Air Force Wants To Retire 33 F-22s, Buy More F-15EXs In New Budget

The Pentagon has released its latest budget request, for the 2023 Fiscal Year, which is seeking $773 billion in total funding. This is nearly $31 billion more than the Department of Defense, as a whole, has received for the current fiscal cycle. The Fiscal Year 2022 defense budget, as it stands now, includes supplemental funding to cover military assistance and other activities related to the war in Ukraine, assistance for Afghans who fled in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power last year, the response to leaks from the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility in Hawaii, and various disaster relief operations.

The proposed 2023 Fiscal Year defense budget includes a number of significant developments with regard to U.S. military airpower, with at least 150 aircraft now potentially on the chopping block. There continues to be a major push across the services, but particularly within the U.S. Air Force and Navy, to divest older aircraft, and even cut back on new purchases of more traditional designs, in favor of spending on more advanced aviation projects and other modernization efforts.

The following is a brief breakdown of the most significant details regarding plans for major U.S. military aviation programs as outlined in the 2023 Fiscal Year budget request:

  • The U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are looking to buy 61 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, in total.
    • This includes 33 F-35As for the Air Force, 15 F-35Bs and 4 F-35Cs for the Marine Corps, and 9 F-35Cs for the Navy.
    • This is 24 fewer F-35s than the three services asked for and ultimately received funding to purchase in the 2022 Fiscal Year budget request.
    • The Air Force says it is looking to slow down buying of F-35As until jets in the more advanced Block 4 configuration, which is still in development, become available for purchase.
  • The Air Force wants to purchase 24 F-15EX Eagle II fighter jets.
    • This is twice as many of these aircraft as the service asked to buy in the 2022 Fiscal Year. The annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act, had called for increasing the F-15EX to 17 Eagle IIs, but funds for those additional jets were not ultimately appropriated.
    • The service hopes to continue accelerating purchases of F-15EXs in the coming fiscal years as it looks to completely divest all of its remaining F-15C/D Eagles by 2026. The Air Force wants to get rid of 67 Eagles of the around 220 of these jets that are still in service just in the 2023 Fiscal Year.
    • Not all F-15C/Ds will necessarily be replaced with F-15EX aircraft, but the Air Force has now confirmed that it is looking to supplant the Eagles assigned to units in the Pacific region (two squadrons at Kadena Airbase in Okinawa) with Eagle IIs.
An F-15EX now flying with the USAF under an accelerated test program., USAF
  • The Air Force is seeking to retire 33 F-22A Raptor stealth fighters.
    • This would reduce the total F-22A fleet size from around 186 to some 153.
    • This is part of a larger plan that would include scrapping a previous proposal to relocate Raptors forced out of Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida by Hurricane Michael in 2018 to Joint Base Langley-Eustis (JBLE) in Virginia. Instead, the remaining aircraft would be redistributed across other units still flying these jets at other locations, including the existing 1st Fighter Wing based at Langley JBLE.
    • The jets on the chopping block are all older Block 20 jets and are largely relegated to training and other non-combat duties already.
    • The service says that it would take $1.8 billion over the next eight years to bring those jets up to the latest standard, funds that it wants to instead spend on modernizing F-35As and upgrading other F-22As ($1.5 billion) and on the development of advanced combat aircraft under the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program ($300 million).
    • The Air Force has already said that it wants to divest the entire Raptor fleet in the coming years.
  • The Air Force wants to send 26 older F-16C/D Viper fighter jets to the boneyard, though it is embarking on a major upgrade program for many of these aircraft.
  • The Air Force is seeking $1.7 billion in funding related to its NGAD program.
    • This is around $200 million more than what the Air Force asked for to support work on this multi-faceted development effort in the 2022 Fiscal Year. 
    • The Air Force says that approximately $113 million in its proposed NGAD spending in the 2023 Fiscal Year will go to the development of “unmanned/autonomous platforms.”
Hawaii F-22s over Mt. Fuji. Cuts to the already tiny Raptor force will be highly controversial. , USAF
  • The Navy is again looking to stop buying new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in this new budget request as it pushes to shift focus to its own Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which is separate from the Air Force’s effort of the same name.
    • The service did not request funds for any additional Super Hornets in the 2022 Fiscal Year, but Congress subsequently approved funding for 12 of these aircraft as part of a supplemental omnibus spending package.
    • How much funding the Navy is then requesting for its NGAD effort is classified, but it “goes up fairly dramatically” over the next five years, according to the service.
  • The Air Force is seeking $381 million to support the continued development of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber, including to help certify it to carry nuclear weapons, as well as another $1.7 billion to actually begin purchasing the aircraft.
    • The service has declined to disclose how many bombers it plans to buy in the 2023 Fiscal Year, over the next five years, and in total.
  • The Air Force wants to shed 21 A-10 Warthogs.
    • This would trim the Air Force’s A-10 fleet to 260 aircraft, down from 281.
    • Under this plan, the Indiana Air National Guard’s 122nd Fighter Wing would transition to flying F-16C/D Viper fighter jets.
    • Furthermore, the service could be looking to divest the entire fleet in the next five to 10 years. 
    • Congress blocked the service’s plan to retire 42 of these ground-attack aircraft in the 2022 Fiscal Year.
A-10 Warthogs., USAF
  • The Navy is asking for funds to buy its first four production examples of the MQ-25A Stingray tanker drone.
    • The service expects to buy four more every year for the next four years.
  • The Navy is requesting funds for three MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance drones.
    • The service has not asked to buy any of these unmanned aircraft in the 2022 Fiscal Year budget proposal, but Congress added funds to purchase two of them in subsequent appropriations legislation.
  • The Air Force is still looking to halt purchases of MQ-9 Reaper drones and is seeking to transfer 100 of its some 300 existing examples to “another government organization” that it would not disclose.
  • The Marine Corps wants to buy five MQ-9s to expand its growing fleet of these drones.
    • These five unmanned aircraft would add to the eight examples Congress approved funding for in the 2022 Fiscal Year. That was two more examples than the Marines had originally asked for in that fiscal cycle.
    • This comes as the Marines continue to move forward with plans to divest their entire fleet of MQ-21 Blackjack drones.
  • The Air Force wants to get rid of 15 of its 31 E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
    • The service expects to make a final decision on how it wants to proceed to replace these aircraft, with the acquisition of at least some number of E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft being a very likely possibility.
    • A future space-based air moving target indicator capability has also been under discussion.
E-3 Sentry AWACS., USAF
  • The Air Force is looking to divest eight of its E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTAR) radar and battlefield management aircraft.
    • The service expects to retire four in the current fiscal cycle and four more in the 2024 Fiscal Year, after which it will have divested the entire fleet.
    • In the near term at least, Block 40 RQ-4 Global Hawks will supplant these aircraft when it comes to providing standoff aerial surveillance utilizing radars with a ground-moving target indicator (GMTI) functionality, but will not be able to provide the broader battle management capability.
    • Space-based platforms could provide additional GMTI capacity in the future, as well. There is also the shadowy issue of moving this capability to classified platforms that can penetrate into enemy airspace that was, of course, not discussed.
  • The Air Force is looking to retire 10 KC-10 and 13 KC-135 aerial fueling tankers
    • This decision comes despite the service admitting that its long-troubled KC-46 Pegasus tankers are still not yet full function due to a host of persistent technical issues that you can read about more here.
    • Despite those ongoing problems, the Air Force still wants to buy 15 more KC-46As in the 2023 Fiscal Year.
    • The Air Force has also indicated that it is eyeing buying more Pegasus tankers as part of an initiative to “bridge the gap” between the end of the current expected orders of those aircraft and a future advanced tanker concept. Lockheed Martin has teamed with Airbus to make a competing offer involving a variant of the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport called the LMXT.
  • The Air Force wants to retire all of its EC-130J Commando Solo psychological warfare aircraft, which are presently assigned to a Pennsylvania Air National Guard unit affiliated with Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).
    • That unit would retain a number of more flexible EC-130J Super J aircraft that can perform the psychological warfare role, but that have also demonstrated an ability to perform other missions
EC-130J Commando Solo., USAF

It is always important to note that the Pentagon’s proposed budget for any fiscal year is subject to approval from Congress, which often blocks cuts and even adds unrequested funding for the development and procurement of various weapon systems and other capabilities. There are a number of such instances of Congressional action in the past year or so noted above with regards to various aviation programs.

The Air Force has already acknowledged that it will have to “work with” legislators to move ahead with its latest attempt to retire a portion of the A-10 fleet. Lawmakers have repeatedly rejected these proposals over the years. The service is now framing the issue around the potential limited utility of the aging Warthogs in a higher-end conflict across the broad expanses of the Pacific, especially against a near-peer adversary like China. 

The slowing of F-35 purchases seems likely to prompt criticism from legislators, especially when combined with the planned cuts to the F-22 fleet and the fact the NGAD effort is still early in its development cycle, even with growing concerns about the costs to sustain the Joint Strike Fighter fleets across the services. The Navy has faced skepticism and criticism from Congress of its proposed halting of new orders for F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in favor of its NGAD program, too. A the same time, the increase in proposed Air Force purchases of F-15EXs would seem to reflect growing Congressional support there.

A US Navy F-35C, at top, flies with an F/A-18F Super Hornet, at bottom., USN

Legislators may balk at the retirement of more KC-10 and KC-135 tankers given the ongoing problems with the KC-46 and the Air Force already complaining about a shortage of aerial refueling capacity. There has been pushback in recent years to the service’s desire to end purchases of MQ-9s, as well. 

Some of the proposed retirements just raise general questions about how certain services will be able to continue providing essential capabilities in the near term. The Air Force’s plan to retire around half of its E-3s, even if these divestments turn out to be spaced out over a number of years, is especially curious given that the service has, by its own admission, not even finalized its plans for acquiring replacement aircraft.

As we always do, The War Zone will look more closely into the more detailed budget documents as the Pentagon and the individual services release them for more information about future airpower plans, as well as significant developments with regards to other domains. There will undoubtedly be more to glean about specific cuts and additions to various programs, as well as entirely new projects, from the full 2023 Fiscal Year defense budget proposal.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.