WASHINGTON ― The contract award for the U.S. Air Force’s new trainer, as well as an influx of new pilots and cyber experts, are at risk if Congress funds the Pentagon through a long continuing resolution, according to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.
During an Aug. 31 joint interview with Defense News and Air Force Times, Wilson said the T-X contract award is one of the many programs that would likely be delayed under a CR, which funds the government at previous fiscal year levels.
The T-X is the Air Force’s next big contract, with the long competition for the right to produce 350 next-generation trainer aircraft finally expected to conclude before the end of the year. Boeing-Saab, Lockheed Martin-KAI, and Leonardo are the final three competitors for the T-X design.
Asked if the service could still name a winner for T-X while delaying an actual contract, Wilson indicated that wouldn’t be happening, saying, “Well, what’s the point? We don’t have the money to be able to do it, so you end up delaying a lot of new starts.”
Another concern for Wilson is the impact a CR would have on the service’s attempts to plus- up pilot numbers and increase the number of cyber experts in the service.
“You probably have a hard freeze, if not a chill, on hiring,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to hire people in cyber, in training. We’re trying to increase the number of pilots we’re putting through pilot training. ... This becomes very quickly an extremely difficult problem.”
In theory, that could potentially harm the service’s chances of getting exemptions for big programs like the T-X. Under a CR, the services can request Congress to create special allowances for vital programs to be funded, but those are typically few and far between.
Wilson also is cocerned that the number of major issues going on in the world right now, including the standoff with North Korea and the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, could divert the attention of members of Congress at a time when they need to be making big decisions about how to fund the military.
“I worry that there are a lot of demands on every member of Congress that don’t relate to the security of the country, and it only matters when things go wrong and then it’s too late,” she said.
Budget analysts widely expect Congress to operate under a CR for at least a month or two; the bigger concern is that a CR could drag into next year if Congress is sidetracked by the Trump administration’s push for tax reform or becomes deadlocked over funding for a border wall with Mexico.
Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist told Defense News in an Aug. 23 interview that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Congress opts for a CR at the end of September, when the fiscal year ends.
“My preference would be there wasn’t a CR, but recognizing the timing of this year, you understand why a short CR of some limited duration” may occur, Norquist added. “As a bridge to finalizing things, this is understandable.”
Norquist is expected to give more thoughts on his budget outlook at the Sept. 6 Defense News Conference.
Wilson, a former congresswoman, declined to bet on how budget negotiations could end up, saying “that’s one of those things where you have to be really close in to the decision makers at the time to understand it.”
She also sounded pessimistic about the chances of the sequestration-imposed budget caps being raised on a more permanent basis, saying “I don’t know that they’ve found a way to do that, but it is essential to the Defense Department.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.