As defense officials unveil their 2020 budget requests, journalists and analysts alike are finally getting a peek behind the curtain at the real priorities driving the American war-fighting apparatus. The Department of Defense (DOD), by and large, needs to err on the side of discretion when discussing ongoing defense initiatives. A poorly chosen word can send stock prices spiraling, creating issues with defense contractors that are beholden to public perceptions as publicly traded companies. And then, of course, there’s pressure from the political side of the house when it comes to big-ticket items like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which sees some element of its production spread out over 46 different states.
Because public statements regarding defense programs are as much a public relations effort as they are about relaying information, the rosy image painted by the DOD isn’t always reflected by reality. Throughout months of speculation about the F-15X, Lockheed Martin and the DOD assured the public that F-35 orders would not be affected. But as their budget proposal clearly shows, fewer F-35s are expected to be on order in 2020 than had been projected. Defense officials have insinuated that the reduction in orders is tied to issues with the F-35 program and has nothing to do with the F-15, which may be true, but this makes the past few months’ worth of talking points seem a bit disingenuous.
When it comes to defense initiatives, the one way to see where priorities truly lie is by following the money. The Air Force, in particular, has a number of initiatives ongoing with huge national security implications. So here’s a brief rundown of where the Air Force plans to put large chunks of its money—regardless of the platitudes they offer in the press.
Northrop Grumman’s secretive new stealth bomber program is slated to receive $20 billion over the coming five years, starting with $3 billion in 2020. In 2023, it will jump to $5 billion a year because—and this is important—the branch expects to begin major procurement that year. That means the B-21, which is reportedly still a paper plane (does not yet actually exist), will need to see a rapid shift toward production and testing soon.
The fighter that prompted a million internet battles, the Boeing F-15EX, will begin a production run in 2020 with eight new airframes on order alongside initial startup costs totaling around $1.05 billion. In the coming five years, the Air Force plans to spend nearly $8 billion on new F-15s, purchasing 18 more fighters each year through 2024.
The decision to do so has many F-35 fans enraged, though General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently explained the Pentagon’s line of thinking by saying these new F-15s are “slightly less expensive for procurement than the F-35, but it’s more than 50 percent cheaper to operate over time and it has twice as many hours in terms of how long it lasts.”
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
The other half of the F-15X debate, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is widely touted as the most advanced fighter platform on the planet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t without issues. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan attributed ongoing concerns about the high cost of maintaining these aircraft to the decision to drop F-35 orders to 48 over the next five years, down from the projected 54.
With that order still worth a reported $37.5 billion, Lockheed Martin won’t be forced to beg for change, but this decision may be a polite indicator of how seriously the DOD is taking concerns about the platform’s maintenance requirements.
Although details are sparse, the Air Force has slated as much as $18 billion in the branch’s five-year plan for maintenance and upgrades. The F-22 has suffered from extremely low readiness rates, in part due to how difficult the platform is to maintain, but arguably also because of poor management on the part of Air Force officials.
If the program hopes to exceed its average of an approximately 50 percent readiness rate, this funding could help.