The Air Force 2019 budget requests $194 billion in budget authority, an increase of $10 billion, or about 6 percent, over the fiscal year 2018 request.1 But the challenges the Air Force is facing are also growing. Chinese and Russian advanced capabilities in both the air and space domains are challenging the Air Force, requiring continued and new investments in things like penetrating strike options (both platforms and munitions) and survivable space capabilities.
At the same time, the Air Force is responsible for two of the three legs of the nuclear triad, all of which urgently need to be recapitalized. Finally, ongoing operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan have stretched the Air Force thin, necessitating the restocking of precision guided munitions and the restoration of readiness in the tactical air fleet. Fulfilling these requirements is a tall order, even with a $10 billion budget increase.
The interactive graphic below provides a view of the Air Force budget request at different levels of aggregation and ultimately down to the program level of detail. Click on budget titles to see a breakdown by category; click on each category to see individual programs. Hover over labels or segments in the chart for additional detail. Click the inner rings to return to higher levels in the chart.
Research, Development, Test, and Engineering
Research, development, test, and engineering (RDT&E) saw the largest growth over 2018 at almost 19 percent, or nearly $5 billion.3 Most of this growth in RDT&E is in the later stages in the process of developing and fielding new systems, including the B-21 bomber, the Presidential Aircraft Replacement, and the new combat rescue helicopter. Spending on basic research, applied research, and advanced technology development remained relatively flat compared to the 2018 request. These trends indicate prioritization of bringing already developed systems over the final technological hurdles and into production, rather than breaking new ground. A notable exception here is the Next Generation Air Dominance Program, investment in which nearly doubled from the 2018 request to the 2019 request, now totaling over $500 million.
Concurrent with this budget request, the Air Force announced plans for the future of the bomber fleet. First, the budget request funds new engines for the aging B-52 fleet. These new engines are necessary to keep these aircraft, which have been in service since 1954, operational through 2050. The Air Force also announced intent to incrementally retire the B-1s and B-2s as B-21s become operational, beginning in the mid-2020s. Retiring these two aircraft fleets could significantly reduce the operating and maintenance costs of the bomber fleet as a whole. Maintaining two types of aircraft instead of four is less complicated for operators and maintainers and requires fewer different types of spare parts. According to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, the fleet will maintain no less than 175 bombers; ultimately no less than 100 of those bombers will be B-21s, and the remainder will be B-52s. Despite the opportunity for cost savings, some argue that a bomber fleet of this size will be too small to meet operational requirements and that the stealth B-2s in particular should be kept in service given the need the future force will have for long-range penetrating strike options.
Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System
Concurrent with this budget request, the Air Force announced intent to reconsider its plan to recapitalize the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), which provides the capability to find and track targets on the ground in real time and direct fires toward them. Rather than replace this specific platform as it had planned, the Air Force intends to rethink the way it provides this capability. JSTARS combines sensors, analysts, and controllers on a single aircraft, and the Air Force has concluded that this platform is not survivable in a contested environment.
It is also unclear that recapitalizing JSTARS is the right approach in permissive environments either, as the same capability could potentially be achieved at lower cost by linking sensors aboard any one of a number of platforms with analysts and controllers who are on the ground. Advanced sensors have proliferated across many more U.S. platforms since the first JSTARS aircraft were fielded during the first Gulf War and ways to link sensors to analysts and controllers have also improved. Consequently, there may be a new way to effectively meet this requirement more completely, in a more survivable package, and potentially at a lower cost. The Air Force intends to find out by conducting an analysis of alternatives.
Light Attack Aircraft
At the other end of the conflict spectrum is continued investment in the light attack aircraft program, which intends to develop and field an aircraft that can provide close air support in permissive environments at a much lower cost to procure, operate, and maintain than the aircraft currently fulfilling this mission (A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s). Doing so could reduce the cost of this mission, while preserving readiness in the 4th and eventually 5th generation tactical air fleet. Success hinges upon realization of the low-cost vision and commanders’ finding the Light Attack Aircraft an acceptable substitute for 4th generation fighters, despite their reduced capability. If the program does reach maturity, there are likely some good foreign military sales opportunities here.
The Air Force continues to invest in space capabilities designed to cope with a war that extends into space. While once an uncontested environment for the United States, space is now crowded, and some actors are now able to do considerable damage to U.S. military space assets. Space procurement decreased by about 25 percent from the 2018 request, but those dollars (and more) are invested in developing new space systems in the 2019 request. For example, the Air Force is changing its approach to the satellites that provide missile early warning (among other capabilities).
It is discontinuing its planned buy of Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites seven and eight and investing those funds in manufacturing and engineering support for the Evolved-Space Based Infrared System (E-SBIRS) instead. Investment in these next generation capabilities increased from $71 million in the 2018 request to $643 million in the 2019 request, while the SBIRS satellite cuts saved $975 million.4 The Global Positioning System (GPS) III follow-on is a new start with $452 million behind it intended to provide secure position, navigation and timing that cannot be tampered with, spoofed, or jammed.
Consistent with the results of the new Nuclear Posture Review, the 2019 request also continues existing plans to modernize the nuclear triad. In addition to the bomber investments described above, the Air Force will continue to develop the Long-Range Stand-off Missile (LRSO), a replacement for the current nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missile, as well as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), a new nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile replacing the current Minuteman III.
Investments in these two legs of the nuclear triad increase by 44 percent over the fiscal year 2018 request. Significant cost increases are still to come for these systems in the 2020s as they move further along in their development and fielding. The budget request also continues to modernize the country’s nuclear command, control, and communications architecture, to ensure that the president and other civilian and military leadership can communicate with each other and maintain control over these weapons and their employment in times of crisis. This budget does not yet begin to execute the Nuclear Posture Review’s intent to increase non-strategic nuclear capabilities, with the exception of increased procurement of B61 nuclear gravity bombs, from 30 in the 2018 request to 250 in the 2019 request.
The Air Force request makes several investments intended to improve readiness. It plans to improve manning levels in existing units by adding an additional 4,000 active-duty airmen in fiscal year 2019, increasing by a total of 13,700 airmen by 2023.5 The request also continues to replenish depleted stocks of precision guided munitions, increasing procurement of the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Hellfire missiles. The request continues to fund training and weapons systems maintenance accounts to executable levels.
We have reached the end of our assessment of the Air Force budget request but have yet to mention the F-35. The request includes two more F-35s than last year’s request, but the same number as were purchased in 2017 – 48.
At the same time, the Air Force is requesting $1 billion to modify its 4th generation fighter fleet, a 64 percent increase over what it requested for this purpose in 2018. It is interesting to see this buy rate hold steady even with a substantial injection of new funds.
The trend indicates either that the Air Force was happy with this buy rate, or that other priorities are crowding out further growth in the tactical air portfolio. The F-35 buy is indicative of the major theme running through the Air Force request. With such substantial financial responsibilities for advanced capabilities in space, the nuclear forces, aircraft, and munitions, an increase of over $10 billion relative to the 2018 request doesn’t go as far as one might think.