Air Force Proposes Big Increases for New Aircraft Purchases in 2016 (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson

KC46A Tanker
The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposal for the Air Force includes continued purchases of F-35 fighters, transport aircraft and a large increase in research and development funding for the long-range strike bomber.

Among the four services, the Air Force had the largest plus-up with some $16 billion more than the 2015 enacted level. Maj. Gen. James Martin, Air Force deputy assistant secretary of budget, said that is because the demand for what the service provides is growing.

"Air Force capabilities are in high demand right now. There are increased [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities. There are initiatives to increase space capabilities. Strengthening our nuclear enterprise is something we are putting a lot of investment in," he said.
Platforms such as the U-2 spy aircraft and Block 40 Global Hawks are currently funded. Congress has opposed previous attempts by the Air Force to retire them as well as the A-10 Warthog.
Martin said the Air Force still wants to phase out the A-10 by 2019. Doing so would save the service $4.2 billion and allow it to invest that money in other platforms.

"We really need to invest in those high end platforms that can not only do [close-air support] but survive in a high end fight," he said. More than 80 percent of the Air Force's close air support is currently done by other platforms, he noted. "Certainly, we all love the A-10, but we have a transition plan to phase out that aircraft in 2019, and we think it is a good plan."
Meanwhile, the Air Force is proposing to move 143 of the so-called Warthogs from the active Air Force to the Air National Guard and Reserves, with the Guard receiving 85 aircraft and the Reserve 55. The service failed to convince Congress to retire the aircraft during the previous budget cycle.

The document did say that the Air Force would have to divest the number of Block 40 Global Hawks and U-2s if the Budget Control Act of 2011 goes back into effect for fiscal year 2016. It did not specify by how many.

Martin during his Pentagon briefing continuously warned that if the Budget Control Act continues as planned, the budget would be radically different with some 10,000 personnel losing their jobs, research and development accounts slashed and modernization for programs such platforms as the Global Hawk Block 30, Minuteman III missile and the U-2 at risk. 
The budget included few cutbacks. It proposed reducing the number of F-15C/Ds by 31 aircraft through the next five years, including 10 in 2016.
The proposal seeks to fund the acquisition of 44 F-35 strike fighters, 29 MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft and 12 of the still under development KC-46A tankers.

It continues a multi-year procurement of C-130 transport aircraft and its variants. Multi-year buys allow a service to sign contracts for longer periods without having to seek yearly approval from Congress. Fiscal year 2016 will see the acquisition of 14 C-130J Hercules, five HC-130, which support personnel recovery, and eight MC-130s used by Air Force Special Operations Command.  

The proposal includes structural upgrades to the F-22 Raptor fleet, new radars for the F-15 and improved communications for the B-52 bombers.
Combat aircraft budget numbers overall increase from the enacted $3.9 billion in 2015 to $5.7 billion in 2016. The airlift line rises from $2.9 billion to $4.6 billion. The modification account for legacy aircraft drops from $2.8 billion to $2.4 billion.

The Air Force for the first time has broken out the space procurement appropriations “to increase transparency and focus on space,” the budget document said. The overall proposed budget for space operations in fiscal year 2016 is $2.58 billion. A breakdown of the 2015 enacted number is not available because this is the first year that space has its own line item. The funding will be available to spend for five years rather than three “commensurate with the complexity of the systems,” the document said.

“The Air Force continues to explore an alternative architecture for the aging satellite communications and overhead persistent infrared technologies,” the document said. Meanwhile, it continues to stand pat on its block buys of current systems.

The 2016 number includes funding for the fifth and sixth Advanced-EHF protected communications satellites, fifth and sixth Space-Based Infrared System missile warning spacecraft and one GPS III navigation satellite. The Air Force is also seeking to fund five launches on its evolved expendable launch vehicle, which lofts larger satellites. The proposal also includes funding for two separate efforts to create a domestic version of the Russian-built RD-180 heavy launch rocket engine.

There was also some good news for billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX launch business. The Air Force requires five evolved expendable launch rockets to loft satellites in 2016. Three will be set aside for competition. United Launch Alliance currently is the only U.S. company that can launch U.S. military payloads. SpaceX is by then expected to be certified to compete for these contracts.
"Competition is a good thing for our nation," said Martin. "And it does drive down costs when competitors know there is someone else competing for the same workload."

In the wake of a strident report released in November criticizing the state of the Air Force’s nuclear forces personnel and equipment, the budget includes upgrades for the intercontinental ballistic missile and the helicopters that provide security among the missile silos, and adds more than 1,000 additional civilian and military billets to the service’s nuclear enterprise.

“Strengthening the nuclear enterprise remains the number one mission priority within the Air Force,” the document said.  

The Air Force will purchase Army UH-60A Black Hawks and convert them to fit the nuclear security mission. ICBM upgrades will include a fuze replacement program.

The overall research, development, test and evaluation account is increased in the proposal from $7.5 billion to $8.5 billion. That includes a boost in the long-range strike bomber development program from $914 million enacted in 2015 to $1.2 billion proposed for 2016.

Updated: Story clarifies that the U-2 and Global Hawk Block 40 remains funded. Adds quotes by Martin.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft, Transport Aircraft, Defense Department, DOD Budget

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