To accelerate the replacement of F-15C/Ds nearing the end of their service lives, the U.S. Air Force fiscal 2023 budget requests nearly $2.7 billion for 24 Boeing [BA] F-15EXs–double the number sought last year, while the service curtails its planned buy of Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35As from more than $5 billion sought for 48 planes in fiscal 2022 to about $4.5 billion for 33 F-35As in fiscal 2023.
Air Force officials said in a pre-budget release briefing at the Pentagon on March 25 that the service still plans to buy 1,763 F-35As–a number that the service is unlikely to come close to reaching in the next decade. While the Air Force has said that the F-35 program’s air-to-air testing performance has been stellar, the program has struggled with technology delays and high operations and maintenance costs–a feature that Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has pledged to reduce department-wide in order, in part by retiring old iron, to field cutting edge technologies quickly.
Begun in 2018, Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (C2D) for the F-35 envisions software updates for the fighter every six months and has included the development of Block 4, Technology Refresh-3 to permit the Block 4 advancements and making F-35s capable of carrying conventional and nuclear ordnance. Cost estimates for C2D2, which the F-35 program is to pursue through fiscal 2025, have varied from $7 billion to more than $10 billion.
The F-35 program continues to negotiate with Lockheed Martin on an award for the Lot 15-17 buy. The program has said that the advanced technologies of F-35 Block 4 are to be fitted onto the F-35s beginning with Lot 15 in the summer of 2023,
In the fiscal 2023 budget, the Air Force prioritized moving Block 4 modernization of the F-35 forward over procurement quantities, Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones told reporters at the Pentagon on March 28.
While the Air Force reduces its F-35A buy in the service’s fiscal 2023 procurement request, the latter includes a $1.7 billion add for low-rate initial production of the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bomber. Air Force officials have said that six test planes have been in production in Palmdale, Calif., and that the service is evaluating one of the aircraft to determine whether the production planes meet design and manufacturing predictions (Defense Daily, March 4).
In fiscal 2023, the Air Force also requests $870 million for 10 Lockheed Martin HH-60W Jolly Green II combat search and rescue helicopters to replace the Lockheed Martin Pave Hawk. Fiscal 2023 is to close out the buy of HH-60Ws, and the Air Force will, as a result, field 75 HH-60Ws, 30 less than planned earlier.
The fiscal 2023 Air Force budget asks Congress to allow the service to retire 150 aircraft, including 33 Block 20 Lockheed Martin F-22s, eight Northrop Grumman Joint STARS, 21 A-10s, 15 Boeing E-3 AWACS, 13 Boeing KC-135 tankers, 10 Lockheed Martin C-130Hs, and 50 Raytheon T-1 trainers.
The 33 Block 20 F-22s are “too expensive to upgrade to usable wartime capability,” the Air Force said. “Money saved will be applied directly to NGAD [Next Generation Air Dominance] family of systems.”
At the same time as the Air Force requests the divestment of the 33 Block 20 F-22s, the service also asks for $344 million in procurement to provide advanced sensors for the remaining F-22s.
In fiscal 2023, the Air Force also asks for $167 million in procurement for five Boeing MH-139 helicopters for missile field security.
Last year, the integration of two defensive systems on the MH-139 helicopter delayed the issuance of two required Federal Aviation Administration supplemental type certificates for the aircraft, and that delay led the Air Force to nix its fiscal 2022 buy of MH-139s (Defense Daily, June 23, 2021).
In fiscal 2023, the Air Force zeroes procurement of the Lockheed Martin AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). That move is consistent with Kendall’s stated desire to scrutinize hypersonic programs and with the fiscal 2022 omnibus funding bill, which eliminated the Air Force requested buy of the first 12 ARRWs and redirected $80 million of that funding to the Air Force research and development account to remedy an ARRW “testing shortfall” (Defense Daily, March 10).
Under U.S. Space Force procurement in fiscal 2023, the Department of the Air Force requests $1.1 billion for three National Security Space (NSSL) launches. The department has awarded contracts to United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX for NSSL, the successor to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. ULA is a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.