The U.S. Air Force is restructuring several key efforts — delaying a follow-on to the Joint Stars ground surveillance aircraft program, adding a three-year extension for U-2 operations and a setting up a possible competition for more GPS satellites — as part of its $167.3 billion budget request for fiscal 2016.

The request is up from $152.8 billion provided by Congress for fiscal 2015.

The procurement and research and development (R&D) plan would increase in the fiscal 2016 budget request by $8 billion compared with levels enacted by Congress in fiscal 2015. In the $25.3 billion procurement request and $17.99 billion R&D request, the service is maintaining a focus on its three top procurement priorities: the F-35, KC-46 aerial refueler and the Long-Range Strike Bomber.

The F-35 consumes a large portion of the Air Force’s investment budget — as well as the Navy’s. In fiscal 2016, the Pentagon is requesting about $11 billion for F-35 development, purchases and spares and associated equipment; that is $2.4 billion higher than enacted in fiscal 2015. Much of the spike would pay for a proposed increase in production rate from 38 to 57 aircraft (16 more for the Air Force and 3 more for the Navy). This boost has been long sought by Lockheed Martin and is part of an effort to reduce the per-unit price of the single-engine, stealthy fighter. That amounts to a request of 44 conventional take-off-and-landing Lockheed Martin F-35As for the Air Force, up from 28 in fiscal 2015. Fourteen of those would be cut if Congress forces the Pentagon to adhere to cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act.

Likewise, the request seeks to boost the purchase to 12 of Boeing’s KC-46As in fiscal 2016, up from seven in fiscal 2015; that increase is likely only if the company manages to achieve its first tanker flight in April as planned, despite earlier delays associated with designing wiring bundles for the aircraft.

The service also plans to continue development of a next-generation, stealthy bomber. The fiscal 2015 budget of $914 million increases substantially in this request to $1.25 billion. The Air Force plans to announce a winner between the Boeing/Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman teams this spring. If a protest is lodged, it should be resolved by the fall, the start of the new fiscal year.

By contrast, the Air Force is planning to delay procurement of a next-generation Joint Stars airborne ground surveillance aircraft by one year to fiscal 2023; the first four Joint Stars follow-on aircraft were expected in fiscal 2022. The Air Force is planning to retire the existing Boeing 707-based E-8Cs from 2025-2026 to help pay for the new program. Another offset is the planned retirement of the E-8C test aircraft in fiscal 2016. The new aircraft are expected to be housed on a much smaller business jet to allow for decreased sustainment cost and increased efficiency on missions.

The Air Force also is delaying the retirement of seven E-3 Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2019 to support combatant commander requirements.

Another change to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance plan in the fiscal 2016 budget is the Air Force’s reversal on the U-2. Slated for termination in last year’s budget, it is now expected to continue flying for as least three more years -- until fiscal 2019. The Air Force is still investing substantial funds in modifying the Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk to continue operations beyond fiscal 2023; it was the U-2’s planned replacement. However, the service says that if the Budget Control Act remains law, it will slice funding from sensor upgrades efforts for the Global Hawk Block 30 program.

The Air Force plans to stabilize operations at 60 combat air patrols (CAPs) for the Predator/Reaper unmanned aircraft. Sixty-five CAPs are now operating. The Air Fore plans to buy 29 MQ-9 Reapers, up from 24 in the fiscal 2015 budget. However, 20 of those would be sliced if the Budget Control Act remains in place. The goal remains to phase Predators out of service and move to an all-Reaper fleet.

The Air Force plans to finally settle the debate about how to replace the aging UH-1N helicopters used to support nuclear operations in the vast intercontinental ballistic missile fields operated by the service. The Air Force will convert old Army UH-60As to L models. "The Air Force has not yet determined the phasing of these replacements," says Capt. Melissa Milner, a service spokeswoman.

The budget includes substantial R&D for he next-generation Air Force One fleet to replace the current fleet of two VC-25As. The fiscal 2015 request included $1.6 billion for R&D, including the first 747-8 on which the new flying White House will be built.

The Air Force’s space budget includes some changes as well. Perhaps most notable is a plan to reopen competition in the Global Positioning System III with space vehicle 11. Lockheed Martin won what was described in 2008 as a "winner-take-all" contract and is developing and building the precision timing and navigation satellites now. However, its performance was marred by poor oversight of the first timing and navigation payload developed by Exelis, which was nearly a year late. Boeing, a legacy GPS satellite provider, has been eager to restart its work since the Air Force announced the 2008 win. A new competition shows an aggressive approach by the Air Force after the Lockheed Martin slip up; its original intent was to "have a long-term relationship with one partner," as described by former GPS program director Col. Dave Madden in 2008. At that time, GPS III was envisioned as potentially a 30-satellite constellation.

The service also is sticking to its plan to explore alternate architectures to those now established for protected, nuclear-hardened satellite communications with the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite and the Space-Based Infrared System (Sbirs) early missile warning spacecraft. Both are developed by Lockheed Martin, and the plan is to continue with purchases of six satellites for each constellation. Beyond that, industry is likely to have opportunities to win work for far simpler, more resilient satellite architectures in these mission areas. Budget documents do not lay out the timing of these projects, though.

The service also plans to propose once again to retire the A-10 fleet in light of the F-35’s planned introduction into service in December 2016 and the use of other platforms – such as the B-52, B-1, F-15E and F-16 for close air support missions. The service plans to retire 164 of them in fiscal 2016, with the entire fleet following three years later.

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