Congress is poised to approve many of the Air Force’s top priorities for the coming year, thanks to legislation that avoids many of the restrictions that have kept the service’s plans in check over the past decade.
The Air Force is set to receive more than $216 billion in the fiscal 2023 federal spending bill released Monday, while the Space Force will see about $26 billion.
Congress is expected to pass the appropriations omnibus this week. President Joe Biden must sign it into law before midnight Saturday to avoid a federal shutdown.
Lawmakers passed the annual defense policy bill on Dec. 15; that awaits Biden’s approval as well.
In all, the Department of the Air Force is slated to receive significant boosts in most categories compared to the ask it submitted in March.
Congress is letting the Air Force shrink its workforce by nearly 4,000 jobs, according to the spending bill. The Air Force will move forward with 325,344 active duty billets — 2,000 more than it wanted. The service had wanted to send about 2,000 medical jobs back to the Defense Health Agency after they were temporarily transferred to the Air Force.
The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve will remain essentially flat at 108,400 and 70,000 billets, respectively.
Most positions on the chopping block are for airmen who work on aircraft that are heading into retirement, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters in March.
That reflects the U.S. military’s changing needs following two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and as it pushes to overhaul its aging aircraft inventory. It also comes as the services struggle to recruit new members and try a host of initiatives to keep the troops they already have.
Congress approves funding for a certain number of jobs each year; those do not change even while airmen and guardians come and go. For example, as of Sept. 30, the Air Force Personnel Center said it employed around 329,000 active duty airmen, about the same as funded positions for 2022.
The Space Force will grow by just 200 uniformed guardians as planned, totaling 8,600 active duty troops. The service does not have its own reserve components.
Again, lawmakers punted on a decision of whether to create a Space National Guard. They instead told the Air Force to report back on any plans to move space missions, personnel or equipment from the Air National Guard to the Space Force “not later than 30 days after the transfer decision is made.”
“The secretary of the Air Force is directed to certify in writing that such transfer is consistent with the mission of the Space Force and will not have an adverse impact on the Air National Guard,” congressional appropriators said.
It’s the latest move in a yearslong tug-of-war over the creation of a Space Guard. Its proponents say that keeping Guardsmen long assigned to space missions at home and abroad in the Air Force leaves them in limbo and hinders their ability to do their jobs. Those opposed argue that creating a Space Guard creates unnecessary expenses and bureaucracy.
In 2020, the Congressional Budget Office projected a Space National Guard could include as many as 5,800 people, up from approximately 1,500 space personnel in the Army and Air National Guards now. A smaller Space National Guard could cost anywhere from $100 million to $490 million a year, and $20 million to $900 million in one-time construction and equipment costs.
Inaction has its own costs as well, some Guardsmen argue.
Air National Guard officials indicated earlier this year that 2023 poses a deadline of sorts for a space counterpart to come to fruition before problems snowball.
“I’m going to have to go and talk to my airmen about, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, we don’t have a job for you here in space. We’re going to have to find something for you,’” Col. Jason Knight, commander of the California Air National Guard’s 195th Operations Group, said in May. “That’s going to obviously result in, probably, a lot of folks wanting to leave.”
The Air Force’s outlook for weapons buys remains largely on track.
Lawmakers agreed to provide nearly $6 billion more for procurement than the Air Force sought, totaling about $54 billion for programs inside and outside the service.
The bill includes $4.2 billion to buy more F-35As, the Air Force variant of the Joint Strike Fighter it shares with the Navy and Marine Corps, and $1.3 billion for procurement of the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber.
It likewise puts $2.5 billion toward the KC-46 Pegasus tanker, which is beginning to enter regular operations amid years of technical delays.
Lawmakers are also funding two new wings of Air National Guard C-130s, with $1.8 billion for 16 planes; procurement of four more EC-37B Compass Call electronic attack planes at $884 million; and offering $200 million to speed up research on the E-7 Wedgetail, which will replace the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System.
And after years of debates with Congress over which aircraft the Air Force could retire, the new legislation appears to endorse a proposal to divest parts of several different fleets. That includes longtime mainstays like the A-10C attack plane and E-8C ground target tracking plane.
At the same time, Congress is pushing back on the Air Force’s plan to cut some of its procurement programs short.
“While trade-offs occur to support force readiness and modernization, truncating programs that only recently transitioned into production and were hailed as supporting critical Air Force missions, such as personnel recovery and future tactical air, calls into question the strategic underpinning of these and other acquisition decisions,” lawmakers said.
“The reduction in the F-15EX program, for example, leaves in doubt the status and future of F-15C/D units, several of which are housed in the Air National Guard,” they added.
The Air Force has downsized its future fleet of F-15EX Eagle II fighter jets, intended to replace older models and help update the inventory of second-tier aircraft, from 144 to 80 aircraft. Likewise, its plan to buy 113 new HH-60W Jolly Green II combat search-and-rescue helicopters has shrunk to 75 airframes following the drawdown in U.S. Central Command.
Appropriators are offering $2.3 billion and $1.2 billion for those procurement programs, respectively. That includes money for 10 extra HH-60W helicopters above the Air Force’s ask.
Congress wants the plans for the future force to be more transparent.
When the Biden administration publishes its fiscal 2024 budget request, lawmakers told the Air Force to identify which aircraft it wants to buy fewer of than expected. Then, the service needs to detail how changing those plans would affect military operations, basing strategies and cost.
In total, lawmakers offered the Department of the Air Force about $1 billion less than its $243 billion request, which includes so-called “pass-through” funding that goes to outside organizations like the intelligence community instead of the Air Force itself. The Air Force had wanted $170 billion for its own programs; the Space Force asked for $24.5 billion.
While the Air Force’s allocation appears significantly larger than requested, it’s tricky to parse which items are “blue” Air Force funding, and which comprise the additional $40 billion in “non-blue” money that heads elsewhere.
The omnibus will fund the federal government through Sept. 30, 2023. Here’s where the Air Force and Space Force numbers stand in the bill:
- Military personnel: $35.4 billion for active duty; $4.9 billion for the Air National Guard; $2.5 billion for the Air Force Reserve
- Operations and maintenance: $60.3 billion for active duty; $7.4 billion for the Air National Guard; $3.7 billion for the Air Force Reserve
- Procurement: $54.1 billion
- Research and development: $45 billion
- Military construction: $3 billion
- Military personnel: $1.1 billion
- Operations and maintenance: $4.1 billion
- Procurement: $4.5 billion
- Research and development: $16.6 billion
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.