WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force wants to send more than 200 aircraft to the boneyard with its fiscal 2022 budget request, freeing up $1.3 billion in savings that it can reinvest in cutting-edge technologies like its sixth-generation fighter and hypersonic weapons.

The Department of the Air Force, which released its budget request on May 28, requested a total of $173.7 billion — $156.3 billion for the Air Force and $17.4 billion for the Space Force.

Although research, development, test and evaluation costs for the Air Force increased from $26.6 billion to $28.8 billion, procurement fell from $26.1 billion to $22.9 billion.

The request could be a bitter pill to swallow for Congress. It asks lawmakers to approve the retirement of dozens of aircraft — including the beloved A-10 Warthog, F-15C/D and F-16C/D fighters, KC-135 and KC-10 refueling tankers, C-130 cargo planes, and RQ-4 surveillance drones — while, in many cases, funding fewer new aircraft than anticipated in the Air Force’s FY21 plans.

Despite the major changes, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown has said that FY23 would host the biggest overhauls to the service.

“You always go into, I think, election years with a little bit different [mindset],” Brown told Defense News in November. “You probably don’t make as many big, bold moves in certain areas. And so there are some things we will take a look at as we work through [FY22]. ... And as we look at [FY23], this is where I’m really focused.”

Aircraft divestment

Tactical aircraft make up a huge portion of the aircraft the Air Force wants to retire in FY22, and it will not buy new fighter aircraft in numbers to make up for their loss.

“To attain the desired fighter fleet, the Air Force must right size current aircraft inventories to expedite the transition away from less capable, aging aircraft and emphasize investment in future capabilities” such as the F-35 Block 4 modernization program and Next Generation Air Dominance, the service’s sixth generation fighter, said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.

The service hopes to shed 42 A-10 Warthogs, which would bring the total inventory to 239 aircraft — which puts the Air Force toward the number it believes it needs for counterterrorism and low-end operations through at least 2030, Stefanek said.

A U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagles release flares over the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility Aug. 13, 2020

It also plans to cut 47 F-16C/D and 48 F-15C/D fighters, which have “major structural issues” and will become unsafe to fly as early as 2023, Stefanek said.

The Air Force is continuing the trend from FY21 of retiring a portion of its legacy tanker fleet, divesting 14 KC-10 tankers and 18 KC-135 tankers. The retirement of those aircraft will allow the Air Force to invest more money toward standing up the KC-46, specifically the transition of KC-10 and KC-135 maintainers to the KC-46, Stefanek said.

The Air Force would retire a total of 13 C-130Hs, a move than Stefanek said “constitutes a low level of risk, given future joint war-fighting missions.”

The service also plans to retire four of its 16 E-8 JSTARS aircraft, which are used for ground surveillance and targeting, and 20 RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 surveillance drones.

“The Air Force must accelerate investment in competitive capabilities that can penetrate and survive in the highly contested environment,” Stefanek said of the proposal. “Divestment of less-survivable weapon systems provides resources to fund emerging ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities that can penetrate and collect data in the highly contested environment.”

Lawmakers have already signaled they may not accept the Air Force’s plan to retire certain aircraft.

On Friday morning, Arizona Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema as well as Reps Ann Kirkpatrick, Ruben Gallego, Tom O’Halleran and Greg Stanton issued a statement opposing the proposed divestment of the A-10, which is based at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.

“Removing A-10s from the fleet when there is not another aircraft capable of performing this mission takes a vital tool away from our military and is the wrong step for our national security,” Kelly said.

The Air Force might encounter similar opposition for retiring the RQ-4 and E-8 — something it attempted in past budgets, only to be shot down by lawmakers who have fought divesting those aircraft when no direct replacement exists.

Congress may be more likely to approve the retirement of KC-135s this year. In FY21, lawmakers blocked proposed divestment of KC-135s due to concerns from U.S. Transportation Command about the overall size of the tanker force. However, TRANSCOM head Gen. Stephen Lyons told lawmakers during a May 18 hearing that he would support some KC-135 retirements this year.

Trade-offs today for tomorrow

The Air Force’s decision to slash procurement — resulting in some cases in lower buys of aircraft than was projected in FY21 — may also prove controversial.

The service stuck to its plan of buying 48 F-35A conventional-takeoff-and-landing models and 12 F-15EX Eagle II fighters in FY22, at $4.5 billion and $1.3 billion respectively.

It also wants to spend $2.4 billion on 14 KC-46 tankers — two more than projected in its FY21 plans.

However, the service lowered procurement of the HH-60W combat rescue helicopter from 20 aircraft in its FY21 plans to 14 in the FY22 request. And instead of buying four MC-130Js for Air Force Special Operations Command, as it planned in FY21, it will buy only three at a cost of $220 million.

It also funds a single C-130 and E-11 Battlefield Airborne Communications Node to replace combat losses.

The service requests $2.1 billion to procure missiles. Most notably, it will buy hypersonic missiles for the first time, adding $161 million to the budget for low-rate initial production of the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon.

Meanwhile, the Air Force wants to make big investments in several advanced technology programs under development to outmatch emerging Chinese threats. The service stepped up its investment on Next Generation Air Dominance, a family of systems that will include a sixth-generation fighter. Spending on the program is set to increase by $623 million, for a total of $1.5 billion in FY22. An NGAD demonstrator first flew last year. Though it remains unclear when the capability will be fielded, it is set to replace the F-22.

Although the Biden administration will likely pursue a nuclear posture review, Air Force nuclear development programs received a huge boost in funding despite ongoing questions about whether to fund the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, which is meant to replace Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. GBSD was dealt a major victory in FY22, with the Air Force adding $1.1 billion to the program for a total of $2.6 billion.

The service increased spending on the Long Range Standoff Weapon from $385 million in FY21 to $609 million in FY22. Funding for the B-21 bomber stayed stable at $2.9 billion.

The Air Force boosted spending on the Advanced Battle Management System program from $158 million in FY21 to $204 million in FY22. It also increased spending for hypersonic weapons prototyping from $386 million to $438 million.

The service also put more money toward upgrades for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and B-52 bomber. The service increased funds for the F-35′s Block 4 modernization program and Technology Refresh 3 by $239 million, for a total of $1.1 billion. It added $233 million for B-52 upgrades, including the engine replacement program, for a total of $716 million.

Funding for the VC-25B Air Force One replacement aircraft dropped slightly from $799 million to $681 million.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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