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Air Force’s $166 Billion Budget Would Help Revamp U.S. Nuclear Deterrent

The service would get a significant increase in research and development dollars.

A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber flies over the Indian Ocean after completing a mission over Iraq on March 27, 2003. (Cherie A. Thurlby/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images)
A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber flies over the Indian Ocean after completing a mission over Iraq on March 27, 2003. (Cherie A. Thurlby/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images)

The White House is requesting $166 billion for the U.S. Air Force in its latest budget request, out this week, a sizable 6 percent increase over last year that the service will put in part towards revamping its pieces of America’s nuclear deterrent.

The Air Force’s budget roadmap includes a significant hike in funding for research and development, which will support the branch’s efforts to replace its nuclear bombers as well as land-based and air-launched missiles, two sources with knowledge of the service’s budget told Foreign Policy. The service is asking Congress for $35.4 billion for research and development this year, a 16.4 percent increase from last year, one of the sources said.

This money, if approved, will be put toward development of the service’s new nuclear stealth bomber, Northrop Grumman’s B-21 “Raider;’ its replacement for the Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile; and a new air-launched nuclear cruise missile to arm the older B-52 bomber. All of these new weapons are in early stages of development.

The funding will also go to building a new trainer aircraft for fighter and bomber pilots, the sources said.

Over the years, the Defense Department’s mammoth effort to modernize its nuclear arsenal, which also includes the Navy’s nuclear submarines, has generally had bipartisan support on Capitol Hill despite its almost $500 billion price tag. Previous President Barack Obama also endorsed the effort.

But the Pentagon may face renewed resistance from lawmakers this year, particularly in the newly Democratic House. The Air Force’s nuclear cruise missile and the new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile are the most likely targets, as the projects have previously faced criticism from high-profile officials. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, among other current and former officials, has decried the cruise missile as “extremely destabilizing.”

In the most concrete evidence that lawmakers will put up a more robust fight this year, the chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee recently took a shot at the land-based leg of the nuclear triad, saying the missiles are not “necessary for our deterrence.”

“The problem with them is that they’re identifiable targets and, also, I don’t think they’re necessary for our deterrence because of the submarines that we have and the bombers,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Smith during a recent hearing.

Aside from the spike in research and development funds, the biggest change to the Air Force’s budget roadmap is the decision to begin buying a new version of Boeing’s legacy F-15 fighter jet, dubbed the F-15X, the sources confirmed. The decision was not in the Air Force’s original plan when it started drawing up the fiscal year 2020 budget, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson acknowledged in early March. Rather, it was forced on the service by Pentagon leadership.

The Air Force plans to buy eight F-15Xs this year and a total of 80 over the next five years.

The addition of the F-15X to the Air Force’s fleet will not come at the expense of Lockheed Martin’s F-35, the source said. However, the Air Force is buying fewer F-35s than planned over the next five years, just 48 per year. In last year’s budget submission, the service had planned to buy 48 in fiscal year 2020, then ramp up to 54 per year starting in fiscal year 2021.

However, there is funding in the Air Force’s budget to accelerate an upgrade to the F-35, called Block 4, one source said.

In total, the Air Force plans to eventually buy about 1,500 F-35s.

If history is any indication, Congress will likely oppose the Air Force’s plan to cut the F-35 and ultimately add money in the budget to continue buying the plane at the same rate.

Like the White House’s overall budget submission for the Department of Defense, the Air Force’s plan includes a sizable portion of funds for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, a controversial war fund that has been criticized as a “slush fund.” The Air Force’s budget includes $42.4 billion for OCO.

To support this shift, the Air Force has moved whole programs into OCO, such as funding to buy the precision-guided weapons the joint direct attack munitions, the source said.

Including what is called “pass through” money for classified programs, which the Air Force does not control, the service would be getting $204.8 billion, the sources said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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