Air Force Budget Proposal Preserves Cherished Modernization Programs
The Air Force on March 4 released a fiscal year 2015 budget that emphasizes the funding of new capabilities over legacy equipment.
On the chopping block are Cold War-era aircraft such as the A-10 Warthog close-air support fighter, the venerable U-2 spyplane, along with the retirement of 51 F-15C jet fighters. Preserved are next-generation F-35 joint strike fighters, the new KC-46A refueling tanker and research and development for the long-range strike bomber.
The proposed cuts of the two platforms came as no surprise after Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel mentioned that they were on the chopping block when he previewed the budget Feb. 24.
The proposal calls for the Air Force’s base budget to be reduced slightly from $138.3 billion in 2014 to $137.8 billion for fiscal year 2015. Research, development, test and evaluation remains the same at $16 billion, and procurement is up almost $2 billion, from $16.8 billion in 2014 to $18.5 billion in 2015.
However, the documents released today also take note of what will occur if enacted sequestration levels remain in place starting in 2016. In that scenario, there would be reductions in the acquisitions of the KC-46A, F-35A and the MC-130J special operations tactical airlifter. The out years could also see the elimination of KC-10A tankers and RQ-4 Block 40 Global Hawk, the documents said.
Maj. Gen. Jim Martin, Air Force director of budget, said at a Pentagon briefing that retiring entire fleets “saves billions instead of millions.”
The Budget Control Act provided relief for two fiscal years from the effects of sequestration, Martin said. Beyond 2015, “Our biggest challenge remains, how to pay the bills and still support national defense requirements, now and into the future. To pay the bills, we had to make more difficult choices.”
Retiring the A-10s would save $3.7 billion over the next five years, with an additional $500 million if work stopped on a program to provide the aircraft new wings, Martin said.
The 2014 proposal includes the purchase of 26 joint strike fighters, seven C-130J Super Hercules, 12 MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, and the first seven KC-46 tankers.
Martin also made a surprise announcement that the Air Force would move forward with awarding a contract to Sikorsky to build an expected 122 combat rescue helicopters. The contract will be awarded this year, he said. The decision to move forward with the program was made earlier in the day and did not appear in the budget documents.
“I was informed of the decision just before I walked in here,” Martin told the reporters. Details would be forthcoming, he said.
There are research and development funds for the anticipated T-X trainer, which proponents say is needed to train pilots for the newest jet fighters such as the F-22 and F-35. The T-X would receive $600 million over the out years, with a contract awarded in fiscal year 2017, Martin said.
Research and development for the long-range bomber would increase from $359 million enacted in 2014 to $914 million.
Richard Aboulafia, analyst with the Teal Group, said the T-X program was looking more and more like the KC-X refueling tanker program where the Air Force kept pushing it off until the requirement to field it became critical. Something will have to be fielded in about a decade, he predicted.
As for the U-2 and Warthog, both have constituencies in Congress, and both have arguments for and against retirement. The A-10 less so, because its day has come, Aboulafia said. The aircraft, which was designed to destroy heavily armored vehicles on battlefields, can only do close-air support.
“What are the odds that we are going to be fighting a large, heavily armored tank army without a sophisticated air defense capability?” he asked.
“It is a fairly cut and dry move. It’s a system that’s aging. And a mission that has largely gone away, at least in the foreseeable future,” he said. “The problem is [the Air Force] has a history of trying to retire it perhaps a bit too prematurely. There were contingencies where it was quite useful so it might still be an uphill” battle to convince Congress to cut it, he said.
The U-2 is not as clear when making rational force structure decisions, he said. Substituting the remotely piloted Global Hawks, which would replace the U-2, would not necessarily lead to cost-savings. “You’re not going to get free money. You’re going to have to do that mission, and either way has its costs, advantages and disadvantages,” Aboulafia said.
Robert Hale, under secretary of defense and the department’s comptroller, said there is now a budgetary argument in favor of retiring the U-2.
“The operating costs on the Global Hawk Block 30s have come down. It was always a close call. Now it comes down in favor of the Global Hawk. We’ll keep them and gradually retire the U-2s,” he said at a Pentagon press briefing.
The Defense Department also on March 4 released its long-range strategic guidance document known as the Quadrennial Defense Review.
Budget reductions reduce the military’s margin of error when it comes to risks, the QDR stated. “The department can manage these risks under the President’s FY2015 budget plan, but the risks would grow significantly if sequester-level cuts return in 2016,” it stated.
The QDR emphasized cyber space operations, which is an area in which the Air Force has been out in front of other services.
“We will modernize next-generation Air Force combat equipment — including fighters and bombers — particularly against advancing modern air defense systems,” the QDR stated. The Air Force — if sequestration continues — will have to retire 80 additional aircraft, and slow down purchases of F-35s, it said.
In the space realm, the budget will cut two advanced-extremely high frequency (A-EHF) satellites that were previously scheduled to be built over the next five years, Martin said.
Meanwhile, Air Force Space Command officials have stated that there will be no new new-start satellite programs for the foreseeable future and that it planned to stick with its current fleet of Advanced-EHF and Wideband Global Satellites communication spacecraft until 2025. The Air Force will continue to study what this future space architecture will look like, the budget document said. New features will be added to its primary highly protected communications spacecraft through the AEHF Capabilities Insertion Program.
The QDR, meanwhile, emphasized defending space systems from adversaries.
“We will move toward less complex, more affordable, more resilient systems and system architectures and pursue a multi-layered approach to deter attacks on space systems while retaining the capabilities to respond should deterrence fail,” the QDR said.
“The department will continue to emphasize space investments that provide enhanced resilience and the ability to deter, defend against and defeat attacks to U.S. or allied systems,” it added.
The budget asks for two previously stalled space programs to get underway again: the ground-based space situational awareness radar known as the Space Fence and a weather tracking system dedicated to military users.
The budget phases funding back in for the Space Fence, two land-based radars that will be used to track space junk and other orbiting objects. The development of a next-generation system had stalled because of budget pressures. A contract award is expected this year with initial operating capability expected in 2018.
The Air Force reorganized its space-based weather tracking system after the Defense Department withdrew from a joint program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to build the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System in 2010. The “space-based environmental monitoring” system, dubbed “Weather System Follow-On,” is described as a “disaggregated system-of-systems” that will meet Defense Department weather tracking requirements. “Disaggregation” is the Air Force’s term for smaller satellites and sensors piggybacking as hosted payloads on other spacecraft.
Martin did not have further details on the program at the time of the briefing.
Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, said the documents released March 4 lacked details on the weather surveillance system.
As for the Space Fence, Harrison said, “That’s one of those capabilities that is really essential for the future threat environment because you can’t responds to threats in space if you don’t know they exist. ... We need better mapping of what is up there. It’s a good thing that is being restored in this budget.”
The Air Force’s five-year plan will cut some 25,000 personnel from the service, the Air National Guard and reserves. Personnel costs are growing, Martin said. “The Air Force simply has to get smaller,” he added. The cuts would reduce the number of active duty airmen by 18,000, reserves by 3,800 and the Guard by 1,800. There will be incentives for voluntary retirements, but some will be let go involuntarily, he said.
“We had to save billions in this budget and we made some very difficult choices,” Martin said. “We made choices that we really didn’t want to make but had to because of the reduction we had to take.”
The president’s budget included the Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative, a proposed increase to the federal budget that would appropriate an extra $26 billion of defense spending in return for tax and spending reforms. The Air Force’s piece of that would be spent on two extra F-35s, recapitalization of C-130Js and Reapers and other modifications, Martin said.