WASHINGTON --- The Department of Defense is planning to cut the number of Lockheed Martin F-35s in its next budget request from 84 to 78, according to a report from Bloomberg.
The reduction comes at a time when the Air Force budget will also include eight new Boeing F-15X aircraft in the request to begin replacing F15C/Ds used by the Air National Guard. The Pentagon was originally planning to request funding for 84 F-35s in FY20, comprising 48 F-35As, 20 F-35Bs, and 16 F-35Cs. It was not specified which services would be impacted by the loss of six aircraft in the upcoming budget request.
The cut will assuredly draw criticism from lawmakers questioning why the DoD is restarting production of fourth-generation aircraft while simultaneously reducing procurement of fifth-generation F-35s. For years, the Air Force has said that it wants to procure only fifth-generation fighters.
In fact, the service's draft FY20 budget proposal did not include any F-15s, but the Air Force was overruled by Pentagon leadership. Still, the Air Force officials promised that the F-15 buy would not come at the expense of the F-35. That message won't carry any weight if the F-35 buy is reduced.
Congress has a history of bolstering F-35 procurement in its annual budget markup. Most recently, the FY19 defense appropriations bill included an additional 16 aircraft (eight As, two Bs, and six Cs). This plus-up followed increases of 20 aircraft in FY18 and 11 in FY17.
At the very least, lawmakers can be expected to add back the six F-35s removed from the FY20 budget plan. What remains to be seen is how Congress will treat the F-15X purchase. The decision to buy additional F-15s has already come under scrutiny, and it is possible Congress could cut funding for the aircraft in favor of bolstering the F-35 buy.
The Air Force, the largest F-35 customer, once planned to buy as many as 80 F-35As per year. That goal was subsequently scaled back to a maximum of 60 aircraft per year, but the Air Force says it won't reach that procurement rate until FY24, according to FY19 budget documents.
The fate of the F-15X buy and F-35 procurement will become clearer following the release of the FY20 budget and follow-on briefings between military leaders and lawmakers.