A drop in sustainment costs of the unmanned Global Hawk led the Air Force to recommend funding the drone as a replacement for the U-2. (Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — Air Force leadership spent months telling anyone who would listen that their budget would result in a smaller service today in order to afford modernization for tomorrow, and its budget delivered on that promise. But in an attempt to cut as deeply as possible to fund key priorities, the service has left itself in a precarious position as it heads into Congress to defend its decisions.
The truth is this: There simply isn’t wiggle room left for appropriators to shift funds around. If Congress changes programs, something else is going to have to go.
“We have to be careful. We did our best with the dollars we had and the guidance given to be able to prepare for [the mission],” Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, service military deputy for acquisition, said March 5. “Everything is kind of intertwined. You start dismantling that overall plan system by system, and then the whole thing starts to be threatened in terms of the capability we have.”
“The Air Force has made very clear they don’t have any margin, and it’s a zero-sum game from this point out,” said Rebecca Grant of Iris Research. “This is a budget plan that is going to make Congress decide how important top-rate air power is. The Air Force has put out a reasonable plan, and it’s time for this nation to fund it.”
A prime example of how little space the service has was the late decision to fund the Combat Rescue Helicopter program, which the Air Force announced would be awarded to the team of Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin sometime before June. In order to accommodate CRH, which was not in the future years defense plan until the day of the budget rollout, the Air Force will need to realign about $430 million from other programs over the course of the FYDP.
In other words, something — be it readiness, training, personnel or some other cost — is going to have to go.
The argument in favor of cutting current capability is the need to fund future modernization, and the budget request certainly does that. The F-35 joint strike fighter and KC-46A tanker each received big boosts for procurement, while the long-range strike bomber jumped to almost $1 billion in research and development funding. Smaller priorities, including the CRH, joint surveillance target attack radar system surveillance plane and the T-X trainer replacement, also received funding.
That sets up the possibility of major procurement costs coming due in the early to mid-2020s.
“Something has to give in the early 2020s, and the Air Force really can’t get much smaller,” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “This is partially a symptom of deferring modernization. Eventually, you’re in a position where you have to modernize or you become increasingly irrelevant as a force. Now it’s time to pay the modernization bills.”
Tough choices could be coming on how to handle that procurement wave, Gunzinger warned.
“Either their budget share is going to have to grow at the expense of others or the overall defense budget will have to grow, or they’re going to have to stretch out planned buys,” he said. “You don’t want to cut readiness, you can’t get much smaller, and reducing the growing cost of pay and benefits programs isn’t something the Air Force controls.” ■