WASHINGTON – The US Air Force cut five F-35As from its fiscal year 2017 budget request while fully funding the Long Range Strike Bomber and KC-46 tanker, individuals with knowledge of the budget told Defense News.

The Air Force reduced the F-35A buy in FY-17 from a planned 48 aircraft to just 43, according to one source. It is not clear if the Air Force will reduce the overall planned buy of 1,763 aircraft.

These figures do not take into account the total F-35 buy across the US armed services or purchases by international partners. In fact, the Pentagon's overall budget submission will include money to purchase 10 additional F-35C models for the Navy and 3 F-35B models for the Marines over what had been planned.

The F-35A cut was purely budget driven, the source said, as the F-35 joint strike fighter program has made strides in recent years. The Marine Corps declared initial operational capability with its F-35Bs on time last summer, and the Air Force is on track to do the same with its F-35A conventional takeoff and landing planes this summer.

The F-35A cut is not a surprise. Analysts and top government officials have hinted for months that changes could be ahead for the JSF as part of the Pentagon's effort to balance its books. Frank Kendall, undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in December that the Defense Department expects to make "disproportionate" cuts to modernization in FY17 – and he indicated a slowdown in F-35 production was likely.

"The F-35 is not — it is impossible in these budget to entirely protect it, just put it that way," Kendall said in December. "Dollar for dollar, it probably gives us more combat capability than any other investment we're making but we have a lot of other things that we have to do as well. So it's not entirely fenced. I can't say it's entirely fenced [off from cuts]."

The Air Force's choice to cut F-35As in FY17 comes as the service faces a "bow wave" of major modernization programs just on the horizon. Funding for Air Force major acquisition programs is projected to grow by 73 percent from FY15 to its projected peak in FY23, Todd Harrision, a senior fellow at the Center for Stratgic and International Studies, wrote in a January report. This growth is driven primarily by aircraft programs like F-35, LRSB and KC-46, Harrison wrote.

Cutting F-35As in FY17 will likely yield millions in savings over the next several years. The Air Force had planned to buy 44 F-35As in FY16 and 48 in FY17, before ramping up to 60 a year starting in FY18. But reducing that to 48 a year would free up approximately $1 billion per year for other priorities, the Congressional Research Service's Jeremiah Gertler wrote in a December report.

"It's the overwhelming elephant in the Air Force's procurement budget," Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute told Defense News earlier this week. "They are not going to want to eat Bomber lunch at the expense of the JSF."

The Air Force's FY17 budget request also includes commitement to moving forward with the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System recapitalization effort, the Combat Rescue Helicopter, and restocking munitions expended in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, according to the source.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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