ready to deploy to the European theater next summer in line with how "allies expect it will transform the battlefield, even in the ... anti-access area denial environment," she said.

Other programs the Air Force will be monitoring are the KC-46 tanker, B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber and an award for the new T-X to replace the fleet's T-38 Talon trainer aircraft.

In August, the service awarded Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, a $2.8 billion initial production contract for 19 KC-46 refueling tanker as well as spare parts. The Chicago-based company plans to build a total of 179 of the 767-based refueling aircraft for the Air Force to replace its KC-135 Stratotanker fleet, Boeing said in a statement at the time.

Preliminary work has begun and will continue into 2017 on the B-21 "Raider," named this year in honor of the Doolittle Raiders. Northrop Grumman Corp. last October beat out Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor, for the $21.4 billion initial contract as part of the LRS-B program.

Lastly, the Air Force has deferred replacing its T-38 trainer aircraft -- one which the service critically needs to train its pilots -- for years, but that could change in 2017.

RELATED: WATCH: Boeing's T-X Trainer Takes First Flight

The aircraft, first produced by Northrop in 1959, is used to prep pilots for "front-line fighter and bomber aircraft such as the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-15C Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, B-1B Lancer, A-10 Thunderbolt and F-22 Raptor," according to the service.

The Air Force hopes to buy 350 new trainer jets.

Boeing, collaborating with Saab, is competing with Northrop Grumman Corp. for a new design for the program. Boeing so far is the only team to offer a twin canted vertical tail design, mimicking fourth- and fifth-generation fighter jets such as the F-22 Raptor, F-35 and F/A-18 Hornet.

Other vendor teams, such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Korea Aerospace Industries, and Raytheon Co., Leonardo-Finmeccanica and CAE Inc., are offering modification designs to current aircraft, but are not competing in clean sheet designs.

However, another competitor may join the running. Sierra Nevada Corp. and Turkish Aerospace Industries are said to be partnering on their own design for a T-X trainer, one that could be more fuel efficient, according to a recent report from Aviation Week.

Mock designs provided to AvWeek online also show the competitor to have twin canted vertical tails.

The A-10 Lives On

The latest NDAA will once again prevent the premature retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt.

In February, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the aircraft's retirement would be delayed until 2022 after officials opined the Air Force was ridding the U.S. military of a "valuable and effective" close-air-support aircraft. However, fiscal 2017 budget documents revealed the Air Force still hoped to remove A-10 squadrons in increments between 2018 and 2022 in order to make room for F-35A Lightning II squadrons coming online.

Some members of Congress, most notably Arizona Republicans Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot, and Rep. Martha McSally, who flew A-10s during her Air Force career, fiercely opposed the move, and included language in the bill that would prohibit retirement of the A-10, popularly known as the Warthog, until the Air Force can prove the F-35 can sustain similar capabilities on the battlefront.

Air Force Materiel Command chief Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski in October said the depot line for the A-10 is cranking back up as part of an effort to keep the Cold War-era aircraft flying "indefinitely."

"They have re-geared up, we've turned on the depot line, we're building it back up in capacity and supply chain," Pawlikowski told Aviation Week at the time. "Our command, anyway, is approaching this as another airplane that we are sustaining indefinitely."

While many A-10 enthusiasts would like to see the planes flying "indefinitely," the general likely means "into the foreseeable future."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related Video:

    Story Continues