The Air Force’s unfunded priorities list (UPL)—things it wants but couldn’t squeeze into its fiscal 2023 budget request—would leave it to Congress to boost the F-35 fighter buy, as part of a list of things it would acquire if it had another $4.6 billion to spend.
The Air Force only asked Congress for 33 F-35s in its 2023 budget proposal, 15 fewer than it bought in 2022 and 27 fewer than 2021. USAF said it prefers to spend that money on other needed modernization programs and wait until the Block 4 version of the jet is ready. The unfunded priorities list looks to close that gap slightly, asking for $921 million for seven more strike fighters, bringing the service’s total 2023 buy to 40 F-35As—still eight fewer than 2022.
The UPL, which was obtained by Air Force Magazine but not released by the department, lists eight priorities the service wants but couldn’t afford in its 2023 budget request, released in late March. The F-35 is fifth on that list.
“The Air Force unfunded list would add just seven F-35 jets, less than half of what’s needed to match the 48 requested in each of the past three years,” said Air & Space Forces Association President retired Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright. “Indeed, in 2020 and 2021, Congress increased the Air Force request from 48 to 60, and we would urge lawmakers to do the same in 2023.”
In fiscal 2022, the Air Force asked for another dozen F-15EXs as part of that year’s $4.2 billion unfunded priorities list, but it did not ask for any additional F-35A strike fighters—a departure from previous years.
The Space Force offered Congress its own $6 million unfunded priorities list. More than half that request ($327 million) would go to classified programs, while the rest would be split between more resilient missile warning and missile tracking ($200 million) and weapons systems sustainment ($112 million).
Weapons system sustainment is the Air Force’s No. 1 unfunded priority. The service requested $579 million, which it said would support its “highest priority” depot programs, including the B-52, F-16, T-38, C-17, Battle Management System, C-5, and the Distributed Common Ground System.
Listed as its second-highest wish—though the biggest ask financially—is a request for $978.5 million to procure four EC-37B Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft, which would bring the total fleet to 10 aircraft.
Other requests, listed in order of priority, include:
- $397 million to repair, replace, or restore “facilities damaged by inadequate sustainment, excessive age, natural disaster, fire, accident, or other causes, or to alter or replace facilities to implement new or higher standards, accommodate new functions, or replace building components that typically last more than 50 years.” The UPL did not list specific locations.
- $276 million for additional Small Diameter Bomb IIs, which the service says suffers from diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages for weapon procurement. Standoff munitions, such as the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile series took priority in the Air Force’s 2023 budget request, which looks to buy 550 extended-range JASSMs and 28 Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile variants. Meanwhile, the 2023 budget request asked to procure 761 SDB II bombs, also known as the StormBreaker, down from 985 units in 2022.
- The F-35 request of $921 million would restore some of the aircraft subtracted from the yet-to-be-awarded Lot 17, which will have Block 4 capability. In an interview with Air Force Magazine shortly after the budget release, USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, said the Air Force would buy more F-35s if resources allowed, but given the delay with Block 4, the Air Force opted to speed up the F-15EX buy, while also freeing up some money to help pay the multibillion-dollar nuclear modernization bill.
- $749 million for at least 26 military construction projects across the globe, ranging from new child development centers to simulators to a military working dog kennel. The biggest portion of that ask ($286 million) would fund ongoing natural disaster recovery at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., and Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. Another large chunk, $114 million, would fund a KC-46A bay in the depot corrosion control hangar at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.
- $197 million for hypersonic testing with B-52s, F-15s, F-16s, and “tanker ops” at two locations, adding contractor capacity and absorbing the mounting workload. Specifically, the UPL asks for $55 million to enable “open-air hypersonic testing,” which “expands high fidelity coverage for extreme velocities beyond 350 [nautical miles] allowing for more shots of longer distance and duration.” The funds also would help “close capability gaps for hypersonics intercept, reusable vehicles, boost glide, and stores separation,” according to the document.
- $516 million to restore readiness spares packages (RSP), which the service says are “critically below required readiness levels” after 20 years of Middle East contingency operations. RSP kits are tailored to specific aircraft variants and are intended to provide support for 30 consecutive days. However, according to the UPL, “if conflict with a near-peer adversary were to kick off today, only 15 days of support would be immediately available to support these platforms in a contested environment.”
- The Space Force unfunded priorities list, on the other hand, looks to procure two additional launches in 2023 to accelerate initial launch capability of the mission warning/mission tracking layer to fiscal 2025.
- The new service’s weapons system sustainment request would go toward improving missile warning and defense, space domain awareness, integrated tactical warning/attach assessment, launch range, military satellite communications, satellite control network, global positioning system, and space-based infrared systems shortfalls.
- “The Department of the Air Force has been underfunded for nearly three decades, delaying modernization and leading to a perpetually shrinking force that is now too small to meet the nation’s expectations,” Wright said. “Congress should not only approve every single unfunded priority on the Air Force and Space Force lists, it should go one better and increase those investments.”