Air Force 2017 Budget Request Preserves Major Development Programs, Cuts F-35A Procurement (UPDATED)
The Obama administration’s 2017 budget request released Feb. 9 for the Air Force seeks to preserve funding for two of its top three development programs, the new long-range bomber and aerial refueling tanker, while cutting acquisition of the F-35A.
The Air Force request for fiscal year 2017 is $120.4 billion, a small increase of $1.3 billion over the enacted funding for 2016.
It also requests an additional $12.3 billion in overseas contingency operations funding, which is an increase of $2.2 billion over what it received in 2016. The Air Force is seeking to procure 24 MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft in the OCO budget, while not funding any in its baseline budget. It has traditionally funded procurement of the aircraft in its base budget.
The “bill payer” for the Air Force this year will be five F-35A joint strike fighters, which are being deferred “due to fiscal constraints,” the budget document said. The service is requesting the procurement of 43 F-35As in 2017. The overall F-35A budget will be reduced to $5.2 billion in 2017 from the $6 billion enacted in 2016. Over is future years development program through 2021, the Air Force plans to cut 45 F-35As for a total savings of $4.9 billion.
Air Force Deputy for Budget Carolyn M. Gleason said that will not affect the program of record to procure 1,763 aircraft. Acquisition will ramp up again beginning in 2021, she said. Because of the numerous foreign customers and service partners, the lower procurement was not expected to drive up the cost of the aircraft, she said. "Right now we don't expect the reduction in quantities to affect the cost per platform."
The Air Force is also seeking to cut 20 of the number of C-130H transport aircraft it flies, which will reduce excess capacity and free up resources to invest in the remaining fleet, the budget document said. The modernization efforts include new center wing boxes, avionic modernization flight management systems and multi-function displays.
In addition to the F-35A and C-130H reductions, the Air Force will let needed infrastructure and information technology updates slide, said Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget Maj. Gen. James F. Martin. That will continue to degrade readiness, he said.
"If sequestration returns in FY 18, we will be faced with another multi-billion dollar shortfall to solve in one year and we will be unable to plan for the capabilities we will need in the future," said Martin, who in the middle of the briefing at the Pentagon appeared to be under some kind of medical distress, and had to depart.
The troubled next-generation GPS III navigation satellite program is in store for major restructuring. The program, which was supposed to see its first launch this year, will delay procurement of the first spacecraft to 2018 “to support the pursuit of a new competitive acquisition strategy.” GPS III’s OCX payload, the cornerstone of the modernization program, has been mired in development delays. Research, development, testing and evaluation of the payload will increase from $349 million in 2016 to $393 million in 2017.
Gleason said the program would be set back 24 months. "The delay does of course, drive up costs and our budget does reflect that," she said.
As for other space programs, the budget supports the completion of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite fleet with the procurement of the fifth and sixth spacecraft at $646 million. There is also $363 million in funding for two space-based infrared systems satellites, which are used for detecting missile launches.
Other than the F-35A, the service’s other two top development programs will see boosts. The Air Force intends to acquire 15 of the new Boeing-built KC-46 tankers. Those, plus other development work, will increase its budget from $2.4 billion in 2016 to $3.05 billion in 2017. As for research and development, there is a big plus-up for the long-range strike bomber. The Air Force is requesting $1.3 billion in 2017, nearly double the $736 million it is spending in 2016.
The budget supports continued work on recapitalizing the joint surveillance target attack radar system, JSTARS, which has been identified as one of the service’s top acquisition priorities. The new aircraft are expected to enter service by 2024. However, Gleason said "the program has had some struggles and we have extended the risk reduction program." The engineering, manufacturing and development phase has been pushed back one year. "We're going to get that program back on track," she said. The Air Force was in the process of amending JSTARS' cost estimates, she added.
Two aircraft the service had sought to retire, the U-2 and A-10, have gained temporary reprieves in the face of congressional criticism. The U-2 spy plane will be supported through 2019, the Air Force said, which is in accordance with Congresses wishes not to see any of the aircraft retired until they can be replaced with the RQ-4 Block 30 high-altitude, long endurance unmanned aircraft.
As previously reported, the controversial decision to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II tactical fighter aircraft is being delayed until 2022. Previous budget requests sought to divest the Warthog fleet, which ran into opposition in Congress. The A-10 will then transition to the F-35A. Martin said it will cost the Air Force $3.4 billion to keep the Warthog in the inventory over the next five years.
The Air Force request fully funds the recapitalization of the presidential aircraft, better known as Air Force One, with a goal of replacing the current aircraft by 2024.
The service will also seek to replace its aging Vietnam era UH-1N light lift utility helicopters, which it uses to provide security at it s intercontinental ballistic missile sites. It will procure a commercial-off-the-shelf or government off the shelf aircraft, the document said. The services other major rotary-wing program, the combat rescue helicopter, is also fully funded, with a projected initial operating capability in 2021. The program’s R&D account would nearly double from $156 million in 2016 to $319 in the 2017 request.
Updated to included comments from Air Force officials.