WASHINGTON — During her first speech as the civilian head of the Air Force on Monday, Secretary Heather Wilson reiterated a plea to Congress to remove mandatory budget caps that she argued hampered the service’s plans to boost the structure, improve readiness and modernize its aging aircraft inventory.
“More than anything else, we need predictability. The United States Air Force needs predictability.” she said during an Air Force Association breakfast event. “If you don’t provide relief from the Budget Control Act, we will hollow out the force and set ourselves back years. We have to get beyond the Budget Control Act.”
After her speech, Wilson told reporters that the service is “trying to make a shift to a force structure that is driven by threat and strategy” instead of by budget constraints — a change in decision making that she said resulted in the fiscal year 2018 request to keep the A-10 for the foreseeable future.
Wilson noted that priorities could change once the Trump administration solidifies its defense strategy, but in the meantime, the service appears to be staying the course. For instance, the Air Force continues to see the F-35, B-21 and KC-46 as its top modernization programs, and Wilson restated her support for recapitalizing the service’s nuclear weapons and investing in space capabilities.
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For the most part, her speech exposed that without help from Congress to lift spending caps, the Air Force will remain limited in investments it can make. Air Force officials weighed in on a couple key programs on Monday.
The Air Force requested 46 F-35As in its fiscal year 2018 budget request and included an additional 12 aircraft in its annual unfunded priorities list it. If both are fully funded, the service will be able to meet its goal buy rate of 60 aircraft for the first time.
So why didn’t the Air Force request 60 F-35As to begin with this year?
It came down to available funding, said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service’s top uniformed acquisition officer.
"We only have so much money and so many priorities and so much mission, and we had to prioritize … what we could do within the budget that we had and the topline that we had,” he told reporters after Wilson’s speech.
“We do want to get to 60 as quickly as we can, and the emphasis area for us is to continue to see the price per aircraft continue to come down, and we want to see the sustainment costs continue to come down so that we can not only afford to buy them, but we also got to be able to operate them and employ them."
Without the additional 14 aircraft, it will take longer for the service to build up the inventory and trained operators needed to fight against near-peer competitors, he added.
Although the Air Force projected last year that it could begin buying 60 F-35As per year in fiscal year 2021, current budget predictions push that out into at least past 2022. Bunch said that current levels of funding, again, forced the service to delay its goal.
"There's only so much we can do within the dollars that we have based upon the priorities as we've got,” he said. "We had to prioritize and draw the line, and that's where we drew the line."
The Air Force requested 15 KC-46As in its fiscal year 18 budget but added another three tankers to its wish list to accelerate the pace of procurement. Bunch explained that the service wants to buy the KC-46 faster to be able to phase out its aging KC-10 tankers.
"The program is progressing, but it is going slower than we anticipated and slower than we would like,” he said.
Darlene Costello, the service’s principal deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, will meet with KC-46 manufacturer Boeing on June 6 to discuss whether the company will be able to meet current test and production milestones, including an October 2018 deadline to deliver 18 tankers and 9 refueling pods.
"Boeing still believes they can make that date that they've got out there as a schedule. We believe it's a little to the right of that,” Bunch said. However, even if the program encounters further delays, the service believes an additional three aircraft in fiscal year 18 will have moved past current problems by the time production is set to start.
“If you look at when those aircraft that we would be procuring would deliver, we will be beyond the test program; we will have resolved the issues that we're challenged with right now; and it will get us to a more modern fleet in a more timely matter,” he said.
According to the current posture, the A-10 Warthog will be safe for the next five years, but the aircraft is not fully in the clear, as it will need further upgrades in the near future to extend its life.
“At some point, there are about 134 A-10s that are going to have to get their wings redone if we're going to keep them longterm, but when we look out five years they are still in the Air Force inventory,” Wilson said.
Overall, Wilson seemed supportive of retaining the Warthog, saying that even though other platforms can perform the close air support mission, it “does a lot of things that other aircraft don't do,” such as its ability to loiter over targets for extended periods of time.
Asked whether an A-10 replacement would eventually be needed, she deflected.
“There are a lot of other things that will fall out of the sky probably before an A-10,” she joked.