BUDGET 2021: Tradeoffs, Aircraft Retirements Drive Air Force Budget Request

By Stew Magnuson

U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw

Great power competition and the cutting edge technologies that support it dominated the Trump administration’s Air Force budget request for the next fiscal year.

But sacrifices have to be made in the form of cuts to legacy platforms, an Air Force official told reporters Feb. 10 at the Pentagon.

“The fiscal ’21 budget takes calculated risks in near-term capacity and legacy platforms to invest in the key capabilities we need to mitigate unacceptable capability gaps in the future,” said Maj. Gen. John M. Pletcher, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for budget in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for financial management and comptroller.

The Air Force’s topline budget numbers appeared to be about even from last year’s enacted number of $168.1 billion, but the 2021 proposal had some $15.4 billion carved out for the new Space Force.

The administration is proposing $168.9 billion for the next fiscal year. But it included a number of cuts to older platforms. It proposed cutting 29 aircraft from two aerial refueling tanker fleets and 17 B-1 bombers, for example.

“I think the priorities the Air Force is going toward and the approach they are taking is building toward the [National Defense Strategy],” said Matt Vallone, an analyst with the consulting firm Avascent. “But I think the way they are accomplishing this by retiring a bunch of legacy aircraft faces a lot of risk before Congress. It makes me wonder how much of these savings they will actually realize,” he added.

The budget rolled out the “next-generation air dominance program,” a catch-all for a variety of ongoing initiatives including hypersonics, directed energy, optionally manned systems, mass weapon payload systems and advanced space capabilities. The program seeks to leverage developing and existing technologies and puts $1 billion toward their integration.

Vallone said despite the budget battles to come in Congress, the Air Force does have a “clear-eyed” sense that it needs to transition from legacy platforms to the technologies of the future, and the budget proposal reflects that. “That is progress,” he added.

The Air Force's proposed budget also supports the administration’s overall goal to invest more in the nation’s nuclear deterrence. It would invest $1.5 billion in the Minuteman III replacement program, also known as the ground-based strategic deterrent. The other delivery system, the B-21 Raider, remains under the research, development, test and evaluation budget.

The next-generation overhead persistent infrared satellite system, designed to track nuclear missiles, is in the Space Force budget at $2.3 billion, a big boost over the $1.4 billion enacted in 2020.

As for fixed-wing aircraft, the Air Force requested 48 F-35 joint strike fighters for 2020, but Congress boosted that to 62. The service is sticking with the 48 number for 2021.

The new KC-46 Pegasus refueler gets an increase of three aircraft over the 12 enacted in 2020 for a total of 15 as that program continues to ramp up production.

Pletcher said there was a certain amount of risk the Air Force had to take in order to fund future capabilities. One was proposing to retire the KC-10 and KC-135 refuelers before the Boeing-built Pegasus is ready to begin operations.

Vallone said: “These retirements are simply not going to be things the Congress will accept. I can see that running into some headwinds.” That also goes for reducing the number of B-1 bombers before the B-21 is ready, he said.

The surprise proposal in the 2020 budget request for eight revamped F-15 jet fighters, called the F-15EX, appeared again. Congress gave the Air Force two less of what the service requested with six aircraft. The 2021 proposal asks for 12 more.

Air Force Special Operations Command under the proposal will receive four MC-130J Commando aerial refuelers, half of what was enacted in 2020. The Lockheed Martin-built C-130 is modified for stealth and survivability and to refuel special operations forces' rotary-wing aircraft.

The Air Force has a number of large development programs underway, which are found in the research, development, test and evaluation budget. That account would receive $27 billion under the proposal, not including the $10.3 billion in RDT&E funding for the Space Force.

The big-ticket item in the RDT&E budget is the B-21 Raider, which continues relatively steady funding at $2.8 billion, down from $2.9 billion in 2020.

Tying together all the advanced technologies the Air Force wants to pursue as far as joint and multi-domain operations is the advanced battle management system. The network will connect sensor and shooter capabilities and is on-ramping features about every four months, Pletcher said. The ABMS request doubled to $302 million over 2020.

The biggest leap in the development account is the ground-based strategic deterrent, the Minuteman III replacement program, which is receiving almost $1 billion more than 2020. The program is due for increased costs after the Air Force awarded the contract to Northrop Grumman in 2019. The proposal is asking for $1.5 billion in 2021.

The other program ramping up after a contract award is the Boeing-Saab Built T-7A Red Hawk jet trainer. Its numbers are down from $340 million in 2020 to $249 million in the proposal as it moves from development to testing.

The Air Force’s part of the Pentagon’s overall campaign to develop hypersonic capabilities was reduced in the RDT&E budget. It is requesting $382 million, down from $576 million it received in 2020.

As for directed energy, one program will be put toward base security and protecting supply lines. “Since we know we will have to generate that combat power in a future battlefield that is dangerous, dynamic and dispersed — where our logistics will be under attack — we are investing to reinvent logistics,” Pletcher said.

As an example, the Air Force wants to invest $148 million for “directed energy solutions for defending our bases,” he added.

While the new Space Force has its first separate budget proposal, the Air Force continues to pay for certain services under what Pletcher called “Blue for Space.” Pay for Air Force personnel transferring to the new Space Force is one example. The two services want to ensure a smooth transition as far as dispersing paychecks. Some $800 million in that category remains in the Air Force’s proposed account in 2021.

The 2021 proposal includes $21.5 billion for Air Force in the overseas contingency operations account. The Air Force requested $42.3 billion for 2020, but received substantially less than that at $14.2 billion.

Vallone predicted that the final Air Force budget Congress passes won’t resemble the Trump administration’s proposal since cutting legacy platforms is problematic. But the savings to pay for future systems will have to come from somewhere as the Defense Department’s overall topline is a matter of law. The service might have to pull funds out of the operations and maintenance budget, or even take its seedcorn funding for the new systems from RDT&E, he added.

“They can’t take it out of the military personnel budget, and once you leave that, it kind of becomes a game of chicken as far as what other accounts gets hit,” Vallone said.

Read More Budget 2021 Stories:

-Trump Proposes Flat Pentagon Budget

-Trump Budget Would Cut Marine Corps Funding, Force Structure

-Pentagon Rolls Out First Space Force Budget

- Navy Proposes Slashing Shipbuilding Budget by $4 Billion

- Army Realigns $2.4 Billion in New Budget Request

Topics: Budget, Defense Department

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