President Joe Biden’s $842 billion defense budget is the biggest in history, with a 5.2 percent pay increase, funding for 72 new fighter aircraft, heavy investment in 20 major Air Force and Space Force systems, including a dozen new starts, and accelerated procurement and research spending.
Yet even so, topline defense spending would increase only 3.2 percent, or well under the U.S. inflation rate for the past year which was 7.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Also notable: The Air Force—perhaps the most critical element of the joint force in deterring and ultimately fighting a war in the Pacific—continues to lag behind the Army and Navy in overall spending.
The Biden administration is requesting $259.3 billion for the Department of the Air Force in its fiscal 2024 budget, an increase of more than $9 billion or about 4 percent over this year.
The proposed budget includes a 5.2 percent pay raise for troops, a 4.2 percent increase in the Basic Allowance for Housing, and a 3.4 percent boost to the subsistence allowance. With inflation still running higher than budget growth, lawmakers in Congress are likely to press for further increases over the coming months.
Not all that money would go to the Air Force and Space Force, however; $44.2 billion would pass through the department budget to other agencies. Funding for the Air Force and Space Force would be $215.1 billion, $9.3 billion over the prior year.
The proposal would:
- Retire 310 existing aircraft and invest billions to develop and acquire replacements
- Buy 48 F-35As and 24 F-15EXs
- Start the acquisition process for the B-21 Raider
- Invest heavily in the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter and in a coming generation of uncrewed Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA)
- Increase the Space Force budget by nearly 15 percent, to $30 billion.
The Department of the Air Force budget would grow slightly more than the overall defense budget. The President is seeking $842 billion for the Defense Department in fiscal 2024—a 3.2 percent increase—plus an additional $44 billion that mostly funds nuclear programs in the Department of Energy. That makes for total defense spending of $886 billion in the Presidential Budget Request.
How the Services Stack Up
The administration’s proposal does not treat all the services equally. The Air Force, Space Force, and Navy would all gain investment, while Army and Marine Corps spending would remain essentially flat if the Pentagon gets its way.
After two decades of wars in the Middle East, the Department of Defense has shifted its focus largely toward the Pacific and China, and instead of large armor purchases, is increasing investments in long-range precision weapons.
“The focus here is making our military more capable, not making it larger,” DOD comptroller Michael J. McCord said.
The Department of the Air Force budget continues to be inflated by $44.2 billion in pass-through spending neither destined for the Air Force nor Space Force but rather for other agencies. In reality, the Air Force and Space Force share just $215.1 billion of the $259.3 billion DAF budget. And for the 30th year in a row, Air Force spending is less than the Army and the Navy.
Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said the budget plan reflects a shift to new capabilities over sustaining USAF’s ever-aging platforms. It funds 20 “major efforts” and a dozen new programs, he said. The Space Force budget rises $3.9 billion, or nearly 15 percent, to $30 billion under the President’s plan, while the USAF budget, totaling $185.1 billion, would grow by $5.4 billion, or just 2.9 percent.
Much of the new spending is to gain future capability, some of which may not arrive until the end of this decade.
“We’re in a situation strategically where we have to make a transformation to next-generation capabilities,” said Kendall. “If we stay where we are and emphasize keeping the current force strong … we’re going to be falling behind. And we’re going to be falling behind pretty rapidly.”
NGAD is already maturing in development, Kendall said, but the program remains shrouded in secrecy. The development of CCAs is also rapidly maturing, spurred by a combination of Air Force and industry investment.
The budget also pays for 15 new KC-46 tankers to continue replacing aging KC-135 and KC-10s, and invests in a new stealthy tanker, dubbed the Next-Generation Aerial Refueling System (NGAS).
In a major decision regarding the F-35 fleet, the Air Force plan does not fund the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP), which would have provided a new more powerful and potentially more reliable engine for the Air Force F-35A; the performance improvements were attractive, Kendall noted, but the Air Force would have had to fund the change on its own and the service opted instead for a less costly and complex core upgrade to the existing Pratt & Whitney engines.
“I think we’ve got a good balance and we were able to get the resources through processes internally to allow us to move forward,” according to Kendall.
‘The President’s proposed budget for the Department of the Air Force rightly prioritizes modernization of our Air & Space Forces,” said AFA President & CEO Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, USAF (Ret.) “We are pleased to see a substantial pay raise—the biggest in 22 years—and a 15 percent increase in Space Force funding to improve intelligence, communications, and resilience in that critical domain. We also applaud robust investment for 72 new fighter aircraft, the B-21 bomber, the E-7 Wedgetail AWACS replacement, a new generation of Collaborative Combat Aircraft, and Sentinel ICBM modernization program.
“Yet at a time of grave threats and significant inflation, the rate of growth in the Air Force investment accounts is still not what it should be. Investments in airpower today will deter war tomorrow. Congress must work across party lines to ensure unfunded priorities are addressed and that budget legislation is completed in a timely manner this fall.”
The $842 billion topline for the Pentagon would be $26 billion more than the $817 billion appropriated for fiscal 2023—a 3.2 percent increase. Congress is likely to up the ante, as it did in each of the past two years. House and Senate Republicans will lead that charge.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, each released statements criticizing defense investment as insufficient.
“The President’s defense budget is woefully inadequate and disappointing,” Wicker said. “It does not even resource his own National Defense Strategy to protect our country from growing threats around the world.”
Rogers called the threats facing the United States “the most complex and challenging … in decades.” The President’s budget request “fails to take these threats seriously,” he added. “A budget that proposes to increase non-defense spending at more than twice the rate of defense is absurd. The President’s incredibly misplaced priorities send all the wrong messages to our adversaries.”
But Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Biden for crafting a “strong budget,” even as he left room to tinker with the details.
“Some will inevitably say the topline is too much, while others will claim it is not enough,” Reed said. “I say America’s defense budget should be guided by our values, needs, and national security strategy. This topline request serves as a useful starting point. I look forward to receiving the detailed budget request so we can get to work crafting a responsible, balanced National Defense Authorization Act.”
Space Force Budget Would Soar by 15 Percent in 2024
The Space Force would gain the largest percentage increase under President Biden’s 2024 budget request, a total of $30 billion for the nation’s smallest military branch, or 15 percent—$3.9 billion—more than the enacted 2023 budget.
Investments in overhead persistent infrared missile warning systems, the global positioning system enterprise, and launch vehicles for both the National Security Space Launch and Rocket System Launch Program lead the increases.
“The FY24 request continues aggressively integrating the Space Force into the fabric of national and international security by collaborating across the Department of Defense, interagency, commercial industry, and our allies and partners,” the budget documents say. “Space is a warfighting domain critical to the nation’s security, economic prosperity, and scientific knowledge, therefore, the FY24 request reflects a substantial increase in funding over previous budget requests.”
The Space Force would expand from 8,600 Guardians to 9,400. Like all military personnel, Guardians would receive a 5.2 percent pay raise, along with a 4.2 percent boost for the basic housing allowance, and a 3.4 percent increase in the basic subsistence allowance.
Much of the increase in the Space Force budget would fund new Research, Development, Test & Evaluation. The service is budgeted to spend $16.6 billion for RDT&E in 2023, and the 2024 budget would add $2.6 billion for a total $19.2 billion. Development of new resilient missile warning and tracking satellites, space technology development and prototyping, and Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared missile warning are the primary targets of that new investment.
The Space Force would also invest $4.7 billion to buy new space vehicles and terminals, ground control systems, launch services and related communications security and training products.
The main focus of all that investment is modernization to respond to growing threats to space technology. “The fast-growing array of threats that can attack American interests in, through, and from space pose a challenge that cannot be addressed through enhancements to decreasingly relevant legacy space systems designed for an uncontested domain,” the service wrote in its budget highlights.
The 2024 budget would support procuring 10 National Security Space Launch Services, which are used to send medium and heavy lift systems into orbit. Five launches under the NSSL program would deliver Tranche 1 and Tranche 2 transport capabilities, which are responsible for communications and data transmission in orbit. The 2024 budget request asks for about $980 million more than last year for buying new launch vehicles and launch range upgrades.
The fiscal 2024 budget would also start up the production of Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals Force Element terminals for the Air Force’s B-52 bomber. The FAB-T program allows commanders to communicate with B-52 crews even in contested environments.
The 2024 request also seeks:
- About $5 billion for space-based missile warning. The Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared Program (OPIR) and Resilient Missile Warning and Missile Tracking (MW/MT) systems are critical programs for identifying China’s most advanced missile threats even in the event of attacks on those space-based sensors. Next-Gen OPIR will “rapidly deliver strategically survivable missile warning capabilities” to detect advanced missiles, while Resilient MW/MT is meant to ensure that the missile warning system can survive attacks by counter-space systems developed by adversaries.
- About $4.7 billion for satellite communications projects. The Space Force has three categories of satellite communications: strategic, for nuclear command, control and communications; protected tactical, for tactical-level communications in contested environments; and wideband and narrowband, which provide “large throughput in less contested areas,” according to the Department of Defense. The 2024 budget request would support continued SATCOM development and initiate engineering and manufacturing for a new “purpose-built high-throughput anti-jam satellite system” for protected tactical networks, according to budget documents.
- About $1.3 billion for the GPS enterprise, including development of 10 GPS III follow-on satellites and support the satellite constellation’s transition from a legacy operational control system to its next-generation edition. Military GPS User Equipment, meant to help service members keep using GPS-provided positioning, navigation and timing information even “in the most contested environments,” is also included.
In 2024 Budget, USAF Pushes Major New Aircraft Starts
Among the new aircraft programs the Air Force included in its fiscal 2024 budget request are uncrewed, autonomous wingmen for its fighters, a next-generation tanker program, a fast-as-possible replacement for its aged E-3 AWACS air battle management jets, and a new airborne command post.
The service is also continuing development of the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter and adding 72 new in-production F-35s and F-15EXs. To pay for it all, USAF is looking to divest some 310 airplanes.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program is a “major new start in this budget,” with $522 million in research, development, test and evaluation funding; a tenfold increase over the previous amount. At AFA’s Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colo., Kendall revealed that the service is notionally pursuing 1,000 CCAs, to augment some 200 NGADs and 300 F-35s.
In a March 10 budget brief, Kendall said manned/unmanned teaming demonstrations thus far “convince us that this makes sense and [is] something we could achieve.” The CCA is intended as an autonomous flying wingman to crewed fighters, providing extra sensors, weapons, and “affordable mass” without demanding more pilots.
Proposed New Aircraft Buys in Fiscal ’24
The proposed budget funds at least 94 new aircraft, with the exact count classified due to undisclosed details on the B-21 Raider bomber program.
Production of CCAs is planned before the end of the decade, Kendall said, with initial operational capability projected to be roughly comparable to the NGAD fighter despite entering development later. The $522 million in the budget is “a pretty significant investment in the first year,” he added. The Pentagon did not provide outyear funding profiles with its March 13 budget announcement.
Proposed Aircraft Divestments in Fiscal ’24
The budget proposal continues previously planned divestments of aging aircraft. Congress must approve these decisions, some of which could be contentious.
Anticipated Aircraft Deliveries in ’24
|MQ-9 (Block 5)||10|
Kendall said he’s encouraged by self-funded work done by industry on CCAs.
“There’s been a lot of IRAD (Independent Research and Development) money spent since we started talking about this much more seriously,” he said, and the planning figure of 1,000 CCAs “I think, reinforces that,” and will encourage more industry investment, he added.
The CCA program will begin with a competition, Kendall explained, but there is no set timeline for when a winner will be determined. The CCA will also be “nominally one, but it could be more” than one type of uncrewed aircraft , Kendall said—he previously has said each manned fighter could have up to five CCAs, but at AWS said initial planning would be for two per fighter. In a separate budget briefing, acting Department of the Air Force Undersecretary Kristyn E. Jones said two CCAs would be “a floor,” with more expected.
“How long we will carry multiples” of contractor designs “will depend on the affordability of that as we go forward,” Kendall said.
“This is a serious program,” Kendall added. “If you look out over our five-year [plan], it’s a multibillion-dollar program. And this is headed toward production and fielding; it’s structured to do that.” He said the “intent” is that CCAs will cost “a fraction of the cost of an F-35,” which have a unit cost of about $80 million. “We’ve got enough work behind us that we think that’s a very reasonable goal,” he said.
Andrew Hunter, Air Force acquisition executive, announced at the AWS conference that the Air Force is pursuing a Next-Generation Air refueling System (NGAS), which will get underway this year with an analysis of alternatives, which the Air Force funded with about $8 million in fiscal 2024.
The NGAS, still undefined, is expected to be a stealthy tanker able to operate and survive in contested airspace. Hunter and Kendall also said that the interim tanker buy after 179 KC-46s are delivered are also likely to be KC-46s, but only 75 of these next-increment of tankers are planned, versus the 150 originally expected. After the 179, Boeing could start delivering a somewhat upgraded KC-46 circa 2032.
Although the Air Force only requested 43 F-35s in fiscal ’23, it is back to asking for 48 in FY24. Together with its request for 24 F-15EXs, it reaches the goal of 72 new fighters in FY24; a number USAF officials say is the minimum needed to keep the age of its fighter fleet from increasing to unsustainable levels. At 72 per year, the Air Force can hold its fighter fleet to an average age of about 29 years old.
The Air Force now plans an F-15EX fleet of 104. Kendall indicated some of the F-15EXs would replace aging F-15C/D Eagles in the Air National Guard fleet.
“The reason we do that in part is because of the cruise missile defense mission,” Kendall said.
But the planned F-15EX buy would not fully replace F-15C/Ds and some Air National Guard F-15C/Ds are being replaced with F-35s. The Air Force has around 200 F-15C/Ds that it will eventually retire, and the service wants to divest 57 in fiscal 2024. The Air Force made the decision to pull its 48 F-15C/Ds from Kadena Air Base, Japan, in late 2022, with some of those aircraft destined for the Air National Guard.
“We’re going to continue to draw that fleet down until there’s none left,” director of the Air National Guard Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh told reporters March 8 at the AFA Warfare Symposium. “So the recapitalization is occurring. … The two things on the production line right now are F-35 and F-15EX.”
The service would also buy 15 KC-46 tankers in fiscal ’24, seven MH-139 VIP/missile field support helicopters and one E-11 Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) aircraft.
One aircraft that did not get any procurement funding in the budget is the T-7 trainer, which has been delayed due to escape system issues. The Air Force has said deliveries, initially slated for 2024, will slip to 2026.
With E-3 AWACS aircraft availability rapidly declining due to parts shortages, the Air Force is moving to replace it as quickly as possible with the E-7A Wedgetail, also built by Boeing. The service asked $681 million for the E-7 in FY24, up from $421 million a year ago. At the AWS conference, Kendall said the service looked at “accelerating” the E-7 but determined it is moving as fast as it can, with the first aircraft due to arrive for service circa 2027.
To replace its rapidly obsolescing E-4B National Airborne Operations Center, the Air Force is asking for $889 million to develop a Survivable Airborne Operations Center, a significant bump from the $98 million it received for the effort in 2023.
The NGAD program is requested for $1.933 billion in RDT&E, up from $1.658 billion enacted for ’23. For F-35 RDT&E, the Air Force asks $1.372 billion in the new budget, in pursuit of Block 4 capabilities, up from $1.098 billion a year ago.
RDT&E for the new B-21 bomber declines somewhat, from $3.144 billion in 2023 to $2.984 billion in 2024, as that program begins its transition from development to production. Production funds for the Raider, from accompanying budget documents, were pegged at $1.617 billion, but quantities were not discussed, although Jones repeated previous comments that six aircraft are in various stages of production.
Elsewhere in the bomber fleet, the Air Force wants to boost B-52 modernization, with new engines and a radar upgrade. R&D increases for those efforts to $857 million requested for ’24, up some $134 million over last year.
The Air Force is looking to divest 310 aircraft in fiscal 2024, according to Maj. Gen. Michael A. Greiner, deputy assistant secretary for budget and comptroller of the Air Force.
“Most of these are continuations from existing authorities” for divestiture granted to the Air Force by Congress last year, he said.
The 310 include 32 F-22 Block 20s, which Kendall noted “we asked for last year, and didn’t get.” Yet despite those planned divestments, the service is also asking for $726 million to develop capability upgrades for the fighter, versus the enacted 2023 figure of $560 million. Those upgrades are known to include an infrared search and track system, upgraded radar, the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile and other improvements to keep it relevant and credible in the air superiority role before the NGAD comes online, circa 2030.
In addition to the F-22s, the Air Force also wants to retire its remaining 24 aerial refueling KC-10s; 57 F-15C/Ds fighters; 37 HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters; 48 MQ-9 Reaper Block 1s, and 52 T-1 trainers. Greiner said the Air Force wants to reduce the E-3 Sentry AWACS inventory to 18 aircraft, which means two more will leave the inventory this year.
If all the Air Force’s divestiture requests are honored by Congress, the ’24 budget will zero out the KC-10 tanker, E-8 Joint STARS, EC-130J Commando Solo, and A-29 light attack aircraft inventories.
Chinese Spy Balloon Prompts $90 Million in New Air Defense Spending
The high-attitude surveillance balloon that traversed the U.S. in late January and early February prompted last-minute additions to the Pentagon’s budget—according to DOD officials, there was a late plus-up of around $90 million for measures to protect against similar intrusions in the future.
“We did add some funding late in the process,” DOD comptroller Michael J. McCord told reporters March 13. NORAD has said it suffered a “domain awareness gap” that enabled the balloon to travel over U.S. territory, leading to changes to the settings, or “gates,” set radar sensitivities. McCord described the new funds as earmarked for “sensing and analysis in that particular set of altitudes and phenomenology” for balloons and other low-signature, low-speed objects.
“Cruise missiles are the things we care about probably the most in that space of looking at our airspace,” McCord said. “On this particular niche, if you will, we did add some funding to try and refine some capabilities on the back end.”
Adm. Sara A. Joyner, the director of force structure, resources, and assessment (J8) on the Joint Staff, characterized the $90 million as “significant investments” that will improve U.S. sensing in all aspects of U.S. airspace.
“I would tell you that the sensors that we have today are capable of seeing the high-altitude balloons,” Joyner said. “They’re capable of tracking them. It’s a matter of tuning and optimizing those systems to try to get after all forms of intrusions into our airspace.”
The new investments would try to bridge the gap between detecting fast-moving threats and balloons. When the U.S. stopped filtering out some slow-moving objects, radars started picking up—and the Air Force began shooting down—objects the American government now believes were benign.