The US Air Force intends to acquire 72 fighters annually.

This year, the Air Force has gone straight to Congress for its requested 72 fighter jets for the coming fiscal year. It won’t be the last time, according to the general in charge of the service’s long-term strategy, who spoke on Thursday.

The Air Force’s high command has been stating for years that the service must acquire 72 new fighters annually in order to bring the average age of its planes down and keep up with technological advances.

The generals warn that unless as many new fighters are purchased each year, the service will not have enough new planes to replace aging and retiring fighters such as the F-15C.

Target out of range

The Air Force has not asked for all its leaders think it needs, and yet for years, Congress has been approving fighter acquisitions that fall short of the service’s desired aim, sometimes significantly so.

The proposed budget for FY2024 was presented in March, breaking with tradition by requesting funding to purchase 48 new F-35As and 24 new F-15EX Eagle IIs.

And Lt. Gen. Richard Moore, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, indicated it wouldn’t be “a one-time event” in an online forum held by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, indicating a shift in the service’s approach to budget planning.

“This year, for the first time since I’ve been in this business, there are 72 new fighters in the Air Force budget,” Moore said. “We are very excited about it. … I certainly think we will see him again.”

The US Air Force intends to acquire 72 fighters annually.

Expectations versus reality

The Air Force’s basic budget request has typically not included everything it sought in recent years, and the service has instead kept a list of unfunded objectives. For FY23, 57 planes were initially requested, including 33 F-35As and 24 F-15EXs. That year, the seven F-35As were part of the service’s $4.6 billion wish list. The final tally of 67 fighters approved by Congress includes 43 F-35As and 24 F-15EXs.

Plan for future needs

Moore stated that the Air Force is moving away from this strategy as it attempts to plan for future requirements with greater reliability.

“Some of the things we’ve discussed in recent budget cycles are now part of the base budget,” Moore explained. “They are not part of the priority list without funding; they are not a wish list. Seventy-two Fighter is a great example.”

The Air Force’s $2.5 billion wish list for fiscal year 24 was just over half that of the previous fiscal year, and it did not call for any additional fighters.

It requested almost $633 million to speed up the delivery of the Boeing E-7A jet that would replace the E-3 Sentry and about $64 million to purchase a dozen conformal fuel tanks for the F-15EXs, which would increase their range and capability.

The US Air Force intends to acquire 72 fighters annually.

More fighters for the USAF

Moore added that Lockheed Martin’s capacity to produce F-35s is a key factor in whether or not the Air Force would increase its request for 72 jets.

“As we get to what we think is a sustainable fleet size in what we need in the F-15EX, we’ll have to see what capability is available in the F-35 world or whatever else we can look at,” he said. 

Moore. “Right now, it’s based on the fact that we have two hot fighter production lines, and that’s going to be the case in the middle to late ‘Air Force spending plan over the next five years.

The Air Force expects to order a total of 104 F-15EXs by the end of the current fiscal year (FY25). According to annual budget documents, the Air Force plans to purchase 48 new F-35s at The end of the fiscal year FY28.

Limitations in the defense industry

Moore noted that the defense industrial base also has limitations, such as ongoing supply chain and manpower issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, which would make it difficult to add more than 72 fighters a year.

“We will add advanced capabilities at the fastest rate possible,” Moore said. But “the defense industrial base can only support a limited number of acquisitions.”

Moore said that the Air Force plans to modernize its fleet of aircraft with future capabilities (some of which are still being designed) to challenge China in the event of a future war and that this is included in the planned budget.

F-22 to withdraw?: Welcome NGAD

According to Moore, the Air Force plans to use the $2.5 billion they save over the next five years into the Next Generation Air Dominance sixth-generation platform by retiring 32 Block 20 F-22A Raptor fighters.

“We’re very clear that to get to the early to mid-2030s with a force that can win, we have to get to a sixth-generation fighter, and that’s NGAD,” Moore added.

Moore claimed that the retiring F-22s are fifth-generation fighters but are not ready for battle and will never be without substantial investment. Upgrading them with modern communications systems, electronic warfare capabilities, and weaponry would take roughly a decade, cost some $3.5 billion, and force already-straightened Lockheed Martin engineers to dedicate themselves to the Block 4 modernization of the F program.

“To us, that’s a trade-off that doesn’t make any sense: upgrading the planes a decade from now at great expense while at the same time affecting the block 4 F-35,” Moore said. “We don’t think it’s a viable course of action.”

Investigation and development

Moore added that Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall places a premium on R&D spending.

Kendall clearly prioritizes this endeavor, as the Department of the Air Force has requested a roughly $5 billion increase in its planned fiscal year budget for research, development, testing, and evaluation, bringing the total to $55.4 billion. 24, an increase of nearly 10% and the lion’s share of the department’s total proposed budget increase of $9.3 billion.

Even if not all of the projects in that wave of R&D are purchased by the government, they are still critically important.

“The secretary is fine with it,” Moore says. “He thinks that if we don’t do the research and development now that we have time when the time comes that we have to make the acquisition, there won’t be anything to acquire because the research and development won’t have been done yet.”