WASHINGTON – In crafting this year's budget request, the US Air Force must thread the needle between keeping up with the current air campaign and preparing for the future battlefield.

Ahead of President Obama's fiscal year 2017 budget roll-out, the Air Force is spread thinner than ever. The US-led air strikes in the Middle East have intensified over the past year, with no signs the fighting will let up. At the same time, commanders must keep an eye on a resurgent Russia, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and an increasingly volatile North Korea.

Meanwhile, Air Force modernization programs may face cuts. President Obama is set to submit a budget that is $15 billion less than the Pentagon hoped to have, a reduction that will likely come from the equipment, rather than personnel, side of the house.

However, analysts don't foresee any major surprises in the Air Force's FY17 budget request. Instead, the service will likely focus on maintaining aircraft readiness levels, restocking munitions expended in Iraq and Syria, and making smaller cuts across the force to prepare for the "bow wave" of major recapitalization programs just on the horizon.

"I don't see the appetite for major axing or a deep cut," said Katherine Blakeley, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Rather, the service will adopt a "shave, shave, shave, salami slicing" approach, she predicted.

Keeping Pace with Today's War

The US-led airstrikes against the Islamic State group have intensified over the last few months, particularly following November's terrorist attacks in Paris. The recent escalation is adding further strain to the Air Force's already strained resources as the fleet racks up flight hours over Iraq and Syria.

As of Dec. 31, the total cost of operations related to ISIS was $11.4 million a day, or $5.8 billion overall, according to the Pentagon's latest numbers. The Air Force bears the majority of that burden – 69 percent – spending $7.8 million per day on the campaign. Much of that cash goes to munitions, as well as maintenance and logistics support for the aircraft flying the missions over Iraq and Syria.

In addition to keeping the major programs on track in the FY17 budget request, the Air Force will likely seek funds to to replenish its munitions arsenal, Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, told Defense News.

"We've had a very active war over the last year, and so we're looking at munitions expenditure rates that we haven't seen for some years," Grant said. "To pay for the air war that is going on now – of which the Air Force is a big part – I expect the budget to keep the major programs on pace."

The service will likely request munitions in its portion of the overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told Defense News in a September interview.

The service is also having trouble keeping up with demand for its fighter jet fleet. Analysts say they will be watching whether the Air Force adds funds for badly needed F-15 and F-16 upgrades in the FY17 budget request.

In fact, combatant commanders' needs are so high that the Air Force is reconsidering immediate plans to retire the A-10 Warthog attack plane, a key policy shift the service will reportedly lay out in its FY17 budget roll out. The spread of ISIS and Russia's aggression in Eastern Europe have prompted the Air Force to re-examine the A-10 retirement plan, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Defense News in an exclusive television interview.

But the decision to keep the A-10s around for the foreseeable future creates another funding gap, said Doug Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute. Many of the A-10s are almost 40 years old and badly need upgrades.

"The nose of the aircraft is actually, no kidding, drooping because of all the flying and the use of the gun," Birkey said. The Air Force needs to decide whether to accept the risk assumed by operating aging platforms, or to invest in wing kits and other updates, he said.

Preparing for the Next Conflict

Even as the Air Force struggles to keep pace with the campaign against ISIS, the service must also prepare for a potential future conflict – most likely involving a near-peer adversary like Russia or China. The US has spent the past 25 years entangled in counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East, where the air space is largely uncontested. But the future may present different challenges, and the Air Force could be forced to fight in nonpermissive skies.

To that end, the Air Force has embarked on an ambitious plan to modernize legacy aircraft across the force, including new fighter, bomber, tanker, trainer, ground-surveillance and electronic attack fleets.  Analysts expect the Air Force budget request to include plans to recapitalize its Joint Surveillance Attack Radar System fleet, its EC-130H Compass Call aircraft, and begin development of a new T-X trainer.

Recapitalization of the fleet is critical if the Air Force is to keep pace with the evolving threat. Experts are concerned current readiness levels can no longer support two major, near-simultaneous wars, a standard that has traditionally served as a benchmark for the US's superpower status.

"You look at this case with Syria and Ukraine. Russia is really the driver behind both of them, so all they have to do is kick off operations in geographically split locations and they've got us in a really bad spot," Birkey said.

But in a tight budget environment, how will the Air Force pay for this spate of modernization? Together, the top five Air Force priorities – the Long Range Strike Bomber, the KC-46 tanker, the fifth-generation F-35 joint strike fighter, the C-130 cargo aircraft and remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) – account for $67.2 billion over the next five years, the Congressional Research Service's Jeremiah Gertler wrote in a December report.

The expected end of budget caps mandated by sequestration in fiscal 2021 potentially lends the Air Force some relief from the bow wave, but the caps could be extended or replaced, according to Gertler.

Reducing annual buys of the F-35 program is one way the Air Force could pay its bills in FY17, officials and analysts have suggested. The Air Force plans to buy 44 F-35A conventional takeoff and landing jets in FY16 and 48 in FY17, before ramping up to 60 a year starting in FY18. But reducing that to 48 per year would free up approximately $1 billion a year for other priorities, Gertler wrote.

CSBA's Mark Gunzinger agrees the Air Force will likely "level off" the ramp of F-35 procurement in this year's budget, but does not see a dramatic reduction of the overall buy.

Still, changes may be ahead for JSF, which is designed as a stealthy, standoff weapon that can penetrate enemy defenses. The Air Force is in the midst of re-evaluating the overall requirement for F-35 quantities, in response to a congressional directive in the FY16 National Defense Authorization Act. Although top service officials have said it's too soon to say whether the requirement will change, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, longtime F-35 critic John McCain, R-Ariz., has hinted the original procurement blueprint is out of whack with budget realities.

Another way the Air Force can get through the upcoming spate of recapitalization programs is to fund LRS-B through a non-service budget, as the US Navy has attempted to do for its Ohio-class replacement submarines – another leg of the Pentagon's nuclear triad.

Some analysts say the Air Force could include plans for a separate LRS-B fund in the FY17 budget request. However, this proposal could face opposition on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

"I'm not a fan of doing it that way because what you end up with is, if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority," according to Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. "Why would one leg of the triad be any more of a national asset than the other two legs?"

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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