Congress offers procurement boost for F-35 jets in FY24 spending bill

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The U.S. Air Force would receive enough money to buy 51 F-35A fighter jets in fiscal 2024 under the compromise Pentagon spending bill lawmakers released Thursday — three more than the service originally requested.

If enacted, the allotment would mark the most Joint Strike Fighters the Air Force has bought in a single year since 2021, when it procured 60. The service had included 48 F-35As in its fiscal 2024 budget request.

The FY24 defense appropriations bill would provide the Air Force more than $5.2 billion for F-35A procurement, an increase of nearly $361 million over the original budget request. The program increase of three additional F-35As would account for $277 million of that growth.

The purchase would still remain far below the minimum annual buy of 72 F-35s the service argued for years it needed to modernize its fighter fleet, while keeping up with the pace of older jets leaving the inventory. The Air Force plans to buy more than 1,700 F-35As, totaling nearly $250 billion, over the life of the program, according to FY25 budget documents.

Congress in FY24 also looks to give the Marine Corps and Navy funds for 16 short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing F-35Bs as well as 19 F-35Cs, which can take off and land from aircraft carriers.

F-35 fighters act as combat quarterbacks, conducting airstrikes as well as vacuuming up data on other nearby military assets and communications to share with the rest of the joint force. The program remains the Defense Department’s most expensive at more than $1.7 trillion to buy, operate and sustain.

Boosting spending on the Pentagon’s most advanced fighter jet is one piece of Congress’ agreement to put more than $40 billion toward militarywide aviation procurement in FY24 — $3 billion above the initial request, appropriators said in a legislative summary.

Congress would also approve the Air Force’s request to buy 24 F-15EX Eagle II fighters for $2.4 billion, seven MH-139 Grey Wolf patrol helicopters for $223 million and 15 KC-46A Pegasus refueling tankers for $2.8 billion.

The bill also offers an extra $840 million to purchase eight additional C-130J airlifters that would replace an older version flown by the Air National Guard; and $400 million to buy 10 HH-60W combat search and rescue helicopters, rebuffing the service’s plan to cease procurement.

And appropriators would provide $1.6 billion for procurement related to the Air Force’s B-21 Raider stealth bomber, about $55 million shy of its request because of a classified reduction. It’s unclear how many aircraft that might fund; the stealth bomber was approved to begin low-rate production last fall.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are pledging $2.3 billion to fully fund development of the F-35′s successor, known as the Next Generation Air Dominance program, and to further mature drone wingmen under the collaborative combat aircraft initiative.

Lawmakers on Friday were still scrambling to pass the FY24 defense budget ahead of a midnight deadline to fund the federal government or enter a shutdown.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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.

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