The Pentagon’s 2020 Budget Asks for Nearly 380 Aircraft, But One Buy Is Raising Eyebrows

Fighters are down, but helicopters are up.

F-35B Lightning II- Ready to Strike
United States Marine CorpGetty Images

The Trump Administration’s 2020 Budget is out, and the Pentagon is asking for 17 more aircraft than it received in 2019. A quick tally of the aircraft shows the number of fighter jets and unmanned aerial vehicles the services are asking for is down slightly, while the number of helicopters is up. Also, the Air Force is purchasing eight new F-15s in a deal that smells fishy, given the Acting Secretary of Defense’s work career.

The tally, by Aviation Week & Space Technology defense editor Stephen Trimble, shows a slight increase of 17 aircraft year over year, from 362 authorized in 2019 to 379 proposed for 2020. The aircraft are broken down into a number a categories as follows:

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F-15EX.
Boeing

Fighters: DoD wants 110 fighters in 2020, down from 117 in 2019. The Air Force is asking for 48 F-35As, down eight from 2019. The Marines want just 10 F-35Bs, less than half their 2019 purchase. Only the Navy is buying more F-35s, with the service requesting 20 of the carrier-capable F-35C model. The Navy is also buying 24 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.

The real wild card here: the Air Force is asking for eight F-15EX fighters, part of a goal of buying 80 through 2024. At the same time, the Air Force is asking for eight less F-35s. The service has said in the past it would not spend money on F-15s at the expense of the F-35 program, but that appears to be exactly what happened.

According to outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, the service’s 2020 budget originally did not include the F-15s. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics has with the Pentagon alleging that Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a 30-year Boeing employee, intervened to force the service to buy Boeing’s F-15s over the F-35.

Air Force Works To Meet Increased Demand For Remotely Piloted Aircraft
MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle.
Isaac BrekkenGetty Images

Other Aircraft: The Air Force is asking for 12 KC-46A Pegasus tankers, three less than in 2019. The service will eventually order at least 179 of the aircraft, and at this rate, it’ll take about thirteen years to buy them all. It’s also asking for another squadron of 24 MQ-9A Reapers and a dozen HH-60W combat search and rescue helicopters.

The Navy and Marines, on the other hand, are asking for three more , six more P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, and two long-range unmanned aerial vehicles. The service also wants to purchase 22 F-5 Tiger IIs, from the Swiss Air Force, to act as aggressor aircraft for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps fighter pilots to train against.

Air Cav lends abilities to Pegasus Forge IV
AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters of the 1st Cavalry Division, 2019.
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Shiloh Capers

Helicopters: More than half of the Pentagon’s aircraft request for 2020 consists of helicopters, with the U.S. Army taking the lion’s share. The Army will request 48 AH-64 Apache helicopters remanufactured to the new AH-64E Apache Guardian standard, enough for two attack helicopter battalions. It’s also asking for 73 UH-60M Blackhawk transport helicopters, about 15 more than it got in 2019. Nine CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopters round out the Army’s request.

With a few exceptions, the rest of the helicopters go to the Marine Corps. The Marines are asking for six of the enormously expensive helicopter, ten MV-22 Ospreys, and six VH-92A helicopters, otherwise known as the new Marine One: the official vertical lift ride of the President of the United States.

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Artists’ conception of the VH-92A helicopter, AKA "Marine One".
Lockheed Martin

Will the services get what they ask for? It’s likely, although the split control of Congress into a Democratic House of Representatives and Republican Senate could complicate the services’ plans. The House, in particular, will almost certainly take a hard look at the F-15EX controversy and may even refuse to fund it--much to the Air Force’s relief. The services may even get more aircraft than they ask for, as Congress has been known to add extra aircraft. Let the budget battles begin.

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