The US Air Force is taking a bold new step towards modernizing its fighter fleet by officially requesting Congress to fund the purchase of 72 fighter jets –its highest desired goal yet.
The request comes as the service seeks to replace aging planes like its F-15C, and general planning for future needs indicates this won’t be an isolated incident in years to come.
After years of falling short of its desired annual procurement rate for fighter aircraft, the US Air Force said that requesting Congress to provide enough funding in their subsequent budget request for at least 72 fighter aircraft yearly is necessary for the replacement and modernization of its aging planes, especially with the upgrades needed to ensure success against the Russian invasion in Ukraine.
Should this goal be met, the upgrade would be for the Air Force’s existing technologies and replacing retired models with newer ones more capable of meeting modern standards.
Not the Last Budgetary Request
“This year, for the first time since I’ve been in this business, there are 72 new fighters in the Air Force’s budget,” Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans Programs Lieutenant General Richard Moore said in an online forum hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “We’re super excited about that. I certainly think you’ll see it again.”
The Air Force makes its first lobby for advancing its fighter jets, which is needed to modernize its existing fleets and upgrade aging aircraft like F-15Cs that will likely retire soon.
Moore also noted that shortfalls in approved budgets had been expected when comparing desired goals with Congressional approval numbers over the past years.
In its Fiscal 2024 budget, the US Air Force presented an unprecedented investment in fighter jets: including F-35As and F-15EX Eagle IIs.
Moore pointed out that this was a strategic shift likely to be continued in future fiscal years with ongoing investments into the force’s fleet capabilities moving forward.
“Part of what’s important here is the composition of that 72 aircraft that includes both F-35s and F-15 EXs; so, as we reach what we believe is a sustainable fleet size and what we need in the F-15EX, we’ll have to see what capacity is available in the F-35 or whatever else it may be that we look at. I think that right now is predicated on the fact that we have two hot fighter production lines. And that won’t be the case certainly by the middle or end of the FYDP.”
Growing Demands By The Air Force
The Air Force has adjusted how it approaches budget requests to meet its growing demands.
Instead of including desired items in an unfunded priorities list each year. As had been done for FY23 and earlier budgets, Moore noted that the service is shifting towards a more reliable planning process for meeting future needs.
This new approach was exemplified by Congress granting 67 fighter planes beyond what was requested: 43 F-35As and 24 F-15EXs; seven additional aircraft were invited on top of already approved funding through their $4.6 billion wish list last year alone.
Read Next: The Air Force Plans To Retire 300+ Aircraft, Paving Way For Next Gen Fighters
“Some of the things we’ve talked about over the last several budget cycles are now a part of the base budget,” Moore explained. “They’re not a part of the unfunded priorities list, and they’re not a wish list. Seventy-two fighters is a great example.”
Despite the Air Force’s net loss expectations of losing 1,000 planes over the next five years, Moore believes that the service’s strategy, particularly with fighters, results in a net gain. “If you look at the fighter fleet, as an example, there are over 600 divestitures, but there are also procurements. Presuming that A-10s are not part of the “high-end fight” and acknowledging F-15Cs are rapidly aging.”
“We have a net gain in procurement — a small one, only 12. But of the airplanes that are left that we’re divesting in that portfolio and the ones we procure, we increased by 12 the number of aircraft that will be a part of the future fight. So I think there’s a story here that isn’t quite as necessarily as negative as it’s being portrayed.”
Multi-Billion Budget Proposal For Fiscal Year 2024
The Air Force is looking to the future with its $2.5 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year 2024. It is requesting funds to accelerate the delivery of Boeing E-7A aircraft and buy additional conformal fuel tanks for F-15EXs that will increase their range and weapons capacity.
While they would prefer to request 72 fighters each financial cycle, this number may depend on Lockheed Martin’s ability to produce quality F-35 planes.
An estimated 104 fighter jets were requested in FY24 alone, with at least 48 more set aside annually through FY28.
“As we reach what we believe is a sustainable fleet size in what we need in the F-15EX, we’ll have to see what capacity is available in the F-35 world or whatever else it may be that we look at. Right now, it’s predicated on the fact that we have two hot fighter production lines, and that will be the case by the middle or the end of the” Air Force’s spending plan over the next five years.”
Gearing Up For A Sixth-Gen Fighter Fleet
Moore has outlined the limitations of the defense-industrial base due to the impacts of COVID-19, which would make it difficult for more than 72 fighters to be inducted in a year’s time frame.
He highlighted that this budget proposal would allow them to update their fighter fleet with modern capabilities and future designs tailored to counter China should war become imminent one day.
Moore further said that this move is set to save around $2 billion over five years allotted toward the development of the 6th Generation Next Generation Air Dominance Platform (NGAD).
“We will bring on advanced capabilities at the max rate we can … (but) the defense-industrial base can only support so much procurement. It is crystal clear to us that to get into the early to mid-2030s with a force that can win, we have to get to a sixth-gen fighter, and that’s NGAD.”
In the meantime, the F-22s earmarked for retirement could become combat capable again. Yet, this process would take approximately a decade and cost around $3.5 billion in upgrades –involving communications systems, electronic warfare capabilities, and weapons. Earlier reports noted that these resources have Lockheed Martin’s staff already stretched thin to commit to their F-35 program block four modernization effort.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has expressed his commitment to prioritizing research & development investments as key focus areas. For his part, Moore says the over-budgeted research to refurbish F-22s is not a good idea.
“That is a trade to us that doesn’t make any sense at all: to upgrade aircraft a decade from now at great expense while impacting the F-35 block 4 at the same time,” Moore said. “We don’t think that’s a viable course of action.”
He contended that Lockheed Martin is “not fully staffed for engineers,” so he will need to “pull some engineering talent” off from the Joint Strike Fighter to instead focus on the F-22s.
Moore further pointed out that the Air Force “(doesn’t) want the bloodbath that’s going on in Ukraine right now. We have to get to the advanced capability that it takes to change the battlefield.”
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