The U.S. Air Force fiscal 2022 budget request proposes the retirement of 201 aircraft to help pay for $28.8 billion in requested research and development (R&D) funding–a $2.2 billion increase over the fiscal 2021 enacted level.

While the Air Force procurement budget has been billions of dollars more than the service R&D budgets in the past, fiscal 2022 marks the third consecutive year that the Air Force has asked for more in base R&D dollars than base procurement dollars. In fiscal 2022, the U.S. Air Force acquisition request, not including the U.S. Space Force, is $22.9 billion–$5.9 billion less than the R&D request.

The proposed Air Force fiscal 2022 aircraft divestments, including the retirements of 48 Boeing [BA] F-15C/Ds, 42 A-10s, 18 KC-135s, 14 KC-10s, 47 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-16C/Ds and eight C-130Hs, 20 Northrop Grumman [NOC] Block 30 RQ-4 Global Hawk drones and four Joint STARS aircraft, would save nearly $1.4 billion, the Air Force said.

The service wants to position itself to face Russia and China while sustaining its capacity for engagements with less technologically advanced potential adversaries.

The Air Force requests more than $1.5 billion for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program–a $623 million increase from the fiscal 2021 enacted amount–and more than $2.5 billion for the Northrop Grumman Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)–$1.1 billion more than funded in fiscal 2021–to replace the Boeing Minuteman III ICBMs. The service also proposes $3.3 billion for the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber in fiscal 2022, an increase of $474 million–including $30 million more in R&D to prepare for B-21 initial production, and $3.2 billion in procurement for 14 Boeing KC-46 tankers to bring the total number of planes to 71.

In addition, the Air Force, as in past years, proposes a buy of 48 Lockheed Martin F-35As for nearly $1 billion, and the service said its inventory of F-35As in fiscal 2022 would go up to 376. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown has called the aircraft “the cornerstone” of the service’s future fighter fleet, which will include NGAD, the F-35A, the Boeing F-15EX, the A-10, and a replacement for the F-16. A decision on an F-16 replacement is likely six to eight years away, Brown said recently.

The Air Force wants to neck down from its seven fighter types to five over the next decade.

“The F-15C/D fleet has major structural issues and will run out of safe airframe flying hours in 2023-27,” according to the Air Force budget. “To attain the desired fighter fleet, the Air Force must right size current aircraft inventories to expedite the transition away from less capable, aging aircraft and emphasize investment in future capabilities, such as NGAD and F-35 modernization.”

The Air Force and the Pentagon Office of Cost Assessment and Program Assessment (CAPE) are conducting a tactical aircraft study on the service’s future fighter needs–an undertaking that may recommend a significant reduction in the service’s planned buy of 1,763 F-35As and a boost in the number of NGAD aircraft (Defense Daily, Feb. 17).

Hypersonic, long-range strike is also a priority for the Air Force. The service requests $399 million for the Lockheed Martin Air Launch Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) in fiscal 2022, including $161 million to buy the first 12 missiles. ARRW is to be the nation’s first hypersonic weapon and is to achieve “an early operational capability” next year, the Air Force said.

While the service, as in past years, said that it wants to divest older RQ-4 Global Hawks to develop drones capable of “penetrating ISR” against advanced adversaries, the Air Force does not look this year as if it is proposing to divest any General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drones.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel, told Pentagon leaders on May 27 that “almost every combatant command has told this subcommittee that they need more, not less, MQ-9 access” (Defense Daily, May 27).

The Air Force’s May 28 budget materials did not discuss procurement of the Reaper, yet they reveal that the inventory of MQ-9s would increase from 330 in fiscal 2021 to 351 in fiscal 2022. The Air Force said on May 28 that the increase of 330 MQ-9s in fiscal 2021 to 351 in fiscal 2021 represents prior years’ MQ-9 buys coming into the Air Force inventory.

The service has embarked on an effort to upgrade the MQ-9 with Multi-Domain Operation capabilities to counter China and Russia and remain relevant until the MQ-9’s expected retirement in 2035 (Defense Daily, Apr. 21). The upgrades are to include resistance to jamming and other interference with aircraft command and control; increased electronic power; an open architecture for the rapid insertion of new technology; upgrades to the MQ-9 electro-optical/infrared sensor; and the ability to carry new weapons.