Here Are The Major Airpower Developments In The Pentagon's Latest Budget Proposal

The latest Pentagon budget proposal shows the Air Force, as well as Navy and Marines, want to modernize, but at the cost of existing capacity.

An A-10 Warthog, F-16C Viper, F-35A, and F-15E Strike Eagle fly together.
USAF

Months later than usual, the Pentagon has finally released its budget request for the 2022 Fiscal Year, which starts just a little over five months from now. The overall request comes in at approximately $715 billion in proposed defense spending, just over $11 billion more than it has received for the current fiscal cycle. When it comes to U.S. military airpower, the new budget proposal contains a number of interesting developments and generally underscores a broad push across the services, but especially by the U.S. Air Force, to cut older aircraft in order to buy new aircraft and otherwise focus on advanced development efforts.

Hundreds of aircraft of various types are now on the chopping block and the Air Force, specifically, would see a decline in the combined size of its fleets if the budget, in its current form, is approved. This is also just the first part of plans that could see the divestment of even more planes and helicopters in the next five years as the Air Force, as well as the Navy and Marines, continue to move ahead in modernizing and otherwise consolidating their fleets.

What follows is a brief overview of the most important details regarding major U.S. military aviation programs from the Pentagon's Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal:

  • The U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are asking for funds to buy 85 F-35s, in total, which includes examples of all three variants of the Joint Strike Fighter.
    • This is six more F-35s than the three services asked for in the 2021 Fiscal Year budget request, but 11 fewer jets that Congress ultimately provided funding for in the current fiscal cycle. 
    • The Air Force, specifically, wants money to procure 48 F-35As, while the Navy is asking for funds to buy 15 F-35Cs for itself, as well as five more C variants and 17 F-35Bs for the Marine Corps.
  • As said would be its plan last year, the Navy is not asking to buy any new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in this budget proposal, as it shifts its focus to the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.
  • The Navy is also looking to accelerate the retirement of its remaining legacy F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets, including through the potential replacement of some of those jets now serving in the aggressor role with ex-Air Force F-16s
  • The Air Force hopes to receive funds to buy another 12 additional F-15EX Eagle II fighter jets.
    • The service has already received funding for eight F-15EXs in the 2020 Fiscal Year budget and a dozen more in the budget for the 2021 Fiscal Year.
  • The Air Force is looking to retire 48 F-15C/D Eagles.
    • It had previously been reported that the service was looking to divest the entire F-15C/D fleet by 2026, with most of these aircraft being replaced by F-15EXs.
  • The Air Force hopes to shed 47 of its oldest F-16C/D Vipers.
    • This is part of a plan to retire 124 so-called "pre-block" Vipers by 2026, with the service working to rationalize the fleet to include only variants built to the Block 40 and subsequent standards
    • The equates to the retirement of six squadrons worth of F-16C/Ds and, at present, the last four of these units will stand down before F-35As arrive to replace them.
  • As part of its broader aerial combat plans, the Air Force is looking $1.5 billion to support its Next Generation Air Dominance program (NGAD), which is separate from the Navy's effort.
  • The Air Force wants to cut its 42 A-10 Warthogs.
    • This would shrink the Air Force's overall A-10 fleet down from 281 to 239 aircraft.
  • On the bomber front, the Air Force is asking for $2.873 billion for continued work on the B-21 Raider stealth bomber, an increase of $30 million over its 2021 Fiscal Year request, which it says is "to prepare for initial production" of these aircraft.
  • The Air Force wants $716 million to support its B-52Hs, a significant increase compared to the $483 million it asked for in the 2021 Fiscal Year budget request, and it says this added funding will go toward efforts "to replace engines, upgrade radar & communication systems."
  • When it comes to aerial refueling tankers, the Air Force wants to retire another 18 KC-135Rs and 14 KC-10As.
  • The Air Force wants to buy 14 more KC-46A Pegasus tankers, which continue to struggle to perform the aerial refueling mission even on a limited basis.
  • The Air Force is looking to divest 20 Block 30 RQ-4 Global Hawk drones.
  • The Air Force is again looking to stop buying MQ-9 Reaper drones, entirely.
  • The Navy is looking to pause purchase of additional MQ-4C Triton drones, “to allow the Integrated Functional Capability-4 (IFC 4.0) design to mature, which will eliminate concurrency risk and minimize the retrofit cost," as well as retire its remaining RQ-4A Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator (BAMS-D) drones.
  • The Air Force wants to divest four of its 16 E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) battlefield management aircraft.
  • The Air Force is hoping to buy 14 additional HH-60W Jolly Green II combat search and rescue helicopters.
    • The service has previously acknowledged that these helicopters will need significant upgrades after delivery to adequately perform their core mission set.
  • The Air Force is also seeking to push back the procurement of its first back of MH-139A helicopters by a year over unspecified technical issues that have caused a delay in receiving certain Federal Aviation Administration certifications.
  • The Air Force is looking to procure three more MC-130J Commando II special operations transports.
  • The Air Force's budget proposal includes a request for funds to buy one E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) aircraft to replace one that crashed in Afghanistan last year.
    • Earlier this year, the service had also disclosed it was looking at expanding the overall E-11A fleet size by 2026. 
  • U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is asking for funds to buy six light attack aircraft as part of its Armed Overwatch program.
    • In May, SOCOM awarded contracts to five companies to demonstrate prototype designs for this program in trials that will start later this year and wrap up in early 2022.

As always, it is important to note that this is just a budget proposal and that Congress will have the final say in which of these provisions, if any, get approved in the end. Lawmakers routinely block requests and even insert additional funding for certain aircraft the Pentagon and the various service branches have not asked for.

There are already a number of these provisions that will almost certainly face at least some backlash from legislators. For instance, members of Congress blocked a similar proposal from the Air Force in the 2021 Fiscal Year budget request regarding cutting the A-10 fleet and forced that service to walk back its plans to retire KC-135 tankers in the face of serious and still-ongoing issues with the KC-46A that severely limit its capabilities. 

The Air Force is also notably required, by law, at least a present, to secure a waiver before it can retire any Global Hawks. There has been pushback from legislators to the service's efforts to stop buying MQ-9 Reaper drones in favor of the development of a successor, known as MQ-Next, too.

In addition, there have already been heated debates this year between members of Congress and U.S. military officials over the future of the F-35 program, especially the Air Force's component thereof. That service still wants to buy more F-35As, but is also now looking at a new clean-sheet fighter design to at least supplement those jets, which is presently referred to as the Multi-Role Fighter, or MR-X.

Will all this in mind, it's not surprising that U.S. military officials have already been defending their various portions of the overall budget proposal in the weeks leading up to its formal release. 

As we do every year, The War Zone will examine the line-item budget documents in more detail as they are released for additional details about the U.S. military's future plans with regards to airpower, as well as in other domains. We will be sure to highlight any other major developments and surprises that we find along the way.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com