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Air Force Wants To Retire 33 F-22s, Buy More F-15EXs In New Budget

The Pentagon has released its latest budget request, for the 2023 Fiscal Year, which is seeking $773 billion in total funding. This is nearly $31 billion more than the Department of Defense, as a whole, has received for the current fiscal cycle. The Fiscal Year 2022 defense budget, as it stands now, includes supplemental funding to cover military assistance and other activities related to the war in Ukraine, assistance for Afghans who fled in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power last year, the response to leaks from the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility in Hawaii, and various disaster relief operations.

The proposed 2023 Fiscal Year defense budget includes a number of significant developments with regard to U.S. military airpower, with at least 150 aircraft now potentially on the chopping block. There continues to be a major push across the services, but particularly within the U.S. Air Force and Navy, to divest older aircraft, and even cut back on new purchases of more traditional designs, in favor of spending on more advanced aviation projects and other modernization efforts.

The following is a brief breakdown of the most significant details regarding plans for major U.S. military aviation programs as outlined in the 2023 Fiscal Year budget request:

  • The U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are looking to buy 61 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, in total.
    • This includes 33 F-35As for the Air Force, 15 F-35Bs and 4 F-35Cs for the Marine Corps, and 9 F-35Cs for the Navy.
    • This is 24 fewer F-35s than the three services asked for and ultimately received funding to purchase in the 2022 Fiscal Year budget request.
    • The Air Force says it is looking to slow down buying of F-35As until jets in the more advanced Block 4 configuration, which is still in development, become available for purchase.
  • The Air Force wants to purchase 24 F-15EX Eagle II fighter jets.
    • This is twice as many of these aircraft as the service asked to buy in the 2022 Fiscal Year. Congress ultimately appropriated funds to purchase 17 Eagle IIs in the current fiscal cycle.
    • The service hopes to continue accelerating purchases of F-15EXs in the coming fiscal years as it looks to completely divest all of its remaining F-15C/D Eagles by 2026. The Air Force wants to get rid of 67 Eagles of the around 220 of these jets that are still in service just in the 2023 Fiscal Year.
    • Not all F-15C/Ds will necessarily be replaced with F-15EX aircraft, but the Air Force has now confirmed that it is looking to supplant the Eagles assigned to units in the Pacific region (two squadrons at Kadena Airbase in Okinawa) with Eagle IIs.
  • The Air Force is looking to retire a single EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft as it continues to push ahead on its plans to replace that entire fleet with Gulfstream G550 business jet-based EC-37Bs.
  • The Air Force is looking to cut back purchases of new HH-60W Jolly Green II combat search and rescue helicopters from 113 to just 75.
    • The service does plan to buy 10 of these helicopters and retire 12 existing HH-60G Pave Hawks in the 2023 Fiscal Year. 
  • The Air Force expects to restart buying MH-139 Grey Wolf helicopters that it will use to help guard its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fields, among other duties.

It is always important to note that the Pentagon’s proposed budget for any fiscal year is subject to approval from Congress, which often blocks cuts and even adds unrequested funding for the development and procurement of various weapon systems and other capabilities. There are a number of such instances of Congressional action in the past year or so noted above with regards to various aviation programs.

The Air Force has already acknowledged that it will have to “work with” legislators to move ahead with its latest attempt to retire a portion of the A-10 fleet. Lawmakers have repeatedly rejected these proposals over the years. The service is now framing the issue around the potential limited utility of the aging Warthogs in a higher-end conflict across the broad expanses of the Pacific, especially against a near-peer adversary like China. 

The slowing of F-35 purchases seems likely to prompt criticism from legislators, especially when combined with the planned cuts to the F-22 fleet and the fact the NGAD effort is still early in its development cycle, even with growing concerns about the costs to sustain the Joint Strike Fighter fleets across the services. The Navy has faced skepticism and criticism from Congress of its proposed halting of new orders for F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in favor of its NGAD program, too. A the same time, the increase in proposed Air Force purchases of F-15EXs would seem to reflect growing Congressional support there.

Legislators may balk at the retirement of more KC-10 and KC-135 tankers given the ongoing problems with the KC-46 and the Air Force already complaining about a shortage of aerial refueling capacity. There has been pushback in recent years to the service’s desire to end purchases of MQ-9s, as well. 

Some of the proposed retirements just raise general questions about how certain services will be able to continue providing essential capabilities in the near term. The Air Force’s plan to retire around half of its E-3s, even if these divestments turn out to be spaced out over a number of years, is especially curious given that the service has, by its own admission, not even finalized its plans for acquiring replacement aircraft.

As we always do, The War Zone will look more closely into the more detailed budget documents as the Pentagon and the individual services release them for more information about future airpower plans, as well as significant developments with regards to other domains. There will undoubtedly be more to glean about specific cuts and additions to various programs, as well as entirely new projects, from the full 2023 Fiscal Year defense budget proposal.

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