U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron fly in a formation in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility July 25, 2023.

U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron fly in a formation in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility July 25, 2023. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Christopher Sommers

USAF: Let’s cut older aircraft to fund newer weapons

Space Force would get real cut under 2025 budget proposal.

The U.S. Air Force is proposing to buy fewer manned fighters than expected in this year’s budget—and to retire 250 aircraft to boost research and development.

The service is proposing to spend $188.1 billion in fiscal 2025, $3 billion more than last year’s budget request. This year’s budget rollout comes at a tough time for the Pentagon: it still doesn’t have an enacted budget five months into fiscal 2024, and it had to build its budget under Congress’s defense-spending cap, called the Fiscal Responsibility Act. 

That has forced the Air Force to make a “tradeoff” between procurement and research and development, service secretary Frank Kendall told reporters March 8 ahead of the budget rollout. 

“My priority is to get to the next generation of capabilities as quickly as we can because of what China's doing in terms of their modernization,” Kendall said. 

Including the Space Force, the Department of the Air Force is asking for $217.5 billion, which is a 1.1 percent increase of $2.4 billion over the 2024 ask. This is an increase but it’s “not quite keeping up with inflation,” according to Kristyn Jones, who is performing the duties of the undersecretary of the Air Force. 

The 2025 proposal hews to earlier plans to spend more on several nascent programs this year: Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile, the B-21 stealth bomber, the service’s next fighter jet, called NGAD, and a program to build robot wingmen to fly alongside manned fighters, called collaborative combat aircraft. 

The service aims to bump R&D spending to $37.7 billion, up $1.5 billion from last year’s request. This includes $3.7 billion for Sentinel, $2.7 billion for B-21, and $2.7 billion for NGAD “development and test of air vehicle and mission systems.” The service is expected to award a contract for NGAD by September and choose a final list of bidders for the CCA program within the next few months. The service is asking for $559 million in R&D funds for CCAs.

But to fund this new technology under Congress’s budget cap, the Air Force had to shrink some of its plans to buy aircraft. 

Service leaders are to buy 90 aircraft in 2025, 42 of which are F-35A fighter jets—a cut from the 48 jets they originally planned to buy this year. However, the drop in F-35 purchase is just a deferral and there’s no change in the service’s plan to buy 1,763 F-35s. 

“We'll have to figure out when we add those back in,” said Maj. Gen. Mike Greiner, the service’s deputy assistant secretary for budget. 

But there’s a real cut planned for the F-15EX fleet: 18 instead of 24 this year, leading to a fleet of 98 instead of 104 when production ends in 2025, Greiner said.

The 2025 proposal would also buy 15 KC-46A tankers, seven T-7 trainers, and eight MH-139 helicopters. 

“We're protecting the current force’s capabilities at what we think is an acceptable level of risk and we're modernizing to the extent we can under the caps of the Fiscal Responsibility Act,” Kendall said.

Service leaders also want to free up funds for R&D by retiring 250 aircraft in fiscal 2025, including 56 A-10 Warthogs, 65 F-15C and -D fighter jets, 26 F-15Es, 22 T-1 trainers, 16 KC-135 tankers, and 12 HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters. Getting rid of these aircraft will free up more than $2 billion, Greiner said. 

Congress, however, is usually skeptical of greenlighting aircraft retirements without an immediate replacement. The service is asking lawmakers for a third time this year to retire 32 Block 20 F-22 Raptors, which officials say would cost too much to upgrade them for combat.

“We're generally continuing the planned retirements we had. We are, again, going to ask for the less capable older F-22s to be retired. We've tried a couple of times now with the Congress on that, and they haven't been willing to cooperate, but we're more constrained this year than we were in previous years,” Kendall said. 

Overall, Kendall called this an “acceptable budget” but warned that “life gets harder” after the 2025 budget. The service will likely need to change its purchasing plans to account for huge programs like Sentinel, which is massively running over cost projections. The next ICBM is expected to cost 37 percent more than initially promised, totaling almost $132 billion. 

“I'd like to be able to move faster, but we do have constraints. I don't want to get into it today, but we've got some tough choices ahead when we get into [20]26, which we're really building now,” Kendall said.

Space Force takes a hit

The Space Force’s budget, which has substantially grown each year since its inception in late 2019, is decreasing this year. The service is requesting $29.4 billion in 2025, $600 million below last year’s request. 

Unlike the Air Force, the Space Force didn’t have much flexibility because more than 60 percent of its budget is research and development, Kendall said. 

“The net effect of the constraints that we have [is] that we're not moving forward as fast as I'd like to in space, but we're still moving forward,” the secretary said. 

The service also isn’t buying as many launches this year, because “payloads have not been ready, so we will have a smaller number of launches than we had planned last year,” Kendall said. 

Last year, they planned for 15 space launches, which has been decreased to 11 in the 2025 budget proposal. But the decrease wasn’t because of FRA caps, according to Greiner. 

The service looked through its “long-range, strategic satellite launch manifest [and] these are the capabilities and the launches that we need in order to get the satellites on orbit that we need as well and those that are ready to go. So some savings there, but this will meet mission requirements,” he said.