The service is requesting to boost end-strength by slightly more than 1 percent from 321,000 active-duty airmen in the current fiscal year to 325,000 airmen in the next -- part of a modest increase since reaching a low in 2015, according to budget documents released Tuesday. Including Guardsmen and Reservists, end-strength would total 502,000 airmen.
The Air Force's spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 totals $183 billion, a 7 percent increase from the current year, with hikes planned for all accounts except military construction.
"Years of continuous combat ops and budget uncertainty have taken their toll on our airmen, readiness and equipment," states a slide on a budget presentation. The proposed spending plan "puts us on a path to improve readiness, fill critical shortfalls and increase lethality ... but still tough choices required," it states.
Goal: 350K Active Airmen
The Air Force is working to keep airmen in such career fields as manned and remotely piloted aircraft pilots, maintainers, cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and the nuclear mission airmen.
Facing an almost steady decline in force size since 1991, the Air Force intends to grow to 350,000 airmen in the next five to seven years, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has said.
"What's masked is the fact that the shortage of people has fundamentally changed the way we do business in terms of the operational risk day to day," Goldfein said in December. "This is not something you can do immediately. It's actually something you've got to do over time."
The Air Force in March had about 319,700 airmen serving on active duty, according to recent Pentagon personnel statistics.
No Aviation Bonus Hike
Despite a shortage of aviators, the service's budget request doesn't include any big changes to its bonus retention programs.
The fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act allowed 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."
Those amounts aren't altered in the fiscal 2018 submission, an Air Force spokesman told Military.com on Tuesday.
He said the service is exploring a more defined "tiered pay system" based on pilot type, but didn't disclose when that could be enacted.
"We will pursue additional bonuses for our pilots, but [it will] not be one size fits all," the spokesman said.
F-35s, Air Force One
The Air Force plans to buy in the next fiscal year a total of 46 F-35As, the service's variant of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made stealthy fifth-generation fighter designed for taking off and landing on conventional runways.
That's two less than the quantity purchased in the current fiscal year, but two more than what was slated for fiscal 2018 in the Obama administration's long-term defense budget. An Air Force spokeswoman warned that planning for F-35 acquisition "remains fluid." The service eventually wants to procure a total of 1,763 of the single-engine jets.
While the Air Force proposed slightly reducing funding to develop the new Air Force One aircraft -- a program criticized by President Donald Trump service officials characterized the reduction as an insignificant change.
The service plans to spend more than $800 million to upgrade radar on the F-15C/D as well as E models, officials said. It would also fund programs such as the passive/active warning survivability system to improve the F-15E Strike Eagle's detection system.
The funding would extend the life of the F-15, even as Air Force leaders have suggested possible plans to retire the F-15C/D as early as the mid-2020s in favor of the F-16 mission.
The F-16, too, will receive upgrades. Through its fourth-generation modifications programs, the service is planning for more than $430 million to communications suite upgrades, new sensors, mission computers, and service life and safety, officials told Military.com
Additionally, under operations and maintenance, the budget funds two additional F-16 training squadrons for pilots. The service in 2016 announced it would relocate two F-16 squadrons from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to make way for additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighter units at Hill.
Officials have said the F-16s will be used as additional training platforms during the ongoing pilot shortage.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., described the Air Force's planned modernization investments over the near term as dismal. "PB18 allocates too much to aircraft modifications versus investing in new iron," she said in an email to Military.com, referring to the president's budget. "And the new aircraft it does purchase is low in volume and not nearly enough to need."