US Air Force’s 2020 budget hones in on readiness, emerging tech
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is requesting $165.6 billion in fiscal 2020, an increase of about $10 billion more than FY19 that the service intends to use to fund gains in readiness as well as spearhead technology development.
The service’s accounts for operations and maintenance (O&M) as well as research, development, technology and evaluation (RDT&E) each jumped by about $5 billion compared to the FY19 budget, according to budget documents provided by the Air Force.
For research and development, that increase helps fund a sharp increase in investments to the Air Force’s next-generation fighter jet and nuclear modernization programs like the B-21 bomber and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the service’s new intercontinental ballistic missiles.
For O&M, much of the additional funding goes to sustaining legacy platforms, increasing flying hours and modernizing infrastructure.
The Air Force has yet to release its full budget documentation, which usually includes detailed funding information and a five-year projection of its spending. However, a few trends were immediately apparent:
Procurement remained stagnant at $25.9 billion, with the largest shift in that account impacting the service’s fighter inventory. Instead of going all in on F-35 procurement, the Air Force’s budget seeks funding for 48 F-35As at $4.9 billion and eight new F-15EX planes for $1.1 billion.
Importantly, that’s still far fewer fighters than Air Force leadership wants to buy per year. Both Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein have said the service should be buying 72 fighter jets in every budget cycle. The FY20 budget only calls for 56 jets, equivalent to the amount of F-35s appropriated by Congress last year.
“We didn’t really need, and couldn’t really afford, all fifth generation aircraft. And there was a really important place for fourth generation aircraft,” said one administration official during a phonecall with reporters previewing the budget.
However, a second official said the department remains “fully committed” to fifth generation capabilities, saying the F-15X decision was “based on analysis that was over a period of time. …We know that we need a mix of fourth and fifth gen fighters now as we build out our fifth gen capacity. So, this is about complimenting fifth gen. It’s not about replacing it.”
Instead of boosting F-35 procurement, the service appears to have expanded research and development funding for the program, hiking its investment in the Block 4 modernization program from $504 million in FY19 to $794 million in FY20.
The Air Force also heavily invested in the development of its future aircraft. Funding for Next Generation Air Dominance — a portfolio of systems that likely includes a new air superiority fighter — skyrocketed from $430 million to $1 billion.
In its procurement account, the Air Force slows down the procurement of KC-46 tankers to only 12 planes in FY20, making up for FY18 when Congress appropriated funds for 18 aircraft instead of the projected 15 per year. The service also would buy fewer MC-130Js this year — only including eight planes in its request, when its FY19 plans called for 13 aircraft in FY20.
On the flip side, the service appears to be increasing the number of MQ-9 Reapers it plans to buy in FY20, going from the four aircraft predicted in the FY19 budget to 12 of the drones.
Funding for the Air Force’s B-21 bomber increased from $2.2 billion in FY19 to $3 billion in FY20, and the program is likely the recipient of other funding in the classified budget. The RDT&E budget also included $348.5 million to continue the design of T-X trainer aircraft, and $757.9 million for the development of new Air Force One planes.
Meanwhile, hypersonic weapon prototyping remained stable at $576 million.
In its space portfolio, the Air Force asked for funding to buy four national security space launches and the first GPS III follow-on satellite. Overall, space procurement funding remained flat at $2.4 billion. In addition to that, the service plans to spend almost $1.4 billion in development funds toward its its Overhead Persistent Infrared system, which will increase the service’s ability to detect ballistic missiles from space.
Other accounts also remained steady. The service included 12 combat rescue helicopters from Sikorsky for $1.7 billion, as well as funds for one EC-37B Compass Call aircraft.
Missile accounts increased slightly from $1.7 billion in FY19 to $2 billion. However, the service opted to double its buy of the Small Diameter Bomb II from 510 to 1,175 bombs.
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.