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Air Force seeks budget boost, more F-35s

The U.S. Air Force in its 2014 budget request seeks to buy more F-35 fighter jets, restock its inventory of precision munitions and slightly thin the ranks of active-duty airmen.

The Air Force stands to gain at least $4.65 billion under the Defense Department's budget unveiled yesterday for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The boost -- the only year-over-year increase for any service -- is part of a larger Pentagon strategy to shift emphasis from the ground wars of the past decade and toward threats in the Asia-Pacific region.

"This budget made important investments in the new strategy – including re-balancing to Asia" and added funding in such areas as cybersecurity, special operations, global mobility and unmanned systems, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said April 11 in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

The Air Force's base budget, which excludes funding for the war in Afghanistan, would total $144 billion. That's 3.3 more than what the service is expected to receive this year.

Even so, the service would decrease its active-duty component by 1,900 airmen, less than a percent, to 327,600 airmen. The budget would provide a 1 percent increase in basic pay, a 4.2 percent rise in basic allowance for housing, and a 3.4 percent bump in basic allowance for subsistence.

The spending plan would keep "on track" the Air Force's top three investments: the F-35A, KC-46A tanker being developed by Boeing Co. and long-range strike bomber, according to budget materials. The service wants to buy 19 more F-35s, part of a military-wide effort to buy 29 of the aircraft for $8.4 billion. (The Marine Corps wants six and the Navy wants four.)

The Air Force also would boost funding for "priority" investments to counter threats from countries such as Iran and North Korea. In addition to the F-22 and F-35, these include the Lockheed Martin-made C-130J cargo plane, spending on which would rise $700 million to $2.1 billion, as well as medium- and heavy-lift rockets to launch military and spy satellites, funding for which would increase $200 million to $1.9 billion. The boosters are made United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Lockheed and Boeing Co.

The budget would also spend $200 million to buy almost 7,000 GPS-based guidance packages for bombs to restore a "depleted" inventory of so-called Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

The spending plan would cancel the Expeditionary Combat Support System, developed by Oracle Corp., because it needs another $1 billion to complete and won't be ready for fielding until 2020, according to budget documents. The Air Force since 2005 has already spent more than $1 billion on the system, which was designed to make it easier for the service to buy and manage equipment.

Like the rest of the military, the Air Force is struggling with automatic budget cuts that took effect March 1, as well as shortfalls in war funding due to higher-than-expected transportation costs. As a result, it has curtailed training and flying hours, reduced the number of Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-35s it plans to buy this year from 19 to as few as 15, and delayed the purchase of upgraded Reaper drones made by General Atomics.

The across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, "will result in an impact to our ability to be ready," Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton, deputy assistant secretary of the budget, said during an April 10 briefing at the Pentagon.

The reductions aren't included in Air Force's base budget for next year because the federal budget assumes the White House and Congress will replace them with an alternative deficit-reduction agreement.

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