Air Force General: Future Modernization Will Require More Money Than Currently Budgeted
Without an eventual uptick in funding, the U.S. Air Force’s ambitious modernization wish list could be at risk, along with the nation’s ability to project forces globally, according to Lt. Gen. Christopher Miller, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs at U.S. Air Force headquarters.
“There is a certain level where you have to be able to make the case that the nation needs an Air Force of a certain size and capability,” Miller said March 27 at an Air Force Association breakfast in Washington, D.C. “If the nation wants to be able to mount the kinds of operations necessary to be good partners with allies across the world, to be able to respond to disasters … to do all the things that we need to do, it’s going to take a certain amount of investment.”
The Obama administration’s five-year defense spending plan calls for a reduction in Air Force end strength by about 10,000 airmen and nearly 300 aircraft.
The Air Force “took some risk” in proposing that budget, Miller said. It also cancels the C-27 cargo aircraft program and a version of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle.
“From a program perspective, anytime you can retire an entire variant of aircraft or an entire weapons system and the logistics support structure that underlies it and the training infrastructure, the savings that you get are far greater than if you just retire a fraction of a fleet,” Miller said. Those cuts were calculated to free up funding for a lengthy list of “critical” modernization programs, Miller said.
“What that allowed us to do was keep some very important things on track,” Miller said of the planned budget and program cuts. Top priorities include the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, though procurement of the aircraft has been slowed. The wish list also includes acquisition of a new tanker and bomber, a replacement for the T-38 jet trainer, upgrades to the C-17 strategic cargo fleet, space vehicles and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, he said.
Having multiple programs scheduled to begin production around 2020 could produce a bow wave of requirements that outpaces constrained resources, officials have acknowledged.
Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff, has said the service was willing to make further internal sacrifices to protect each of those modernization priorities. Miller suggested that funding should be funneled from elsewhere to pay for those programs.
“Defense spending is at a fairly low level of GDP, historically. So the nation could choose to allocate more resources to the Air Force,” he said. “I would argue that at some point it is probably going to have to do that.”
Miller did not elaborate on whether that funding should come from other military branches or result from a topline increase in defense spending.
Miller noted that, with the current budget, some programs are at risk. The T-38 replacement is “absolutely critical,” but the Air Force today is unable to afford it. Also of concern is that as the Air Force’s overall budget decreases over the next five years, the proportion devoted to procurement could dwindle as operation and maintenance and personnel costs continue to rise, Miller said.
Because F-35 procurement has been slowed, the Air Force will be forced to rely on the current fleet of F-16 fighters for longer than originally planned. Around 300 of the aircraft will have to be upgraded while the F-35 is introduced over the next decade, he said.
As the nation’s foreign policy focus turns to the Pacific Ocean, where vast distances favor air and sea power, the Air Force could receive additional resources. Analysts have conjectured that following fiscal year 2013, funding could skew toward the Navy and Air Force. In the near term, however, the Air Force, like its sister services, will shrink. The focus is on fewer but more capable systems such as unmanned aircraft and multi-role platforms like the F-35. Echoing top brass from all military branches, Miller warned against further cuts like those associated with a possible sequestration beginning in January.
“If we get much smaller, our ability to maintain a global posture will decrease,” he said.