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​F-35A funding was pegged at $5.23 billion for FY ‘19, down slightly from last year's request of $5.7 billion. Above, such a Lightning II sits on the flightline at Yokota AB, Japan, Feb. 9, 2018. USAF photo by Yasuo Osakabe.

The Air Force plans to buy 48 F-35A fighters in its Fiscal 2019 budget request, a very modest increase from the Fiscal 2018 request of 46 and back to the level requested in Fiscal 2017, with no sign yet that the service will soon be boosting its buy to levels of more than 100, forecasted eight years ago for the near future.

Funding for F-35A procurement was pegged at $5.23 billion for Fiscal 2019, actually down slightly from the Fiscal 2018 request of $5.714 billion, but the Air Force is also asking for F-35 “capability development” funding of $550 million in 2019, up from $335 million in 2018.

Air Force Undersecretary Matt Donovan, speaking to Air Force Magazine after an AFA Mitchell Institute event on Monday, said the service is grappling with how to “balance” the need to stock up with new aircraft versus the fact that those built so far have to be modified to reach a common configuration. 

“That’s what we’re working through,” Donovan said. “Because the faster we buy them right now means the more we’re going to have to retrofit later up to a certain capability.” 

He also said USAF is considering a two-tiered F-35 force approach: one that makes sure “the frontline combat units have the very latest” capability while training units have a lesser but “still pretty good” capability that provides adequate preparation for frontline pilots. The Air Force takes such an approach with the F-22 fleet: training aircraft are not configured with the latest capabilities carried by frontline aircraft.

Asked if he ever sees the Air Force F-35 buy reaching 110 a year, Donovan said it will all depend on success in knocking down sustainment costs. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord “are working really hard—I mean, that’s a big focus for them—to drive down the cost of sustainment,” Donovan said. Whether they succeed will determine whether the Air Force buys out the full order of 1,763 aircraft or halts the buy and moves on to something else.

“It’s really dependent on the cost of sustainment,” he said. “That really drives the cost of the entire system, as far as the total numbers we would build.”