Guard Asks Congress to Add F-15EX, F-35 Fighters Back to Budget

The National Guard Bureau has asked Congress to consider adding six F-35s and six F-15EXs to the fiscal 2025 budget—jets the Air Force said it cut to fit within the Pentagon’s financial constraints.

The dozen fighters, at a cost of $1.35 billion, represent the biggest items on the Guard’s $2.66 billion Unfunded Priorities List; the annual, congressionally-mandated wishlists of the top things services or combatant commands would buy if they had extra money beyond the “official” budget, which went to Congress in early March. The Air National Guard portion of the list amounts to $2.3 billion; the remainder would fund Army National Guard military construction projects.

The Air Force itself did not request additional fighters in its wishlist as it has in recent years. Instead, its $3.5 billion list focused solely on readiness items such as spare parts, exercises, and military construction, and not big-ticket platforms like fighters.

In its actual budget request, the Air Force asked for only 42 F-35s, versus its usual benchmark of 48. Officials explained that the service had other priorities and prefers to wait for the Block 4 versions of the fighter. Critics claim the Air Force has gamed the UPL to get Congress to put more F-35s into its budget than requested.

Air National Guard projects are frequently included with the Headquarters Air Force list.

In its justification for the F-35 request, the Guard noted that Headquarters Air Force has in the past “supported procuring 48 F-35 aircraft [per] year into the 2030s” to modernize the force and support the National Defense Strategy, and that this is a level that F-35 prime Lockheed Martin “can produce for the Air Force.”

Air Force officials have said they needed to make cuts to their procurement budget to live within caps set by the Fiscal Responsibility—the Guard noted the fiscal restraints in its justification and said its addition would “complete the planned F-35 procurement of 48 for FY25 and completes the build of a sustainable ANG fleet of 5 combat squadrons for increased capacity … plus builds one ANG FTU (Flying Training Unit).”

Likewise, the Guard noted that the Air Force truncated its buys of the F-15EX, the bulk of which will serve with the Guard. The Air Force’s fiscal 2025 plan would buy only 18 F-15EXs instead of the 24 called for in the previous budget and end procurement there, at a total of 98 airplanes instead of the previous goal of 104.   

Once again, fiscal constraints were cited as the cause of the cut.

“These additional 6 F-15EXs will complete the planned F-15EX FY25 procurement and maximize [Defense Industrial Base] output,” the budget justification states. “It completes the build of a sustainable ANG fleet of 3 combat squadrons for increased capacity in [the] INDOPACOM theater.”

The Air Force cut its buy to 98 F-15EXs after originally structuring the program to yield 188 of the jets, which are built by Boeing at its St. Louis, Mo. facilities.   

The six F-35s would cost $660 million, while the six F-15EXs would cost $690 million, according to the document.

There is a longstanding tension between the Guard and Headquarters Air Force over how to best modernize the Guard. Over the decades, the ANG has complained that it has been equipped with hand-me-down equipment, even though necessity has compelled it to assume a daily operational role in meeting theater commander requirements. Air Force leaders have pledged the Guard will be equipped with new gear in parallel with the Active-Duty force.

Guard leaders have also balked at the Air Force’s divestment of older aircraft in recent years, notably A-10 attack jets. The reductions have fallen disproportionately on Guard units, and as the Air Force inventory has shrunk, a number of Guard units have lost their flying missions.

Other items on the Guard unfunded priority list include:

  • $350 million to “properly” support 16 C-130Js that were added to the ANG in fiscal 2023. There was “a shortfall” in the amount Congress provided in fiscal 2024 for these aircraft, and the UPL request “corrects that … and allows for the full recapitalization of 2 ANG C-130H units.”
  • $288 million for additional conformal fuel tanks for its F-15EXs, noting that initial lots of the aircraft are being bought without these tanks, on which weapons can be mounted, and this limits the fighters’ range and weapons capacity. “The NGB (National Guard Bureau) request is in addition to the 12 sets sought” by the Department of the Air Force, the Bureau noted, and the 54 total sets of tanks—two per aircraft—“will be enough for all ANG F-15EXs, as we are planned to have 54 F-15EXs in inventory.”
  • $153 million for weapon system sustainment, increasing the amount of the requirement funded from 86 percent to 92 percent, to keep it in line with Guard Bureau strategic guidance and Headquarters Air Force goals.
  • $110.4 million to add 803 full-time positions. These would include 113 additional recruiters, 83 Civil Engineers, 303 security forces and 304 maintainers. These additional billets would enable the Air Guard to “focus on providing ready Airmen to the Joint Force in support of campaigning and integrated deterrence.”
  • $52 million for an additional 4,600 flying hours.