BUDGET 2022: Air Force Proposal Would Shift Funding to New Aircraft
Air Force photo by A1C Sara Hoerichs
The Air Force's 2022 budget proposal includes large increases for new and developing technologies, including its future bomber, aerial refueler and Minuteman III missile replacement programs.
“The FY 22 budget provides the joint force with an unequivocal advantage in air power and space power,” Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Financial Management and Comptroller Maj. Gen. James D. Peccia III told reporters.
Overall, the Biden administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2022, released May 28, asks for $173.7 billion to fund the Department of the Air Force, which still includes the nascent Space Force in its budget. That is $5.5 billion, or 3.3 percent, more than was enacted in the 2021 budget. The Air Force total comes to $156.3 billion and the Space Force $17.4 billion. That doesn't include $39 billion in so-called "non-blue" funding for intelligence community programs that are included in the Air Force's budget request. When that funding is included, the proposed Air Force budget would total $212.8 billion.
The largest increase in weapons procurement by far is for the B-21 Raider, which is transitioning from development to manufacturing, budget documents said. The proposal boosts the secretive program’s budget from $474 million to $3.3 billion. Some $30 million is to fund two new test aircraft, Peccia said.
Peccia said the total number of new bombers being funded so far from lead contractor Northrop Grumman is classified. The request does contain funds to ready Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota to host the first aircraft.
“This budget progresses toward the bomber force of the future, with the new B-21 and modernization of the B-52,” he said.
The Air Force also announced plans to further fund its B-52 modernization program that will keep the venerated long-range bomber flying to nearly its 100th anniversary. It is asking for $200 million for new engines, communication systems and new radars to keep it viable until the 2050s.
The controversial Minuteman III replacement program, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, is fully funded at $1.1 billion, the documents said. GBSD has come under criticism from Democrats who says the program can be delayed, and from others who say the ground leg of the nuclear strategic triad could be done away with altogether.
The proposal includes also funds to procure more KC-46 Pegasus aerial refuelers despite ongoing problems with the Boeing-built aircraft’s refueling boom. The program would receive $3.2 billion to acquire 14 more aircraft, bringing the total to 71. That is one less than the 15 allocated in 2021.
The proposal also includes $623 million toward the next-generation air dominance concept. Often mentioned as a replacement for the F-22, the NGAD would not necessarily be a next-generation fighter, but is a series of technologies “to mitigate identifiable gaps,” the budget documents said.
Taking a hit is the F-35A joint strike fighter, which has faced a raft of bad publicity this year as readiness rates have fallen and progress on upgrades has slowed. The request asks for 48 of the new Lockheed Martin-build jet fighters, 12 fewer than the 60 enacted in 2021.
“Looking at the F-35, the budget continues to build a cornerstone of air superiority, with a $239 million increase for Technical Refresh 3 and Block 4 capabilities needed to counter rapidly evolving threats,” Peccia said.
The budget request also proposes retiring 42 A-10 Thunderbolt II close-air support aircraft, also known as the Warthog, leaving the service with 239.
Vice Adm. Ron Boxall, director of force structure, resources and assessment on the Joint Staff, acknowledged in a press briefing that retiring the A-10 might encounter resistance in Congress.
“We have a lot of work to do to ensure that [lawmakers] understand exactly what we’re trying to do here. The A-10 for example, we are going to divest 42 A-10s but we are also going to keep 239 A-10s as well. We’ll need those in the future to keep capacity.”
The proposal includes 12 more Boeing-built F-15EX jet fighters to add to the first 12 acquired in 2021.
“The F-15EX is a cost effective and rapid way to recapitalize the F-15C/C inventory,” the budget document said.
The research, development, test and evaluation budget request for the Air Force received a $3 billion increase from 2021, adding up to $40.1 billion. That includes $52 million to fund the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment, a hypersonic air-breathing missile prototype being developed jointly by the United States and Australia.
The Air Force is requesting $399 million to continue development of the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, its contribution to the nation’s hypersonic weapon development. The system is “on track” for an early operational capability in 2022, the document said.
As for sensor platforms, the Air Force also expressed its desire to move beyond the RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk drone and retire 20 of the aircraft.
“This platform cannot compete in a contested environment. The Air Force must transition [intelligences, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities to survivable fleets that support tomorrow’s joint warfighter,” the budget document said. The aircraft would transition to a “family of capabilities,” the document added.
Also part of the global strike portfolio is the long-range standoff weapon, which is intended to replace the air-launched cruise missile. The service is asking for $609 million for the LRSO program.
One notable absence from the procurement list for 2022 is the MH139 Grey Wolf, a new helicopter designed to do security in nuclear missile fields and other missions. Boeing was awarded a contract to build 84 of the aircraft in 2019. Peccia said there has been a deferment to fiscal year 2023 due to a problem gaining Federal Aviation Administration certification.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, said while the Air Force received an increase over 2021, it’s still “margin of error” a flat budget.
“A lot depends on what Congress decides with the F-35 and [other aircraft] retirements,” he said.
The 48 joint strike fighters were more or less what the Trump administration would have proposed, he noted. The reduction of 12 F-35s is “much less” than what Congress typically adds to proposals in a typical budget cycle, he said.
“It’s a pretty easy call that a few aircraft will get added,” Aboulafia said.
“That’s sort of the overriding theme: Congress and service leaders complain about the F-35 and KC-46 — and then of course — administer punishment in the form of more aircraft,” he said.
Aboulafia was a little surprised to see 12 more F-15EX added as this was seen as a Trump administration initiative. “Any thoughts that this might have been a uniquely Trump administration moment is all gone,” he said.
Plans to replace the F-22 with the NGAD system and retire the RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk, both with vague descriptions of systems of systems, and mixes of aircraft and sensors, is also problematic because lawmakers that host these aircraft in their districts usually want something concrete to replace them, Aboulafia said.
“That’s historically been exactly what stopped the kind of retirements they are talking about here,” he said.
Then there is a lack of clarity about what top secret capabilities the Air Force has or is developing, that can replace these assets, “particularly with penetrating ISR,” he said.