Defense Spending Bill Adds Up to 11 F-35s, Boosts Secret Portfolio by $2 Billion  

The Air Force would acquire 44 F-35s in fiscal 2023, 11 more than the 33 it requested, under provisions of the Senate’s defense appropriations bill released Dec. 20. The measure also increases funding for classified USAF programs by $2 billion.

The National Defense Authorization Act did not specify a number of F-35As to be purchased by the Air Force but did increase spending authority for the jets from $3.32 billion to $4.09 billion. That would be enough to buy 42 aircraft. But Congressional appropriators appear poised to add another $150 million on top of that, bringing the total to $4.24 billion, enough to pay for 44.

The additional aircraft would be spaced out across production Lots 15, 16, and 17. It is unclear if the amount provided will pay for so many aircraft; the unit cost of the most recent Air Force F-35As was about $80 million each. More capable Block 4 aircraft are expected to cost more.

“AFA commends Congress for investing in advanced fighter capability and capacity,” AFA President retired Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright said. “The F-35A is the most capable fighter aircraft available today, and along with the F-15EX, B-21, and other advanced capabilities, will be the crucial backbone of the Air Force stealth fighter force for years to come. America needs even more F-35As to hold adversaries at risk and deter aggression in an ever more complex and dangerous world.”

Appropriators also added to the Air Force’s classified program budget, increasing investment by $2 billion; the National Guard would receive $1 billion extra for non-specific procurement, and the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter program, which the Air Force wants to curtail, is set to gain an extra $600 million. USAF had planned to cut the helicopter from a fleet of 113 aircraft to 75, which the service said stems from changes in the way combat rescue will have to be accomplished in the future.

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mark D. Kelly has speculated that the combat rescue mission might be better performed by autonomous aircraft.   

The Air Force requested only 33 F-35s in its FY23 request, saying it would forego purchases now in order to wait for the more advanced Block 4 version later. The Senate originally moved to fund 40 F-35s, while the House did not add to the buy. Unusually, the final NDAA conference report set only a topline amount for that procurement, at $4.09 billion, but did not specify a number. Since the appropriations bill will follow the NDAA, it will supersede the NDAA; where two laws conflict, as in the amount to spend on F-35s, the second law enacted takes precedence.