More Nuclear, Less Ground Attack in Biden’s Air Force Budget Request
The 2023 spending proposal calls for retiring 150 planes, shifting funds, and reconfiguring for possible war with China or Russia.
U.S. Air Force leaders want to shed hundreds of “unnecessary” aircraft and drones and spend more on nuclear and high-tech weapons they say are better suited for a war with China or Russia.
They lay out their proposal in the service’s $169 billion 2023 spending request, which is $13.2 billion higher than last year’s request.
The weapons they prioritize—nuclear and long-range strike—reflect an unsteady year in which China launched a hypersonic missile around the globe and Russia put its own nuclear forces on heightened alert while invading Ukraine.
The Air Force’s budget request is “more about transformation now than it is about evolutionary change. What drives that is the threat. We need to move aggressively,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters before the budget rollout.
To do so, the service is asking for approval to retire 150 aircraft, including eight E-8 JSTARS radar planes, 21 A-10 attack planes, 33 F-22 training jets, 15 E-3 Sentry AWACS-carrying radar planes, 13 KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, 10 C-130H cargo aircraft and 50 T-1 trainers. The Air Force will also reduce its total uniformed personnel number by 4,900 airmen as a result of the cuts, Kendall said.
It’s not the first time the Air Force has tried to shed systems to better position itself against China’s rapidly modernizing military. But lawmakers have repeatedly forced the service to retain more and different kinds of aircraft that it wanted.
For example, Congress has frequently balked at the Air Force’s requests to retire the A-10, a plane that supports ground troops. But this year’s request is the first to occur amid the reality that many of the Air Force’s existing aircraft cannot operate in more-contested airspaces, including against Russia’s surface-to-air defenses blanketing Ukraine.
“The A-10 is not highly survivable against [Russian] defenses,” Kendall said. While the A-10 from the point of view of delivering munitions would be terrific killing ... Russian tanks, etcetera, its survivability would be in question. It's one of the reasons that we need to move beyond the A-10.”
“We're worried about high-end threats now, we're not worried about the same threats we worried about, at least to the same degree, when we were doing counterinsurgencies or counterterrorism,” Kendall said.
In the case of the fifth-generation F-22, the service made the decision to retire the trainer variants of the jet because it would have cost more than $1.8 billion and eight years for the upgrades necessary to make them combat ready, said Maj. Gen. James Peccia, deputy assistant secretary for budget.
In another sign of the transition away from counterinsurgency, Kendall said the Air Force plans to transfer 100 of its MQ-9 Reaper drones to “another government organization.” The Department of Homeland Security and NASA also fly unarmed reapers. The CIA is also believed to fly the drone.
“While this budget tries to balance older capabilities while pushing modernization to meet future threats, that balance is “shifting more towards the future,” Kendall said, “and we’ll probably do more of that.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shifted the Pentagon’s thinking about its future footprint in Europe. Just two years after former President Donald Trump announced massive cuts to U.S. troop presence in Germany, Russia’s invasion has prompted the largest U.S. troop plus-up since the Cold War—and some of those moves could become permanent.
In its request, the Air Force seeks $245 million in minor construction projects for five European Deterrence Initiative sites in Italy, Iceland, Norway, Hungary and Spain.
“We're probably not through the process of reconsidering our posture in Europe based on recent events,” Kendall said. “You're seeing some things that we're doing to strengthen NATO pretty much in real time. We'll be considering our permanent posture there I think over the next several months.”
In research-and-development, the service is requesting an additional $2.5 billion for the air and land legs of the nuclear triad; a little more than $1 billion of that increase is for ground based strategic deterrent Minuteman III replacement missiles. It also seeks $929 million for the long range standoff weapon, up from $609 billion last year, and $577 million for hypersonic prototyping of the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon and hypersonic attack cruise missile.
The Air Force is also asking for an additional $1.7 billion for initial production of an unknown number of the next generation B-21 stealth bomber.
The Air Force wants to buy 33 F-35 stealth fighters, which is fewer than previously planned. The Navy and Marine Corps together plan to buy 28 F-35, for a total of 61 in the budget request. By comparison, Congress recently approved 85 F-35s the Pentagon requested in 2022.
The Air Force also wants to buy 24 F-15EX fighters in 2023, an increase over prior plans. Air Force officials said the decision is because F-15C, the jets they are replacing, are reaching the end of their service lives.
“It's to get that capability out to the field and in the Pacific as fast as we can get it there,” Peccia said.
Kendall also said the Air Force used the money it's not spending on F-35 to pay for upgrades needed to the existing fleet.
“We want to see that real progress is being made on the development side,” Kendall said.
Despite the reduction in planned F-35- buys, Kendall said the Air Force remains committed to the jet and has not changed its goal of buying 1,763.
“Of course, we're committed to the F-35,” Kendall said. “We're 15 years into production and we'll be building F-35s probably another 15 years.”
The Air Force also plans to finish buying HH-60 combat search-and-rescue helicopters in 2023. It had planned to buy 113 of the helicopters, but now says it needs only 75.
“The scenarios that we're most worried about are not the same as they once were,” Kendall said. “When we were doing counterinsurgencies, and we were worried about losing pilots in those kinds of situations, the need was different. The acts of aggression, like we're seeing in Europe, or we might see in the Pacific ... put us in a very different scenario for combat rescue.”