WASHINGTON — The US Air Force's budget request reflects the service's delicate situation — balancing the need to recapitalize an aging fleet with real-world concerns and ongoing operations.
While focusing heavily on research and development, the budget also funds a significant jump in air-to-ground munitions to help current operations. And while the service will continue its fight to retire the A-10, the U-2 spy plane has been spared retirement until 2019 under the new plan, according to a budget briefing released by the service Monday.
Overall, the budget requests $122.1 billion in "blue" money. (Due to budgeting methodology, the Pentagon funnels some funds through the Air Force, which the service cannot use.) $24.2 billion of that goes to procurement with $17.9 billion going to research, development, test and evaluation programs (RDT&E).
The RDT&E budget features a roughly 3 percent jump from the fiscal 2015 enacted funding level. Service officials have highlighted the need to recapitalize new aircraft in recent years, with its three biggest focuses being the F-35 joint strike fighter, KC-46A tanker and the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program.
Meanwhile, the budget reflects ongoing operations with its weapons procurement request.
Ammunition procurement funds grew from $635 million to just under $1.7 billion in the 2016 request, a jump of more than 250 percent. That is driven largely by the need to procure more air-to-ground munitions, such as the joint direct-attack munition, to "support increasing operations tempo in Iraq and Syria" against the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS, the budget briefing states.
That jump in weapons procurement continues in the overseas contingency operations (OCO) request. The "blue" OCO funding request comes in at $10.6 billion, down from $12.1 billion in fiscal 2015 enacted. That includes a huge jump in missile procurement, going from $136 million in the 2015 enacted budget to $289 million for the 2016 request.
- 44 F-35A joint strike fighters
- 29 MQ-9 Reaper unmanned systems
- 14 C-130J Hercules
- 12 KC-46 tankers
- 8 MC-130s for special operations
- 5 HC-130s for personnel recovery
- Upgrades to the F-22, F-15 Eagle, B-2 and E-3 fleets
Space procurement comes out to $2.58 billion, which includes a fixed block buy of AEHF satellites 5 and 6, as well as the SBIRS 5 and 6 satellites.
Both the U-2 manned reconnaissance aircraft and the Global Hawk Block 30 and 40 unmanned systems are funded in the request. The Air Force had attempted to retire the U-2 in its last budget request in favor of the Global Hawk.
However, this is only a reprieve for the U-2. The service has put off retirement from 2016 to 2019 as a result of "current operational requirements," and to give enough time to enhance the RQ-4 Block 30 sensors.
One stance upon which the service has stood strong: retiring of the A-10 Warthog close air support aircraft, a major point of contention between the Air Force and the Hill. In the service's request, the active component would end use of the A-10, while the National Guard and reserve would maintain their fleets through fiscal 2016.
The service's budget request is above the limits imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA). As with fiscal 2015, the Air Force has laid out a list of potential victims if the BCA levels are not raised — something most in Washington agree isn't going to happen.
Options for cuts if BCA levels are not raised include divesting more fleets of aircraft, including the KC-10, U-2, E-3, Global Hawk Block 40 and F-15C. Given the battle over the A-10, it is unlikely any of those cuts would go through without a major fight in Congress, meaning the service might try other options.
Those include reductions in ISR capability, cuttings science and technology budgets by 10 percent, cuts to flying hours and a cut of investment into the nuclear enterprise. 14 F-35A joint strike fighters could also be cut in FY16.
One option unlikely to make Boeing happy: Deferring the capitalization of the presidential aircraft fleet, for which the Seattle-based company was selected last week.
Among other focuses of the budget:
- The F-15C/D fleet will be reduced by 31 aircraft across the FYDP, with 10 being retired in fiscal 2016. The remaining 214 jets will be upgraded with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars and the initial upgrades under the Eagle Passive/Active Warning Survivability System.
- The Combat Rescue Helicopter program, which infamously was added to the fiscal 2015 budget request at the last minute, is fully funded, with a projected initial operating capability of 2021. Sikorsky is the corporate lead on that program.
- The budget request accelerates the development of a new Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon by two years. That system will replace the Air Launch Cruise Missile, in operation since 1986.
This story will be updated throughout the day.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.