The Air Force is asking Congress to retire 150 airplanes in its fiscal 2023 budget, including 33 of its advanced F-22 fighters, but it would also hand off 100 MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft to another government agency and buy more than 82 other new airplanes, including an accelerated buy of F-15EX Eagle IIs. Its planned buy of the F-35 fighter would be pared back by 15 aircraft as the service waits for a more advanced model.
For the fiscal 2022 budget, out of 201 legacy types the Air Force asked to retire, Congress allowed the service to divest all except 42 A-10s.
Air Force leaders signaled that after “due diligence” and market research, they will likely seek to buy the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail as a replacement for the E-3 AWACS. They threw cold water on the notion of a competition for a second modern tanker, indicating they’ll likely stick with a modified version of Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus. And, it will also curtail purchase of the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter at 75 aircraft instead of 113, saying it will have enough aircraft for the mission after this year, given the changing nature of combat search and rescue.
Two new unmanned aircraft among Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s “operational imperatives”—a tactical unmanned escort for fighters and a strategic-range unmanned bomber—feature in the budget only as research and development projects. Together, they are called the Autonomous Collaborative Program, and are funded at $113 million, but are not yet a program of record.
The fiscal 2023 budget request seeks retirements of the following aircraft:
The Air Force asks to retire 21 jets from the Fort Wayne, Ind., Air National Guard facility and transition the unit to 21 F-16s.
Of its 36 Block 20 F-22s—which are used for training and not configured as frontline combat jets—USAF is looking to retire 33, which will bring the F-22 fleet down to 153 airplanes. Kendall, in an embargoed March 25 budget brief for the press, said upgrading the aircraft to full combat capability would not be cost effective given that the F-22 is set to phase out in about 10 years. He said the savings will be applied directly to the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems, which will backfill the F-22.
The affected aircraft “are being used for training right now but are not combat capable,” Kendall said. “So, we see an efficiency, effectively, in removing those aircraft at this point.” However, USAF asked for $344 million to upgrade the sensors and other systems on the remaining Raptors in fiscal 2023.
The Air Force wants to retire 15 aircraft at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. The E-3 has become difficult to maintain, with poor mission capable rates, and Kendall said the service will do market research “due diligence” and will make a decision “within the next several months” on whether to pursue the E-7 as a replacement. Only 16 AWACS will remain, but the Air Force did not say when they will phase out completely.
E-8 Joint STARS
The budget plan calls for retirement of eight JSTARS in 2023 and four more in 2024, with funding “redirected to emerging ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities that can operate in highly contested environments,” a service spokesperson said. Kendall has suggested these capabilities can largely be supplied by space-based assets.
“Basically, both the JSTARS fleet and the AWACS fleet are aging out and need to be replaced,” Kendall said.
USAF would give up 12 C-130s from Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., but is buying four new C-130-J30s, for a net reduction of eight aircraft. USAF budget director Maj. Gen. James D. Peccia III said the C-130s would be backfilled with the new MH-139 helicopter.
The Air Force is introducing new simulation and training techniques to obviate the need to re-engine or replace the T-1, relying on the T-6 for the newly-determined actual flying hours. Aircraft will be redistributed among Undergraduate Pilot Training bases and will phase out as new simulation and training gear is brought online.
The Air Force is looking to retire 13 KC-135s from the Guard and Reserve, converting the losing units to the KC-46A Pegasus. The service will take “a measured amount of risk” in the gap between the departure of the old aircraft and arrival of the new, a spokesperson said. Four of the KC-135s will come from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., and nine from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. Kendall referred to this divestiture as a “modest” reduction, but acknowledged, “we’re going to need some cooperation from Congress on that.”
Kendall said the Air Force is “taking 100 MQ-9s and moving them to another government organization.” He did not specify the organization. “It comes up as a divestment, but it’s not a change in capability,” he said.
The Air Force’s list of new aircraft buys is a bit shorter than the list of divestitures.
After several years of requesting 48 F-35s—and being given up to 12 more each of those years by Congress—the Air Force is requesting only 33 F-35s in 2023.
There’s “a whole collection of reasons” for the reduction, Kendall said. First, the performance of the F-35’s Tech Refresh 3 update is “not what we wanted,” he said, and the TR3 is the basis for the Block 4 version of the jet, which USAF has long said it prefers to buy. The Air Force is investing some additional money in the Advanced Engine Technology Program (AETP) that could power an upgraded F-35. It sees an opportunity to accelerate the F-15EX and is continuing to put money against the Next Generation Air Dominance program. After investing in those areas, in the context of “the whole TacAir portfolio,” Kendall said the F-35 reduction makes sense.
Moreover, “if you look further out in the FYDP (Future Years Defense Plan) that we’ll provide, the numbers come back up,” he said.
Asked if the Air Force remains committed to the fighter, Kendall said, “Of course.”
“We’re 15 years into production, and we’ll be building F-35s probably another 15 years. So, absolutely.” Kendall said the F-35 will continue to be, as Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. has said, the “cornerstone” of the tactical fleet “for the foreseeable future. So there’s no question about that.”
Kendall noted that the AETP is a costly development program and that USAF is still courting “partners” among the other services to share the cost and the benefit of a new powerplant.
The Air Force doubles its 2022 request, from 12 Eagle IIs to 24 in 2023.
Kendall said Brown wants to “replace F-15Cs as quickly as possible,” and the availability of the F-15EX makes that possible. “He did say it was on the order of six months to a year in terms of time to replace those aircraft, which are aging out very quickly,” Kendall said, referring to the time it takes to transition an F-15 squadron to an F-15EX, rather than the F-35.
“It also provides some operational features,” Kendall added. “It’s really a 4.5 generation kind of an airplane, but it provides more weapons carriage capabilities, writ large, than the F-35 does. So, for the homeland defense mission, and for some defensive counterair applications overseas, it has features that are desirable, operationally.”
Peccia said the F-15C/Ds will retire completely by fiscal 2026.
“One of the fundamental things motivating me on the operational imperatives in the TacAir area is the affordability of the future force,” Kendall noted. If we’re only buying NGAD, which is a very expensive platform; F-35s at $80 million a copy; and F-15EXs at $80 million a copy; we can’t afford the Air Force. So we’ve got to get a mix of lower-cost platforms, as well.” These, he said, would fall under the research effort toward Autonomous Collaborative Programs.
The FY’23 budget grows by $1.7 billion to start low-rate initial production of the B-21 bomber, but Peccia said he could not reveal how many aircraft that will entail. At the time of the program’s unveiling, USAF officials said low-rate would probably entail five aircraft a year for several years.
The Air Force upped its 2022 buy from 14 to 15 in 2023, adding $220 million for the additional aircraft and getting the KC-46 rate up to where it was already planned to be. Kendall said he thinks the Air Force will likely stay with the KC-46 as it plans its next tranche of tanker buys.
“We had a KC-X, Y, and Z” scheme, Kendall said. “As we look at our requirements further out, [they] start to look more like a modified KC-46 than they do a completely new design.” Although the Air Force will do its “due diligence” and market research on other options, such as Lockheed Martin’s LMXT version of the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport, Kendall didn’t offer optimism about a new tanker contest.
“I want to be very transparent about this,” he said. “I think there’s still a possibility of competition out there, but as we’ve looked at our requirements, the likelihood of a competition has come down.” He said USAF will come to some decisions “over the next several months” and “decide where we want to go.”
The Air Force’s plan was to buy 113 HH-60W helicopters for Combat Search and Rescue, but USAF said it will “complete the buy” with 10 more aircraft in 2023.
“That’ll get us to 75 helicopters,” Peccia said. Kendall said that, given the shift in focus toward the Indo-Pacific, the need for the HH-60W diminished.
“It’s been reduced,” he said. “The scenarios we’re most worried about are not the same as they once were.” The HH-60W was a good solution in counterinsurgencies but doesn’t match the requirement against peer adversaries.
“The acts of aggression like we’re seeing in Europe, or we might end up seeing in the Pacific with the pacing challenge, puts us in a very different scenario, from a combat rescue point of view.”
Last August, Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mark D. Kelly said Airmen who go down in contested areas of the Pacific may have to get themselves to a place where they can be picked up, given that the air defense threat will be so challenging to manage a rescue.
The Air Force is buying five MH-139s in fiscal 2023. Peccia said they were in the 2022 budget but had several certifications yet to be completed. Those are now done, or will be in “the next couple of months,” and the program can proceed, he said. The goal remains to buy 80 of the Gray Wolf helos. The helicopter will replace the aging UH-1Ns, which are used for security at the Air Force’s nuclear missile fields, VIP transport in the Air Force District of Washington and Japan, and survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training.