WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s budget for fiscal 2023 calls for cutting 150 aircraft, including older A-10 Warthogs, F-22A Raptors, T-1 Jayhawks, and KC-135 Stratotankers.
The Air Force would also buy fewer F-35As and HH-60W Jolly Green II combat rescue helicopters under the proposed 2023 budget released Monday.
And it would provide more funding for the B-21 Raider bomber, hypersonics, the Next Generation Air Dominance program and the replacement for the aging E-3 Sentry, known as the Airborne Warning and Control System.
The Department of the Air Force’s proposed budget, including both the Air Force and Space Force, would grow to $194 billion, a nearly 7% increase from the approximately $182 billion approved for 2022. The Air Force’s portion of that budget would be about $169.5 billion.
The bulk of that growth would go to increased spending on research, development, testing and evaluation; procurement; and operations and maintenance, as part of the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown’s directive to “accelerate change or lose.”
The requested RDT&E spending alone would increase by $9 billion, including funding for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, NGAD and the B-21 family of systems.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a March 25 briefing with reporters this budget shows the “transformation that we’re trying to achieve,” to deal with the changing threat environment.
While Russia remains an “acute concern” and North Korea, Iran and violent extremist groups are still a threat, Kendall said, the budget is primarily focused on China and its rapidly modernizing military as the “pacing challenge.”
And the Air Force aims to lay the groundwork for further changes in the 2024 budget, he added.
‘Hard choices’ on retirements
Kendall said the Air Force had to make “hard choices” about slimming down its aircraft fleet, although the proposed retirements are not as steep as the more than 200 the service asked for last year.
“We have to get rid of, what I’ll call legacy equipment in order to have the resources to modernize,” Kendall said.
The Air Force is taking another swing at retiring some A-10 Thunderbolt II attack planes. The proposed 2023 budget aims to cut 21 Air National Guard A-10s at Fort Wayne, Indiana, and transition that squadron to the same number of F-16s.
Kendall said he hopes retirement will not be controversial — but the A-10 has survived past attempts to trim its fleet. The service sought to cut 42 A-10s in 2022, but Congress ultimately blocked those retirements in the National Defense Authorization Act, while allowing all other retirements the Air Force sought.
While some have called for transferring A-10s — originally designed to destroy columns of Russian tanks invading Europe during the Cold War — to Ukraine, Kendall said that war has indirectly shown how the Warthog is outdated and due for retirement.
Ukraine’s ground-based tactical air defenses have proven to be devastatingly effective against Russia, Kendall said, keeping them from achieving air superiority and conducting aerial operations. The A-10, while rugged, is slow and vulnerable to those types of defenses.
“While the A-10, from a point of view of delivering munitions, would be terrific for killing Russian tanks, etc., its survivability would be in question,” Kendall said. “That’s one of the reasons that we need to move beyond the A-10, because we’re worried about high-end threats now. We’re not worried about the same threats we were worried about, at least to the same degree, when we were doing counterinsurgencies or counterterrorism.”
The Air Force also plans to cut 33 Block 20 F-22 fighters, which Kendall said are now mainly being used for training purposes and aren’t combat-capable.
Maj. Gen. James Peccia, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, said it would take $1.8 billion over eight years to get those F-22s ready for combat, making it prohibitively expensive. The Air Force will instead take $1.5 billion that would have gone toward those F-22s and redirect it to modifying F-35s and modernizing other F-22s, he said. The Air Force said some of those funds will also go toward the NGAD family of systems.
“We will take operational jets and use them for training, but we can also take them and use them in the fight,” Peccia said. “It’s really using every dollar as smart as we can in our fighter portfolio, when we’re trying to modernize that portfolio.”
The Air Force now has 186 F-22s, of which 36 are Block 20s. The Raptor fleet would end up at 153 if all retirements are approved. Kendall said he doesn’t anticipate further F-22 retirements in the future until the NGAD is ready to replace it.
The Air Force asked for almost $1.7 billion for NGAD in 2023, including $133 million in RDT&E funding.
The Air Force is also planning to transfer 100 of its more than 300 MQ-9 Reapers to “another government organization,” Kendall said. Such language is typically used to describe the CIA or other clandestine government organizations.
The MQ-9s are physically staying where they are, Peccia said; he would not specify to whom they are being transferred.
AWACS replacement coming
The steepest cuts to individual fleets, as a percentage, will come to the aging E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, and E-3 Sentry. The Air Force would retire eight of its JSTARS at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia in 2023, and the final four JSTARS would be retired in fiscal 2024, completing the fleet’s divestment. The first four JSTARS retirements are planned for this fiscal year.
The Air Force would also retire 15 E-3s from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
This would be about half the service’s 31 E-3s, and the Air Force would use that funding to procure and field a successor. The budget would provide $227 million in new funding for the E-3 recapitalization.
Kendall said the Air Force will make a decision “within the next several months” on which aircraft will replace the E-3, but acknowledged Boeing’s E-7 Wedgetail is “the leading candidate, quite obviously.” Before the service makes a decision, Kendall said it will have to look at its requirements and conduct market research to do its “due diligence.”
Both the AWACS and JSTARS fleets are “aging out” and need to be replaced, Kendall said.
The Air Force said the proposed 2023 funding for an E-3 replacement would pay for a rapid prototype aircraft, once a choice has been made, that would be delivered in fiscal 2027. The Air Force also hopes to get funding for a second prototype in 2024, and a decision on production in fiscal 2025.
Peccia added that both aircraft would be extremely vulnerable in a future, high-end fight, and need to be replaced with more survivable planes.
The Air Force also wants to retire 10 older C-130H Hercules transport aircraft at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. With the arrival of four new C-130J Super Hercules, that would bring the service’s entire C-130 fleet from 279 to 271.
Those retired C-130Hs would be replaced with MC-139 Grey Wolf helicopters, of which the Air Force hopes to buy five in 2023.
And the Air Force wants to retire 50 of the service’s 177 T-1 Jayhawk twin-engine jet trainers because, Kendall said, the service is changing its approach to multi-engine training.
The Air Force said new training concepts such as Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5 — which uses more technology like immersive virtual reality training, virtual instruction and remote learning — will allow the service to phase out the T-1 for students learning to fly mobility aircraft.
And the service said advancements in the T-6 Texan will make it possible for students to learn on a single aircraft, allowing it to mothball some of the least-capable T-1s instead of replacing their engines.
As the Air Force brings on more KC-46 Pegasus tankers, it hopes to retire 13 Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard KC-135s in 2023. Four of those would come from March Air Reserve Base in California, and nine would come from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.
The service wants to add $222 million to procure 15 KC-46 Pegasus tankers, up one from the 14 in last year’s proposed budget.
Kendall suggested the Air Force might buy more KC-46s for its KC-Y bridge tanker procurement. The service is still a few months away from deciding how to proceed on acquiring its future tanker, he said, and needs to do more research.
But as the service looked closer at what it needs for the tanker of the future, Kendall said the requirements “started to look like a modified KC-46, more than they do a completely new design.”
“I think that there’s still a possibility of a competition out there,” Kendall said. “But as we’ve looked at our requirements, the likelihood of a competition has come down.”
The Air Force wants $2.7 billion to add 24 F-15EX fighters in 2023, twice the number of fighters it originally asked for in 2022. Congress eventually authorized the Air Force to buy 17 F-15EXs this year.
Peccia said the Air Force hopes to continue the accelerated purchase of F-15EXs over the next few years, as it retires the older C and D models of the fourth-generation fighter by fiscal 2026.
And the Air Force wants to buy 33 F-35As, fewer than the 48 the service asked for last year.
Kendall said the Air Force trimmed its F-35A purchases to free up funds for developing NGAD, continue working on an advanced engine for the F-35 and roll out the F-15EX as quickly as possible.
Adding more F-15EXs will allow the service to more quickly replace aging F-15Cs, Kendall said. The F-15EX can carry more weapons than the F-35, making it well-suited to homeland defense and some defensive counter-air missions overseas.
Kendall expressed disappointment with the F-35′s recent development, and said he wants to get Block 4 done and to “see that real progress is being made in the development side.” He singled out the performance of Technology Refresh 3, an upgrade to the F-35′s computing systems, and said it “has not been what we wanted.”
But he stressed the F-35A will remain a central part of the Air Force’s fighter fleet for years to come, and that the Air Force’s goal of buying 1,763 of the fighters remains unchanged.
“Of course we’re committed to the F-35,” Kendall said. “We’re 15 years into production, and we’ll be building F-35s probably another 15 years. It’s going to be a cornerstone of the [tactical air] fleet for the foreseeable future.”
Kendall said the Air Force will continue R&D on the Adaptive Engine Transition Program, which could result in a new, cutting-edge engine for the F-35A. He said developing such a new engine is expensive, and the Air Force is looking to partner with other services to share the cost.
The Air Force’s requested budget for AETP would increase to nearly $273 million, to complete scheduled testing of engine prototypes, make progress on reducing the engine’s weight, and work on F-35 integration, among other efforts.
And the budget contains $113 million for the Air Force’s Autonomous Collaborative Platform effort to develop autonomous drones to team up with piloted NGAD and B-21 aircraft.
That will help pay for initial research and development, including preliminary design, defining requirements, and possibly technical risk reduction, Kendall said. If successful, he said that could pave the way to one day moving the manned-unmanned teaming concept into a program of record and full-scale development.
“We’re starting down that road,” Kendall said. “We haven’t fully defined the products yet. And as we get to do that, then we’ll be able to put budget-quality information together into future budgets.”
Kendall said the Air Force won’t be able to afford a combat fleet comprised entirely of expensive aircraft such as the F-35, F-15EX and the “very expensive” NGAD family of systems, and that it has to start incorporating lower-cost platforms such as the autonomous drone wingmen concept.
The budget would increase spending on nuclear command, control and communications by $162 million, which will help pay for projects, equipment and facilities for locations that will in the future host the B-21 and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missions.
The 2023 budget would add $1.7 billion in procurement funds for the B-21′s low-rate initial production, bringing B-21 procurement spending to nearly $1.7 billion, though Peccia could not comment on how many B-21s the service will seek to buy. In all, the Air Force wants to spend more than $5.2 billion on the B-21, including for continuing its engineering and manufacturing development phase.
The Air Force is also planning to cap the number of HH-60W combat rescue helicopters it plans to buy at 75, down from about 113. The final 10 Jolly Green IIs the Air Force plans to purchase in 2023 would be the last, Peccia said.
Kendall said the changing threat environment prompted the Air Force to reconsider its combat rescue helicopter needs.
“The scenarios that we’re most worried about are not the same as they once were,” Kendall said. “When we were doing counterinsurgencies, we were worried about losing pilots in those kinds of situations. The need was different. The acts of aggression like we’re seeing in Europe, or we might see in the Pacific by [China] put us in a very different scenario from a combat rescue point of view.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.