Air Force Hopes to Jettison Pass-Through Budget

By Jon Harper

Air Force photo

The Air Force has long been saddled with accounts that fund other organizations’ projects, but officials and other supporters are pushing to change that.

Critics of the “pass-through” budget, which on paper goes to the Air Force but actually pays for intelligence agency assets, say it hurts the service by making its coffers appear larger.

“It makes it look like the Department of the Air Force is getting more money than it actually is,” Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, said during the Air Force’s Association Virtual Air, Space and Cyber Conference. “It obscures debate about defense spending. And it gets into this idea of how hard it is to compare [funding] across services.”

Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, head of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said there is a persistent myth that the Air Force is funded roughly equally with the other service departments, but a much smaller percentage of the defense budget goes toward Air Force capabilities and modernization. That isn’t enough to achieve the airpower capacity the nation needs, he argued.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said $38 billion of the $207 billion Air Force budget request for 2021 is pass-through funding. “Most people in Congress don’t realize that.”

Bacon has introduced the Air Force Budget Transparency Act, which would break out that funding and make it part of the Defense-wide budget.

Lawmakers have important decisions to make about resource allocation and military modernization, he noted.

“To make those decisions, you’ve got to know what we’re actually spending. And today that fact is obscured to most because of this pass-through budget,” he said.
Richard McConn, CEO and founder of M International Inc. and chairman emeritus for the National Defense Industrial Association, noted that previous efforts to eliminate the pass-through were unsuccessful.

“We were unable to do it this year,” he said. “Hopefully we can rejuvenate and address this problem at some point in the near future.”

However, there are a number of potential roadblocks and powerful stakeholders with an interest in keeping the status quo.

“We have select intelligence committees that do not want transparency and continue to want to keep this [spy agency] budget hidden, and they prefer for it to be hidden in the Air Force,” he said.

The White House and the Office of Management and Budget may not be willing to go along with the change, McConn noted.

Then there’s the ever-present factor of inter-service rivalry and competition for limited resources. The Army and Navy departments might not want to see the pass-through budget moved if it could lead to a plus-up in the true Air Force budget at their own expense.

“Every service is out there to justify its share,” McConn said. “I don’t feel optimistic that no matter who is elected Nov. 3rd, that we’re going to see an increase in defense budgets. So in a zero-sum game, there’s going to be some inter-service rivalry and competition, and understandably so.”

Topics: Air Force News

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