Air Force 2022 Budget Is All About Technology, Much Of It Secret

The U.S. Air Force on Friday unveiled details of its first budget request during the Biden years, stressing investment in a slew of overdue technology initiatives.

The proposed budget, which includes funding for the recently redesignated Space Force, is full of secret programs. The Air Force has many more classified investment efforts under way than the other military services, consistent with its reputation as the high-tech service.

That high-tech image has taken a beating since the Cold War ended, as Republican and Democratic administrations repeatedly delayed or canceled futuristic projects such as space radar.

Friday’s budget release, though, reflects across-the-board modernization impacting every mission area, from long-range strike to space protection to nuclear command and control.

The biggest development program identified in budget documents, and one of the most secretive, is the B-21 bomber. The stealthy next-gen strike aircraft is budgeted for $2.9 billion in the fiscal year commencing October 1, including the first increment of funding for advanced procurement of parts.

B-21, also known as Raider, is being designed as a system that can hold any type of target at risk, anywhere in the world, using both nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. It will be armed, among other things, with a new Long Range Standoff Weapon, also stealthy, that is budgeted at $609 million in 2022.

Another major modernization effort is Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared, a satellite constellation that can detect, track and classify diverse threats using their heat signatures. Budgeted at $2.4 billion in 2022, it is essential to effective deterrence and warning of attack.

A third big-ticket development item is the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the planned successor to the Minuteman III ICBM. It is budgeted at $2.6 billion in 2022.

The Air Force is also spending heavily on upgrades to the nuclear command and control network to assure greater resilience and responsiveness as overseas threats proliferate.

All of the aforementioned projects contribute to recapitalization of the nation’s aging nuclear force, as do upgrades of the B-52 bomber and space initiatives.

The space initiatives are focused mainly on protecting U.S. orbital assets from destruction or degradation in a crisis. Although largely secret, they presumably include efforts to harden constellations, counter hostile jamming, maneuver in space, and even shoot back at attackers.

But nuclear and space-related investments are not the only items driving up Air Force spending on R&D as procurement outlays decline to await production of next-generation systems.

Another highly classified undertaking called Next Generation Air Dominance seeks to develop leap-ahead tactical aircraft. Although that effort is currently only “one prototype deep,” to quote a knowledgeable source, it is budgeted at $1.5 billion next year.

An additional project about which relatively little is publicly known is the Advanced Battle Management System, the Air Force’s contribution to a joint network that can function effectively across all five warfighting domains—air, land, sea, space and the electromagnetic spectrum.

Battle management is an ubiquitous theme in the Air Force R&D budget because without secure communications to share reconnaissance and direct combat, it is not possible to use warfighting assets to optimum effect. That applies whether the fight is nuclear or conventional, in space or within the atmosphere.

In order to fund its top modernization priorities, the Air Force is taking steps to cut spending on some items considered less critical. For instance, major reductions in outlays for munitions are proposed because current stores are deemed adequate, with the Joint Direct Attack Munition seeing a nearly 90% cut from this year’s enacted budget, and Hellfire munitions outlays slashed by three-quarters.

The service also wants to continue retirement of aged Cold War systems to free up money for more advanced warfighting capabilities. Aircraft targeted for retirements in 2022 include the A-10 tank killer, KC-10 aerial refueling tanker, F-15 and F-16 fighters, and some Global Hawk drones.

The Air Force continues to stress the primacy of people and readiness in its budget priorities, and there is little doubt that without highly trained personnel sustaining mission-capable warfighting systems, the service could not do its job.

However, when it comes to where the action is in the Air Force’s fiscal 2022 budget request, there is also little doubt that it is all about new technology—especially secret programs.