EXCLUSIVE: The U.S. Air Force’s Future Spending Plan

The U.S. Air Force will increase spending for the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider over the next five years.

Credit: Brian Everstine/AWST

The U.S. Air Force will see its spending increase dramatically in nuclear modernization over the next five years as its key programs move into procurement, including sixth-generation fighters and their collaborative uncrewed systems.

And even though the service wants to retire even more aircraft over that timespan to save costs, sustainment bills will remain high, according to new information obtained by Aviation Week.

The Department of the Air Force, including the U.S. Space Force, unveiled its fiscal 2024 budget request March 13, calling for $215.1 billion in spending, with a major focus on key modernization programs. Figures for the subsequent years, known as the five-year Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) show this total rising to $234.8 billion by 2028 to pay for program increases. 

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall overhauled Air Force modernization into his “operational imperative” (OI) model, outlining seven mission areas that need investment. The most notable is the creation of Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, creating loyal wingman uncrewed systems that will fly alongside the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) platform to provide additional sensing, electronic warfare and weapons. The Air Force is requesting two new starts for this: $68 million to begin Project Viper Experimentation and Next-Gen Operations Model (VENOM), and $72 million for an Experimental Operations Unit (EOU), along with $394 million for autonomous platform development. Over the FYDP, the Air Force plans $6.375 billion in new spending for this. Project VENOM will take six F-16s outfitted with an autonomous safety box, and a human pilot will experiment with it, according to Victoria Coleman, the Air Force’s chief scientist.

“The neat thing about this is you can do it really quickly. It usually takes a very long time to certify software to fly in airplanes,” Coleman says in a January interview with the Air Force’s Airman Magazine. “If you were to wait for that, maybe you would do one drop a year. VENOM enables us to do tens of thousands of cold drops per week. So it’s a really fundamental kind of capability that bridges and accelerates that transition from fully manned to this mixed mode—human-machine teaming.”

The EOU will stand up to define the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and policy that is needed for CCAs to operate. Like the NGAD family of systems, there is an OI for a similar B-21 effort and the Air Force plans one classified new start along with another increase to a classified program for this. New spending over the FYDP will be $1.19 billion.

Two of these initiatives focused on space also see new starts and increases to existing programs. One Kendall describes as the Space Order of Battle includes a Space Force new start: meshONE-T. This began with a prototype contract in 2021 to Sev1Tech to deploy and demonstrate a data transport as a service capability, providing secure communications and cloud connectivity for future multidomain communications. This will also see an increase in the Space Force’s LuxMEO and a classified program. The Department of the Air Force also is investing to shift moving-target engagement from aircraft to space, and this includes two new starts: purchasing the Raytheon-Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile and a program for Kill Chain Automation.

Over the FYDP, the Air Force’s fleet will continue to shrink from the current 2023 total of 5,154 to 4,453. This fleet reduction consists of some significant efforts starting in later years, including the remaining 13 B-1B lancers, 149 total F-15C/Ds, 119 F-15Es, 125 F-16C/Ds and 64 KC-135R/Ts.

Among the key mission areas requiring additional spending over the next five years are:

• Nuclear modernization. Soon to be the most expensive program in this area will be the Northrop Grumman LGM-35 Sentinel, also known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. The 2024 request includes $4.529 billion, and that number will more than double to $9.768 billion in 2026 when procurement starts at 43 missiles. The five-year total will be $38.574 billion with procurement of 155 missiles.

The recently unveiled B-21 Raider will also see an increase, from $5.642 billion in 2024, rising steadily to $8.186 billion by 2028 and $34.797 billion over the FYDP, though specific procurement numbers are classified.

The service increased its budget for the E-4B replacement, the Survivable Airborne Operations Center, ninefold for fiscal 2024 to $888 million to buy the first two test articles. This program will rise to $1.829 billion by fiscal 2027.

• Combat aircraft. The focal point of modernization for fighters is the sixth-generation NGAD manned fighter. The 2024 request includes $1.933 billion for research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E), rising steadily to $4.131 billion by fiscal 2028 and $16.229 billion over the FYDP. The CCA budget will balloon from just $533 million in fiscal 2024 to $3.156 billion in 2028 and $6.437 billion over the FYDP. 

The service plans to buy 24 F-15EXs in both 2024 and 2025 before ending procurement of that program. At the same time, it wants a complete divestment of F-15C/Ds by 2025. That year, it wants to begin retiring F-15Es powered by the Pratt & Whitney F100-220 engine and move to an all F100-229 fleet of 99 aircraft by fiscal 2028. The entire A-10 fleet would be retired by 2028, with modernization spending minimized by Kendall’s directive. 

F-16 modernization would be cut, except for spending on an Integrated Viper Electronic Warfare Suite that is in rapid development to allow for suppression of enemy defenses in contested environments before the F-35 takes over the mission in 2030. The F-22 fleet would stay steady after retiring 32 Block 20 variants, with survivability upgrades, low-drag tanks and pylons and additional depot-level maintenance. 

Procurement of the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail has been a major emphasis for the Air Force, though the program will have a slow start. One prototype was funded in 2023 and another in 2024. One more will be requested in 2025 and up to three per year across the FYDP. The service eventually wants 26 E-7s. It also will keep the aging E-3 Sentry flying, with modernization and safety of flight for 15 aircraft, at a high cost. Over the FYDP, the Air Force would spend $8.9 billion to maintain the E-3 compared to $7.377 billion for the E-7 program.

For surveillance aircraft, the service wants full divestment of the U-2 by 2026, RQ-4 Block 40s by 2027 and to maintain 56 MQ-9 combat lines through 2024 and 2025.

• Mobility. As KC-46 procurement remains steady at 15 per year over the FYDP, the service will begin recapitalization of the KC-135 fleet in 2027. The Air Force recently announced it would likely buy more KC-46s instead of the KC-Y competition, and figures show six of the new tankers procured in 2027 and 12 in 2028. Budget documents state the Air Force now has a minimum tanker requirement of 466.

The Boeing VC-25B presidential transport replacement has seen repeated delays, and the documents state the Air Force will ask Congress for a change to the VC-25A’s required retirement date because of projected delivery delays.

• Munitions. The Air Force wants a major increase in advanced munitions, using new congressional authority for multiyear procurement of Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMs), Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) and Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM). In fiscal 2024, for example, the Air Force is requesting $1.686 billion for 550 JASSM-ER missiles, an amount that includes funding to increase the industrial base’s capacity to build the missiles to 810 per year. However, production peaks at 550 as there is no funding in the FYDP to reach this maximum level. A delay in the missile’s Weapon Data Link has also slipped fiscal 2022 procurement until fiscal 2024-2025.

The procurement of the Joint Strike Missile comes as LRASM production needs to increase, with the Kongsberg-Raytheon weapon a “stopgap” for LRASM fiscal 2024-2028 procurement. 

The Air Force does not plan to buy more Raytheon AIM-120s after the multiyear buy. There is a $300 million upfront bill for the form, fit and refresh of software for advanced versions of AMRAAM, which will take about eight years to procure. 

For hypersonic weapons, the Air Force does not have RDT&E funding planned beyond fiscal 2024 for the Lockheed Martin AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). Funding for the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile continues, rising from $381.5 million in 2024 to $557.1 million the following year and $1.873 billion over the FYDP, with 12 missiles procured in both 2027 and 2028.

Register for our upcoming webinar, where we will be discussing the U.S. defense budget.



Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.