Air Force Will See Substantial Cuts to Aircraft Fleets in Biden's First Budget

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A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and F-16 Fighting Falcons perform an 'elephant walk' on the runway at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. The A-10s are the 25th Fighter Squadron "Draggins" and the F-16s are the 36th Fighter Squadron "Fiends" from the 51st Fighter Wing. Additional F-16s are the 179th Fighter Squadron "Bulldogs" from the 148th Fighter Wing out of Duluth Air National Guard Base, Minnesota. (US Air Force photo/Travis Edwards)
A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and F-16 Fighting Falcons perform an 'elephant walk' on the runway at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. The A-10s are the 25th Fighter Squadron "Draggins" and the F-16s are the 36th Fighter Squadron "Fiends" from the 51st Fighter Wing. Additional F-16s are the 179th Fighter Squadron "Bulldogs" from the 148th Fighter Wing out of Duluth Air National Guard Base, Minnesota. (US Air Force photo/Travis Edwards)

In an effort to free up funds to invest in new aviation platforms and state-of-the art weapons, the U.S. Air Force wants to ditch more than 200 planes across its fighter, tanker, mobility, attack and drone fleets.

In the White House fiscal 2022 budget request, the Air Force outlines plans to get rid of 42 A-10 Thunderbolt IIs; 48 F-15C/D Eagles; 47 F-16 Fighting Falcons; 14 KC-10 Extenders; 18 KC-135 Stratotankers; 20 of the oldest C-130 Hercules transport or special mission aircraft models; 20 RQ-4 Global Hawk drones; and four E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft, used for battlefield command-and-control.

Officials are requesting $212.8 billion for the service, including "non-blue" dollars. That is money that is categorized under the Air Force but is not managed by the service; it would oversee $173 billion of that total. In the 2021 budget, officials asked for $207.2 billion, including "non-blue" funding, with $169 billion primarily supervised by the service.

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Last year, Congress authorized the service to add roughly 1,500 airmen, including 900 active-duty troops. That equaled a total end strength of 507,755, including the Air National Guard and Reserve. But as the Air Force transitions more personnel into the fledgling U.S. Space Force, it will see a decrease of around 855 airmen, down to 506,900. The service saw record retention rates due to the COVID-19 pandemic, exceeding its active-duty end strength allowance, officials said in December.

The Air Force intends to dedicate more funding to its research, development, test and evaluation (RTD&E) budget and modernization programs, with more than $1.5 billion slated for the Next Generation Air Dominance program, or NGAD. The program explores what future fighter jet and drone operations might look like; it wants $438 million for hypersonic weapons prototype work.

The service also hopes to dedicate $204 million to its new Advanced Battle Management System network, which fuses intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors and weapons across the globe and is intended to replace the JSTARS fleet. Last year, the Air Force requested more than $300 million for the program, but lawmakers slashed funding to $158 million, citing the need for a proof of concept and a lack of confidence in the "Air Force's structuring and execution" to justify increasing the program's budget.

It's not the first time the service has wanted to send planes to the aircraft boneyard, jettisoning the oldest and least-ready aircraft in favor of modernizing combat-capable fleets that can survive the next conflict.

Air Force officials first proposed eliminating more than 100 aircraft last year, including cuts to its B-1B Lancer bomber fleet. Congress allowed some retirements but stipulated the service must meet lawmakers' minimum requirements to be able to execute primary missions.

The U.S. Navy meanwhile will no longer request new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft, having ended the procurement phase of the program last year, according to its budget documents.

The service bought 24 Super Hornets each year for the last three years, but decided to end purchases of the frontline fighter to direct more funding toward its own "family of systems" NGAD program. The Navy has procured 678 Super Hornets for its inventory.

It will also end procurement of the P-8 Poseidon sub-hunter aircraft, something it first tried to do last year. The Navy wanted to nix new buys of the modified Boeing 737-800, which is specially designed for sea surveillance, in its fiscal 2021 budget. Congress instead enacted funding for nine P-8A aircraft.

The Navy also hopes to end purchases of the VH-92 Presidential Helicopter and MQ-4C Triton drone.

The latest cuts to aircraft fleets, among other programs across the Pentagon's overall budget, indicate officials are thinking about, "What is the capacity and capability the force we had versus what we're going to use?" according to a senior defense official, who spoke to reporters on background Thursday.

"There's other investments and divestments [and] we don't take everything out, but then you have to make tough choices," the senior defense official said. "You look at what you have and how it's going to be used." The official added that the A-10, for example, has value in air operations in the Middle East, but may not survive in a near-peer battle with Russia or China.

The Air Force plans to fund buys of new aircraft, but with caveats.

It will continue to purchase KC-46 Pegasus tankers; C-130 J model variants; and the latest HH-60W combat rescue helicopter, known as the "Jolly Green II." It also will increase its fourth-plus generation inventory of F-15EX Eagle II fighters, which entered the service's inventory last month, by 12 aircraft.

Similar to its requests in the 2019-2021 budgets, the Air Force wants 48 fifth-generation F-35A Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. Air Force Magazine earlier this month reported that the service is considering a 10% cut in F-35 buys over the next five years, citing a growing need to transition to the most up-to-date jets -- known as Block 4 modernization -- as they become available. However, those jets won't be ready until at least 2026.

The Navy wants 20 carrier-variant F-35C models and 17 F-35B short-take-off and vertical landing variants between it and the Marine Corps. Compared to last year, the service wants six fewer C-models, but seven more B-models, according to the budget documents.

While Congress allocated more funding to buy more F-35 aircraft last year -- 96, instead of the 79 requested by the services -- lawmakers have hinted that the practice of giving the services the option to buy more may be coming to an end, given that the program continues to be plagued with operational issues and cost overruns.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

Related: The Air Force Wants to Retire Aging Aircraft. It Will Have to Get Past Congress First

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