Air Force: 4,100 new airmen, more bombs and modern weapons
WASHINGTON — After years of proposing to retire aging aircraft to meet reduced budgets, the Air Force said a proposed $10 billion increase for 2018 will allow it to retain its spy aircraft and fighter jets, which is critical during air operations against the Islamic State.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday requested $146.3 billion for 2018 — $132.4 billion in the baseline budget and $13.9 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. The request marked a $10 billion increase over last year.
With the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget, the Air Force said it would retain all 27 of its U-2 Dragon spy aircraft and fund all 283 of its A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft and its 212 F-15C and D fighter jets. Each of the airframes is more than 30 years old, and the Air Force had considered early retirement for each over the last few years for different reasons: to meet tight budget requirements or to free up resources, such as the A-10 maintainers, to have them ready to service F-35A Joint Strike Fighters.
“We have the funding to keep them, and we need to because of demand,” said Capt. Hope Cronin, an Air Force spokesman. “We need to be able to meet the need for airpower right now. As long as we can make these systems lethal and survivable, it makes sense for us.”
The Air Force would use the proposed funding to buy new bombs and missiles to replace depleted munitions stocks; recruit and train new pilots; and advance several of the service’s key modernization programs, such as its future stealth bomber and land-based nuclear missile defenses.
The campaign against the Islamic State and other terror groups has led to ongoing U.S. air operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. The Air Force reports it has dropped more than 56,000 munitions on those targets since 2014.
The proposed Air Force funding covers the cost of 39,136 replacement munitions. More than 27,000 would be Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or guided bombs, plus almost 3,700 new Hellfire missiles, 5,200 small-diameter bombs and a variety of smaller missiles.
“We remain challenged by the pace of current operations,” Air Force Maj. Gen. James Martin said WHEN? “For our preferred munitions (guided bombs, Hellfire missiles and small-diameter bombs), we will fund to capacity between base and OCO and begin to replenish our inventories.”
The budget would add almost 6,000 new airmen that the service has said are needed to increase its ability to maintain and fly its aircraft. The budget calls for 4,100 additional active-duty airmen and 1,700 Guard and Reserve forces. Air Force end strength would rise to 502,000, which the service said was its “top readiness priority.”
The service has struggled for several years to retain pilots for its fighter and support aircrafts, including tankers and cargo aircraft. High levels of operations and competitive private sector salaries have lured pilots and their aircraft maintainers from the military, something the Air Force said it was working to address. In the proposed 2018 budget, the signing bonus for pilots is increased from $25,000 to $35,000, and two F-16 training squadrons will be added to increase the number of pilots each year from 1,200 to 1,400, he said.
“This budget begins to address the pilot shortage by adding training capacity … while also adjusting our incentive pay structure,” Martin said.
Spokesman Col. Christopher Karns said U.S. Air Mobility Command is making changes to the support activities that pilots are required to take on – such as coordinating government travel – that take them away from core tasks.
The budget only nominally addresses one of the other key factors pilots have identified as a reason to separate from the service – low flying hours. Trump’s 2018 budget increases funds for flying hours to $6.2 billion, compared to $6.1 billion in 2017.
Martin said that was the maximum increase in training hours the service could support, given its limited number of aircraft and maintainers. Martin said the Air Force will ask for more training hours in future budget requests.
The proposed budget includes $36.7 billion in non-service funding to pay for intelligence activities, such as the National Geospatial Intelligence Program, the National Reconnaissance Office and National Security Agency’s satellite imagery and intelligence.