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An F-35A Lightning II takes off at Nellis AFB, Nev., on Feb. 1, 2019. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw.

Although Air Force leaders have pushed a case for 72 new fighters a year as essential in meeting the requirements of the National Defense Strategy, there was no evidence of a move toward a larger force structure in the service’s fiscal 2020 budget request.

In fact, the USAF budget request includes just 48 Lockheed Martin-built F-35A fighters, eight aircraft less than what was in the fiscal 2019 enacted budget, and eight new Boeing F-15EX fighters—16 airplanes short of what Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has said is the minimum needed to prevent the fighter force from shrinking and growing older than its current average age of 28 years. The Air Force is asking $5.7 billion to buy the 48 F-35s and $1.05 billion for the eight F-15EXs.

Long-term, the budget will call for far more F-15s than USAF officials have hinted at in recent months. USAF officials have only suggested a dozen such airplanes that might be in the budget, but according to budget documents the F-15EX buy “initiates the refresh” of the F-15 fleet. Air Force Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, briefing the press on the USAF budget on Tuesday, acknowledged there are 80 F-15EXs in the five-year Future Years Defense Plan. A service official reported the ultimate buy could be 144, completed after the FYDP. The plan, if approved by Congress, would represent more than $14 billion worth of Air Force fighter work for Boeing that would otherwise have gone to Lockheed Martin.

Last fall, the Air Force rolled out the “Air Force We Need,” a declaration of the minimum forces required for the service to accomplish its share of the NDS. It calls for 386 combat squadrons; roughly 25 percent more than the service has now. Among them, the Air Force says it needs 62 fighter squadrons, versus the 55 it now fields.

Asked whether the “Force We Need” initiative is dead since it carried such high priority with Wilson and Goldfein, but is not manifested in the budget, Pletcher said, “Not at all.”

“This is a sign that the FY ’20 budget was built at the same time that study was being made,” he explained. The 386 squadron number was an answer “we owed … to Congress, based on their direction. It is clearly … a priority for our Secretary, but the FY ’20 budget was built off the 312 [combat squadrons] number.” The potential build toward 386 squadrons is a “discussion [that] … will happen in subsequent years.” He declined to speculate as to whether more force structure would appear in the fiscal ’21 budget.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson admitted at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium late last month the F-15s were inserted into the service’s budget by higher Pentagon entities, and were added against the Air Force’s preference to buy F-35s. But she and Goldfein also suggested that 12 F-15s were coming to supplement a buy of 60 F-35s, to reach that magic number of 72, saying F-35s cost more to sustain than the F-15, so their sticker price was not the only consideration in the F-15 decision.

The Air Force’s other aircraft buys are similarly anemic vice the 386 combat squadrons goal. The service will buy just 12 KC-46s (three less than fiscal 2019 enacted), 12 Combat Rescue Helicopters, and eight MC-130 special-mission aircraft, along with 12 MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft, nine of which are being funded out of the Overseas Combat Operations, or OCO, account. Although the Air Force awarded the T-X advanced trainer contract last fall, the first three of those airplanes don’t get delivered until late in calendar 2020.

Pentagon Comptroller Elaine McCusker said Tuesday the F-15 move was one of the final edicts from former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

“The tacair mix” was one of the “key issues” Mattis reviewed in budget deliberations, she said. “The balance between the fourth and fifth-generation aircraft … [was] a decision that was made by Secretary Mattis before he left,” she said in a Pentagon budget briefing. A lot of attention was paid to “our cost calculus” in this area, she asserted.

Army Lt. Gen. Anthony Ierardi, Pentagon director of force structure, resources, and assessment, said the F-35 “remains a critical program for the joint force” but the F-15EX “provides additional capacity and readiness, especially in the near years to mid-years, as we look at the threats and the kinds of combat potential that we needed to bring to bear.”

Top Air Force officials such as Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, said at the AFA symposium they could live with buying new F-15s as long as the F-35 program of record, which calls for 1,763 jets, is not disturbed.

The F-35 is slated to cost about $80 million apiece starting with the fiscal 2020 buy. Pletcher was asked if Boeing’s airplane will also be $80 million per copy.

“If you looked only at aircraft, that might be a reasonable number,” he said, “but you’re going to have to have all the other items that go with flying the aircraft, such as spares and such.” The $80 million quote is “just the airframe … and again, the contract negotiation will kind of make the final determination” about unit price.

The eight F-15EXs at a cost of $1.1 billion won’t be representative of the price in future years, Pletcher said.

“Part of that is non-recurring engineering in the first year,” he noted. “As you know, when you buy a new weapon system, you’ve got to pay for the aircraft, but you’ve also got to set up the [production] line.” He added, “We’re leveraging the investment of the allies that are buying the F-15 … And, then of course, you’ve got the spares and everything else.” Though he wouldn’t “get into the contract negotiations,” Pletcher said, “I wouldn’t expect to see that as the average cost every year after that.”

The Air Force Association has argued against buying more F-15s, in favor of putting available resources for fighters into the F-35. Former Air Force Secretary Whit Peters, AFA’s Chairman of the Board, said the F-35 “is not being procured at a rate sufficient to recapitalize the Air Force we have and certainly not at the rate to support the Air Force we need. By buying fewer planes now, the proposed budget raises costs. That’s not a good use of government funds.”

The buy rate issue on the F-35 “could be solved if the funds earmarked for the F-15EX were instead invested in F-35s,” Peters asserted.

The Air Force has insisted for nearly 20 years it will not buy any “new-old” fighters, as fourth generation jets will soon be unable to survive against modern air defenses. Since the early 2000s, the Air Force has put all its fighter money into buying fifth generation F-22s and F-35s. In 2010, though, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates prematurely terminated the F-22 buy at 186 airplanes, about half the verified requirement for 381 of the jets. The move disrupted the Air Force’s plan to have a high-low mix force of F-22s and F-35s, patterned after the successful mix of F-15s and F-16s from the 1970s through the 1990s.