The conservative Heritage Foundation is proposing an $86 billion increase in defense spending, recommending that lawmakers partially offset the cost through a sharp cut to the Air Force's planned purchase of more than 1,700 F-35A fighter jets.
In a policy proposal released Wednesday, the D.C.-based think tank called on Congress to "substantially" increase military spending in fiscal year 2018 to $632 billion, a five percent expansion to President Donald Trump's budget request submitted earlier this month.
This increase would be counteracted in part by a 30 percent reduction in the Air Force's F-35 purchase plan—from 1,763 F-35 fighter jets to 1,260 jets—under the National Defense Authorization Act, according to Heritage.
John Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation who helped craft the proposal, told reporters during a private breakfast Tuesday morning that the decrease in the Air Force's purchase plan for F-35As would free up money for different acquisition programs within the service.
Heritage is pressing Congress to fund the expedited acquisition of F-35As over the next four years, but the report noted that even with accelerated production, the Air Force would still not complete its purchase of the 1,040 combat-ready F-35As recommended by the think tank for the active duty force until the early 2030s. That projection does not include the additional 60 combat-ready fighter jets Heritage recommended the service maintain in its National Guard and Reserve fleets with another 100 to be used in active duty training and operational test and evaluation requirements.
Venable, a former Air Force pilot, said the slow acquisition rate of F-35s will force the service to continue to use a mix of fourth and fifth generation aircraft for the "foreseeable future," meaning the branch will need a sharp increase in federal funding to continue operating its dual-capable F-16s and F-15s.
"Even if we ramp [production] up to 100 aircraft a year, it's going to take 12 years to bring all of those fighters onboard that we've got planned for the F-35A, so throughout that time, if we were able to do that, we would need to have F16s, F-15Es, and F-15Cs," he said.
Air Force officials told lawmakers last week they were considering plans to retire the F-15Cs as early as the mid-2020s to cut costs, proposing to replace the aircraft with modernized F-16s. Venable advised against the retirement of any of the service's platforms for at least the next seven years given existing deficits in the service's capacity.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein testified last month that less than 50 percent of the service meets readiness requirements for full-spectrum combat operations. Goldfein warned that if Congress again fails to pass a budget that fully funds the military, the Air Force would be unable to hire the number of maintainers, air traffic controllers, and pilots needed to engage successfully in current missions and rebuild readiness.
The Heritage Foundation said that while Trump's budget proposal challenges caps on defense spending implemented by the Budget Control Act under former President Barack Obama, it is ultimately "insufficient" to begin to rebuilding the military.
Beyond budget increases to sustain the Air Force's F-35A acquisition program along with its F-16 and F-15 platforms, Heritage has recommended a 4 percent increase to the service's operation and maintenance funding in 2018, with a total increase of 20 percent over the next five years. Defense experts said this is necessary for the service to recover from its 4,000-aircraft maintainer deficit and a training shortfall that has left pilots with fewer flight hours due to depressed federal funding.
Heritage is also calling on the Air Force to increase its manpower by 33,000 airmen, cultivating the force to 326,000 airmen in 2018 with incremental increases that will ultimately grow the branch to 350,000 airmen by 2025.
Lawmakers have until April 28 to pass a new budget before the current spending package expires, with the NDAA likely to hit the floor for a vote in late summer or early fall.