WASHINGTON — The Air Force wants to retire 310 aircraft, including 42 A-10 Warthogs, as part of its fiscal 2024 budget to free up money for its modernization programs.
The proposed FY24 budget calls for buying 72 fighters — 48 Lockheed Martin-made F-35As and 24 Boeing F-15EX Eagle IIs — and spending more on the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber, the Boeing E-7A battle management and command-and-control aircraft, the Northrop Grumman-made next-generation nuclear missile known as the Sentinel, and the network of drone wingmen the Air Force calls collaborative combat aircraft, meant to eventually fly alongside crewed fighters.
The Department of the Air Force is requesting $215.1 billion in 2024, $9.3 billion, or 4.5%, over the amount enacted for fiscal 2023. That includes a proposed budget of $185.1 billion for the Air Force itself, up $5.4 billion from 2023, and $30 billion for the Space Force, up $3.9 billion increase from 2023.
Nearly $5 billion of that total budget growth would go to research, development test and evaluation spending, bringing that section’s funding up to $55.4 billion in 2024.
Massive retirement wave
The Air Force’s plan to retire 310 aircraft in 2024 would be far greater than the 150 retirements it recommended in the 2023 budget, though Congress ultimately approved just 115 of those. If lawmakers approve all, or even most, of these retirements, it would represent a significant step forward in the service’s effort to weed out older, outdated airframes from its fleet.
If approved, the proposed retirement of 42 A-10s in 2024 would follow this year’s retirement of 21 Warthogs, and would leave the service with 218 of the attack aircraft. The Air Force has tried for years to retire the Warthog, arguing it would be too vulnerable against an enemy with advanced air defenses, and instead use the money to pay for newer fighters.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown told reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association’s symposium in Colorado March 7 the service wants to have all A-10s retired by 2029. Until recently, Congress has blocked the Air Force’s attempts to retire the A-10.
The Air Force also wants to retire 57 F-15 C and D fighters. Some those Eagle jets are around four decades old, and are reaching the end of their lives. The Air Force plans to bring on new F-35s, as well as newly-made F-15EX Eagle II fighters from Boeing, to replace those retiring fighters.
And the service is already withdrawing dozens of older F-15s from Kadena Air Base in Japan for retirement, replacing them with rotational fighters such as F-22s.
The Air Force is taking another shot at retiring 32 Block 20 F-22A Raptor fighters, which are not combat-capable and are now primarily being used for training purposes. Congress last year blocked the Air Force’s first attempt at retiring 33 of those F-22s.
The Air Force also wants to take more steps toward retiring the E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, aircraft in 2024.
The Air Force suggested retiring 15 of its 31 AWACS in its 2023 budget proposal, but lawmakers granted only 13 of those retirements. And Congress placed conditions on those retirements, requiring the service to produce a report on the E-3 retirement as well as its acquisition strategy for replacing it with the E-7.
Maj. Gen. Michael Greiner, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, told reporters in a March 10 briefing at the Pentagon that the Air Force believes it has met the requirements for the 13 AWACS retirements this year, which would bring its total fleet down to 18.
And in the 2024 budget proposal, the service said it wants to retire two more E-3s, leaving it with 16.
The Air Force has flown AWACS, with the unmistakable massive rotating radome mounted on its fuselage, since the 1970s. But the Air Force says the E-3′s air frame is increasingly difficult to keep flying and its sensor technology is outdated.
The Air Force plans to replace the AWACS with a new fleet of 26 E-7s by 2032. The service awarded Boeing a contract Feb. 28 to begin working on the U.S.’s first rapid prototype E-7, which is expected to begin production in fiscal 2025 and be fielded two years later.
In the briefing last week, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall downplayed the likelihood of a capability gap emerging by retiring some AWACS before E-7s arrive to replace them.
“The E-3 is essentially not effective in the environments we’re most worried about,” he said. “The sensor is pretty ancient at this point, and the aircraft are very expensive to maintain.”
Retiring about half the current E-3 fleet will make available spare parts and other resources the Air Force can use to keep the remaining AWACS fleet in the air, Kendall added, so it can meet critical requirements such as NORAD’s air defense mission.
“It’s a question of making the transition as smooth as possible, freeing up the resources, starting to retrain the people, and then move them over [to E-7s] with a minimal operational impact from taking [AWACS] down,” he said.
The budget also proposes adding $254 million to continue rapid prototyping work on the Boeing E-7A, set to replace the aging E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft, which would bring its FY24 funding to $681 million.
Greiner said the increased spending on E-7 would allow the Air Force to procure a second rapid prototype aircraft.
The budget calls for retiring the final 24 KC-10 Extender refueling tankers and the remaining 48 Block 1 MQ-9 Reapers. It would also retire the last three E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS.
The Air Force also wants to retire 37 HH-60G Pave Hawk combat rescue helicopters, which are being replaced by HH-60W Jolly Green II helicopters made by Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin; 52 T-1 Jayhawk twin-engine jet trainers.
The Air Force has also decided to retire one B-1B Lancer bomber that suffered an engine fire in April 2022, rather than try to repair it. That would leave the service with 44 B-1s. The force aims to have the entire fleet retired by the early 2030s.
The proposal includes $4.8 billion in budget growth for 20 new or significantly boosted programs to transform the Air Force, including CCAs.
Funding for the CCA program would dramatically increase by $470 million to $522 million, to speed up development and testing of the autonomous drones. CCAs would fly as part of the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems that will make up the Air Force’s sixth-generation fighter, as well as the F-35 and possibly other crewed aircraft.
That funding boost would cover the cost of developing the platform itself, developing the autonomous programming that will fly the drones, and standing up an experimental operations unit to plan how the service will use CCAs, Greiner said.
Greiner said the budget proposal is where the “acceleration” of work on CCAs can be seen. “We start to work on CONOPS, concept of operations, and how we would actually employ these,” he said.
Kendall said at AFA March 7 the service is planning for 1,000 CCAs as it starts to flesh out the basing needs, organizational structures, sustainment, and other requirements for such a fleet.
Kendall said in the March 10 briefing the Air Force wants to start production on CCAs by the end of the decade. He also said that, as the Air Force has increasingly discussed its plans to team crewed fighters with autonomous CCAs, the defense industry has ramped up its own research and development on this technology.
“I’m encouraged by what industry’s been doing on their own,” Kendall said. “This is a serious program. It’s a multibillion-dollar program.”
Even so, Kendall stressed each CCA must cost “a fraction” of an F-35, and said he has seen enough work to indicate that’s a “very reasonable goal.”
Kendall in September said the Air Force might hold a competition for CCAs in 2024, but the service has not settled on when that will happen.
“We’re going to start with competition and we’ll downselect at some point,” Kendall said. “We haven’t figured out exactly when that will be.”
The Air Force also wants to boost the budget for NGAD by $276 million in 2024 for technology maturation and risk reduction. That growth would bring its total research and development funding to more than $1.9 billion.
Kristyn Jones, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for financial management and comptroller, who is performing the duties of undersecretary of the Air Force, said the service needs to change to maintain its air dominance, which is being challenged by China. The service needs to look for cost-effective ways to carry out its missions, including teaming crewed fighters with the autonomous drones it refers to as CCAs.
“We cannot afford complacency, nor can we afford an Air Force composed largely of fighters that cost as much as our fifth-gen aircraft,” such as the F-35, Jones said.
More fighters, tankers and B-21 Raiders
The Air Force hopes to buy 48 F-35As in 2024, more than the 43 Congress approved in 2023.
The proposed budget would also pay for 24 F-15EX fighters and 15 Boeing KC-46A Pegasus refueling tankers in 2024, which would be the same number of each bought in 2023.
The Air Force originally planned to buy 144 F-15EXs, but in documents accompanying last year’s budget request, the service dropped that expected procurement to 80. In the March 10 briefing, Kendall told reporters the Air Force has partially reversed that cut, and now plans to buy 104 F-15EXs, though he did not explain why the Air Force’s stance had changed.
The Air Force also wants a $673 million spending boost for the B-21 in 2024, which would bring its procurement funding to more than $2.3 billion to continue low-rate initial production. An Air Force official told reporters the Raider’s procurement funding would buy more than one aircraft, but would not say how many, and also includes money for spares, training and advance procurement for long lead parts for future production lots.
The Air Force said it is still anticipating the B-21′s first flight sometime in 2023.
Northrop Grumman executives said in a January earnings call the company expected the Air Force to award the first B-21 production contract later this year. In a March 7 roundtable with reporters at the AFA conference, Kendall and Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter declined to say if they were planning on a B-21 contract this year, and said they were focused on the first flight milestone.
Kendall told reporters in Colorado he wants the B-21 to avoid the problems associated with concurrency that plagued the F-35 in its development period. Concurrency refers to when an aircraft moves through development and into procurement at the same time.
“The excessive concurrency [of] the F-35 program, I was famous at one time for calling that acquisition malpractice,” Kendall said March 7. “We’re not going to do acquisition malpractice [with the B-21]. We want to have some confidence.”
The Air Force also plans to buy seven MH-139 Grey Wolf helicopters, two more than in 2023, and one E-11 aircraft that can carry out the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, mission. It also bought one E-11 in 2023.
The proposed budget includes about $8 million for the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Refueling System, or NGAS, so the service can finish its analysis of alternatives research. The Air Force announced at AFA it is revamping its plans for future aerial refueling tankers and will cut in half the number of tankers it planned to buy as an interim step.
The budget also would for the first time add procurement money for the LGM-35A Sentinel program, meant to succeed the Cold War-era Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile later this decade. Greiner said the proposed $539 million would pay for long lead item parts to help prepare for the first lot of the Sentinel, expected in fiscal 2026.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.