Correction: A previous version of this story overstated the U.S. Air Force’s fighter acquisition plans. Rather than guarantee, the service anticipates it will again request 72 fighters.
WASHINGTON — For the first time in recent history, the U.S. Air Force this year directly asked Congress for the full complement of 72 fighters it says it needs in its next budget request. And the general in charge of planning for the service’s future said Thursday this might not be the last time.
Top Air Force leaders have said for years that it needs to buy at least 72 new fighters each year to both modernize its fighter fleet and lower the age of the average plane. If it doesn’t bring on that many new fighters annually, generals warn, the service won’t have enough new aircraft to replace aging and retiring fighters, such as the F-15C.
But that goal has long been out of reach. For years, Congress has approved fighter procurements that are below the Air Force’s desired goal, sometimes significantly so, and the service hasn’t asked for everything its leaders say it needs.
The fiscal 2024 budget proposal released in March broke that trend by directly asking for money to buy 48 new F-35As and 24 F-15EX Eagle IIs.
And in an online forum hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Lt. Gen. Richard Moore, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said that won’t be “a one-time thing” — a sign of how the service is changing its strategy for budget planning.
“This year, for the first time since I’ve been in this business, there are 72 new fighters in the Air Force’s budget,” Moore said. “We’re super excited about that. … I certainly think you’ll see it again.”
Expectation vs. reality
Typically in recent years, the Air Force has not asked for everything it wants in its base budget request and included some desired items in an unfunded priorities list.
For example, the FY23 budget request originally asked for 33 new F-35As and 24 F-15EXs — 57 in all. The service asked for seven additional F-35As as part of its $4.6 billion wish list that year.
Congress eventually approved a total of 43 F-35As, along with 24 F-15EXs, for a total of 67 fighters.
But the Air Force is shifting away from that approach as it tries to more reliably plan for future needs, Moore said.
“Some of the things we’ve talked about over the last several budget cycles are now a part of the base budget,” Moore explained. “They’re not a part of the unfunded priorities list, they’re not a wish list. Seventy-two fighters is a great example.”
The Air Force’s $2.5 billion wish list for FY24 was a little more than half the size of the previous fiscal year’s list, and did not ask for any additional fighters.
It asked for more than $633 million to accelerate the delivery of the Boeing E-7A aircraft that will replace the E-3 Sentry, and nearly $64 million to buy a dozen conformal fuel tanks for the F-15EX, which will extend their range and weapons capacity.
But while the Air Force wants to make it a trend to ask for 72 fighter, Moore said some of this depends on Lockheed Martin’s ability to build F-35s.
“As we reach what we believe is a sustainable fleet size in what we need in the F-15EX, we’ll have to see what capacity is available in the F-35 world, or whatever else it may be that we look at,” Moore said. “Right now, it’s predicated on the fact that we have two hot fighter production lines, and that will be the case by the middle or the end of the” Air Force’s spending plan over the next five years.
The service now plans to buy a total of 104 F-15EXs, with the final 24 scheduled to be requested in FY25. Air Force budget documents show the service expects to request 48 new F-35s each year through FY28.
Moore said the defense-industrial base also has limitations, including lingering supply chain and workforce issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, that would make it hard to bring on more than 72 fighters per year.
“We will bring on advanced capabilities at the max rate we can,” Moore said. But “the defense-industrial base can only support so much procurement.”
Moore also said the budget proposal shows how the Air Force intends to update its fighter fleet with future capabilities — some of which are still being designed — to be able to counter China in a possible future war.
Moore said the Air Force’s plan to retire 32 block 20 F-22A Raptor fighters would save roughly $2.5 billion over five years, which would be steered toward the sixth-generation Next Generation Air Dominance platform.
“It is crystal clear to us that in order to get into the early to mid-30s with a force that can win, we have to get to a sixth-gen fighter, and that’s NGAD,” Moore added.
While those F-22s earmarked for retirement are fifth-generation fighters, Moore said, they aren’t combat-capable and never will be without a significant investment. Updating them with modern communications systems, electronic warfare capabilities and weapons would take about a decade to get started, cost about $3.5 billion and take Lockheed Martin’s already short-staffed engineers away from the F-35 program’s block 4 modernization effort.
“That is a trade to us that doesn’t make any sense at all: to upgrade aircraft a decade from now at great expense, while impacting the F-35 block 4 at the same time,” Moore said. “We don’t think that’s a viable course of action.”
Moore also said focusing on research and development investments is a top priority for Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.
In a sign of how important Kendall sees this effort, the Department of the Air Force’s proposed budget for research, development, test and evaluation would rise nearly $5 billion to $55.4 billion in its FY24 budget proposal — a nearly 10% increase, and most of the department’s proposed total budget increase of $9.3 billion.
That wave of R&D is crucial, even if some of those programs don’t end up going into procurement.
“The secretary actually is fine with that,” Moore said. “He believes that if we don’t do the research and development now while we have time on our side, when the time comes that we need to put things into procurement, there’ll be nothing to procure because the research and development won’t have been done yet.”
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.