The Air Force is worried that even a sizable increase in housing and subsistence allowances won't be enough to help airmen in the face of inflation, asking Congress to add a new allowance for service members facing the worst financial insecurity.
The program would be part of the $169 billion 2023 budget request the Air Force unveiled on Monday, which included a 4.3% increase in their Basic Housing Allowance, a 3.4% jump in their Basic Allowance for Subsistence designed to offset the cost of groceries, and a 4.6% pay raise.
It's an 8% increase from the previous year, with nearly 30% of the budget dedicated to research, development, testing and evaluation for the service branch and also includes phasing out 150 aircraft from America's airfields.
The service branch's officials highlighted the raises and increases to housing allowances as a necessary move amid inflation, and Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters during a roundtable on Friday that the Pentagon is worried about some dire situations service members find themselves in.
"Secretary Austin has been very concerned, and all of us have, about food insecurity and housing security," Kendall said. "We have a very small number of people in the Department of the Air Force on food stamps, for example, and frankly that's unacceptable."
While pandemic-related inflation and supply chain woes have driven prices up across the country, food insecurity issues have plagued active-duty military families for years.
About 14% of enlisted active-duty families reported "low" or "very low" food security in an annual 2020 survey from Blue Star Families.
A new program, which was detailed by Air Force officials but not highlighted in Monday's budget documents, was a "basic needs allowance."
Maj. Gen James Peccia, the Air Force's deputy assistant secretary for budget, told reporters Friday that $300,000 would be put aside to "address any economic insecurities for our younger members who might be having financial problems."
Peccia said details of the program are still being worked out, but airmen and their families could apply if they meet a certain financial hardship level, and a slice of those funds could be used to alleviate any burdens they may face.
"We'll have to take a look at every airman and every guardian and their needs and their family's needs when they apply for that, and then we'll have to figure that out," Peccia said. "We want to take care of our airmen and this is something that we would have liked to have had in the budget for years, and so we're happy to have it here."
There would be $29 billion put aside for military construction and military family housing, according to the 2023 budget documents.
At least $233 million is earmarked to specifically improve privatized military housing at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
The Pentagon is also making a strategic pivot as part of its overall 2023 budget.
$56.5 billion would be dedicated to air power development. The Air Force is requesting 33 F-35 fighter jets, nearly half as many as last year, and plans to buy 24 F-15EX aircraft, doubling the number from the previous year.
Additionally, the Air Force plans to purchase 15 KC-46 refueling tankers, 10 HH-60W combat helicopters and five MH-139 helicopters. The budget also allocated $1.7 billion to be used for purchasing an unspecified number of B-21 bombers.
The Pentagon's heavy support of air power comes amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but Kendall mostly focused on the growing threat of China as a global adversary.
"We have a situation with Russia, which makes them a good concern," Kendall told reporters. "And we still have states like North Korea and Iran to deal with as well as violent extremists, but China is the pacing challenge and the budgets are going to reflect that."
In addition to buying new jets, the Air Force has plans to scrap around 269 planes and aircraft in 2023.
Around 119 of the retirements were briefed to Congress last year but not made public or mentioned by Pentagon officials during the media roundtable last week, according to Breaking Defense.
An Air Force spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment asking about the discrepancy. But the other 150 aircraft the Air Force was hoping to shed was more clear and specific.
Some A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, a jet the U.S. Air Force has long wanted to retire in favor of more resources for the F-35A Lightning II, will also be divested. The budget points to 21 A-10s in the Indiana National Guard's fleet, which will be replaced with F-16s instead.
The number of aircraft retirements is higher compared to 2022, when around 200 aircraft were pulled out of Air Force rotation.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank who specializes in military readiness and defense budgets, told Military.com that the amount and variety of divestments this year was jarring.
"This is something that's been going on for years, but I mean, there's a reason Congress puts a floor under aircraft inventories almost every year," Eaglen said. "The Air Force is shrinking and aging too quickly for anyone's comfort level."
Kendall defended the number of divestments, saying it's necessary to shed aircraft that is too expensive to keep operational.
"We have to get rid of what I'll call our 'legacy equipment' in order to have the resources to modernize," Kendall told reporters.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.