Air Force to Send More than 100 Planes to Boneyard as it Invests in Future Fighters

Boeing B-1B Lancers shown at the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul Training Center Jan. 17, 2019, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. (U.S. Air Force/Greg L. Davis)
Boeing B-1B Lancers shown at the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul Training Center Jan. 17, 2019, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. (U.S. Air Force/Greg L. Davis)

The U.S. Air Force’s aircraft boneyard is about to get a bit more crowded as the service plans to ditch more than 100 planes across its bomber, airlift, tanker and drone fleets in its fiscal 2021 budget request to lawmakers.

Officials are requesting $207.2 billion total, including "non-blue" dollars, which are categorized under the Air Force but are not managed by the service. Of that, it would oversee $169 billion, which includes money for the U.S. Space Force, according to the service's budget request documents revealed Monday.

But the Air Force is slated to cut 17 non-nuclear B-1B Lancer bombers in the latest proposal, reducing the fleet to just 44. It also plans to retired 44 A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support mission aircraft; roughly 30 older-model KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender refuelers; 24 RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, some which are used as a networking Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN; as well as 24 C-130H Hercules -- the most senior model left in the cargo inventory, the documents say.

Related: The Air Force Is Ready to Scrap Older Aircraft to Prepare for Future Wars

While the service has stressed its need to boost to readiness and mission capability, total pilot flight hours, including those supporting warfighting overseas, will decrease, from 1.33 million in 2020 to 1.24 million in 2021. The Air Force will also reduce the number of combat air patrols flown by MQ-9 Reapers around the world from 70 to 60 per day.

“We believe that winning in the future will require investing in the right new capabilities now,” an Air Force spokeswoman said Monday. “Within the allotted budget, that means trading some of the old in favor of the new.”

The reductions come as the service looks to make gains elsewhere.

Despite rebuilding the force with more than 3,000 airmen over the last two budget cycles following years of budget cuts and sequestration, the Air Force hopes to add only 1,500 new airmen across its force in the FY21 request, the budget says.

The service would still plus-up its active-duty component by 900 airmen, increasing its end strength to 333,700, according to the documents. Additionally, the service wants 600 airmen across its reserve force (400 in the Guard, 200 in the reserve). The marginal growth comes as the Air Force shifts 6,400 people into the Space Force; the sixth and newest military branch, which falls under the Department of the Air Force.

Of note, officials propose dedicating more than $1 billion for the Next Generation Air Dominance program, known as NGAD, which explores what future fighter jet operations might look like; and over $300 million -- more than double last year’s enacted funding of $144 million -- on the new Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), a state-of-the-art program that focuses on fusing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensor data from around the world. Both programs are funded through the Air Force’s research, development, test and evaluation (RTD&E) budget.

In addition to these future initiatives, the Air Force is still pouring money into multiple overtasked aircraft fleets.

For instance, the B-1 bomber has sustained significant structural wear and tear over the years due to constant deployment. Some aircraft are just showing their age; the Stratotanker, for example, dates back to the 1950s.

By scrapping older aircraft sooner than planned, the Air Force can free up some $4.1 billion over the future years defense program (FYDP), or the Pentagon’s next five years of planned spending, the Air Force spokeswoman said, which will fund “many of the critical technology and capability investments in this budget,” she said.

Furthermore, retiring the least capable B-1s will allow for maintainers across the force to focus on the remaining bombers, which will "drive up the readiness of the fleet until the B-21 [Raider] can replace these aging bombers in the mid-2020s," said Air Force Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, the deputy assistant secretary for budget at the Air Force's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Financial Management and the Comptroller at the Pentagon.

While mobility forces have suggested the service slow the retirement of older KC-10s and KC-135s in order to avoid gaps in refueling missions, Pletcher noted the service needs to take some chances as it awaits more KC-46 Pegasus tankers to fill its flightlines. The Air Force accepted its newest tanker, made by Boeing Co., despite a number of deficiencies in need of adjustment.

"To try to ensure we have the capabilities we need in the future, we're going to have to take some risk," he said. "We can't continue to fund everything today that we do without having to eventually make some tough choices," Pletcher said.

The Air Force will boost its fighter inventory with 48 new F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, and 12 F-15EXs -- a hybrid aircraft that will replace older F-15C/D Eagle models, the documents show.

Last year, the Pentagon officially asked lawmakers to fund eight brand-new F-15EX fourth-plus generation fighters, initiating its first fourth-generation fighter program in more than 20 years.

Other replacements include the new MH-139 helicopter, set to replace the aging UH-1N Huey. The service wants funding for its first eight helicopters, dubbed the “Grey Wolf,” according to the documents.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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