Here Are The Pentagon’s “Tough Choice” Cuts To Airpower As Part Of Its 2021 Budget

The Pentagon wants to reduce the aircraft fleets it already has to enhance the readiness of the remaining planes and to invest in what comes next.

byJoseph Trevithick|
U.S. Homeland photo


The Pentagon has released its latest budget request, covering the 2021 Fiscal year, which includes approximately $705 billion in planned spending. This is $13 billion less than the U.S. military asked for last year, but still relatively close in terms of overall expected funding. Still, given this drop in funding, senior U.S. military officials have said that they had to make tough choices to meet various core goals within these constraints. 

This plateau in budget toplines is also expected to continue in the immediate future, impacting planning over the next five years. This has produced a number of notable cuts, as well as increases, both big and small, in spending amid realignments in priorities. This is particularly apparent in the planning for various military aviation programs, which are traditionally big-ticket items in the annual defense budget.

Here is a brief look at the key details about U.S. military aviation programs that are laid out in the Pentagon's proposed Fiscal Year 2021 Budget:

  • The U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are requesting funds to buy 115 new fighter jets.
  • In total, all three services are asking for 79 F-35s, which includes examples of all three variants.
  • This is 19 fewer F-35s than the Pentagon received funds to buy in the 2020 Fiscal Year.
  • The Air Force is seeking 12 additional F-15EX fighter jets, which it would add to the eight it received funding for in the 2020 Fiscal Year.
  • The Navy wants funds to buy 24 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets, which would be in the Block III configuration.
  • The Navy plans to halt purchases of Super Hornets after the 2021 Fiscal Year, shifting focus to a future combat aircraft under its Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, program.
  • The Air Force's unrelated Next Generation Air Dominance program, also abbreviated NGAD, will see its budget increase in the 2021 Fiscal Year from approximately $900 million to $1 billion.
  • This is $46 million less than what the service had said last year that it planned to request for NGAD in the 2021 Fiscal Year budget.
  • The Air Force wants to retire the 17 oldest B-1B Bone bombers in the 2021 Fiscal Year, something that had been previously reported.
  • This would leave the service with 43 combat coded B-1Bs, along with two others set aside for test and evaluation duties.
  • The Air Force intends to retire the 44 oldest A-10 Warthogs in the 2021 Fiscal Year.
  • This would reduce the total number of Warthogs in need of upgraded wings from 109 to 65.
  • The Air Force's overall A-10 force would drop from nine to seven squadrons, reducing the size of the overall fleet from 283 aircraft to 239.
  • The service had put forward a plan previously to reduce the total number of A-10 squadrons to six, which Congress rejected.
  • The Air Force is looking to retire 16 KC-10As and 13 KC-135R tankers in the 2021 Fiscal Year.
  • The service will buy 15 more troubled KC-46A Pegasus tankers and maintain a Congressionally-mandated fleet of 479 tankers in total.
  • The service has not changed its opinion that the KC-46A is not yet capable of conducting combat operations and won't be able to do so for years.
  • The Air Force is planning to cut all 21 of its older Block 20 and Block 30 RQ-4B and its three EQ-4B Global Hawks.
  • The service says it wants to focus on new, more survivable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms instead of the RQ-4Bs.
  • The U-2S Dragon Lady spy plane fleet, as well as the newer Block 40 RQ-4Bs, will remain in service.
  • The EQ-4B carries the highly specialized Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload.
  • The Air Force wants to buy five E-11A manned BACN-carrying aircraft to make up for the divestment of the EQ-4Bs. The service just loss of one of its four existing E-11As in an accident in Afghanistan in January 2020.
  • The Air Force also says it will scale back the number of MQ-9 Reaper "orbits," each of which consists of multiple drones, from 70 to 60.
  • The Navy does not plan to buy any additional MQ-4C Triton drones in the 2021 or 2022 Fiscal Years, but wants to purchase 13 of them between Fiscal Years 2023 and 2025.
  • Some of those drones will be configured to take on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles that manned EP-3E Aeries II aircraft currently perform.
  • MQ-4Cs will also replace the remaining Navy RQ-4A Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) drones by Fiscal Year 2023. Iran shot down one of the BAMS-D drones in June 2019.
  • The Navy wants to begin buying MQ-25 Stingray tanker drones starting in the 2023 Fiscal Year and buy 12 of them in total through the 2025 Fiscal Year.
  • U.S. Special Operations Command is seeking approximately $100 million in funding to buy its first five "armed overwatch aircraft."
  • These will be a single-engine turboprop design, such as the Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corporation A-29 Super Tucano or Textron AT-6 Wolverine
  • Separate contracting documents show that SOCOM has a possible requirement to purchase up to 75 such aircraft.
  • This follows the Air Force officially announcing that its own plans to acquire a similar light attack aircraft are dead.
  • The Air Force is looking to continue with plans to purchase two A-29s and two AT-6s for various test, evaluation, and training activities.

It's important to note that all of this is dependent on approval from Congress. Legislators have often inserted additional funding for specific aircraft, or reject requests for other procurement efforts, based on various factors, during the negotiations that will now occur up on Capitol Hill. 

It's also worth pointing out that there is no specific mention of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) in the budget documents we have seen so far. This is an area where the U.S. military, particularly the Air Force and the Navy, had expended considerable resources on and produced significant results in the past, but which has all but disappeared from public discussion about future U.S. airpower capabilities in recent years. Even less autonomous 'loyal wingman' drones were not mentioned in the briefings. 

The Air Force has also said that documents showing it expected to purchase a single production B-21 Raider stealth bomber in the 2021 Fiscal Year were "in error."

The War Zone will be examining the actual line-item budget documents, which have not been released yet, in detail with regards to airpower developments, as well as other efforts. As such, there are likely to be more surprises in the coming days. 

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