WASHINGTON — The US Air Force requested $122.2 billion for fiscal 2016, a budget that emphasizes designing the Air Force of the future while addressing current needs.
The budget was crafted to balance the future force with what Maj. Gen. Jim Martin, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for budget, called the "most urgent combat and commander requirements."
"It's a request that's based on necessity, what we need for today's readiness in a long-term strategic framework, the capabilities we'll need in the future," Martin said. "It also allows us to begin the recovery from three years of operating at reduced funding levels."
In many ways, it's an ideal budget. Unfortunately, it's also an idealized one.
The Air Force budget went about $10 billion over projected budget caps imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA), and came with a wide list of programs that may have to be altered or cut entirely if Congress does not change the law, of the land, whether by repealing the BCA entirely or through another Ryan-Murray type compromise. This Which means the biggest question isn't what's in the budget today — it's what the budget will look like later this year.
Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute put the situation this way: "No one knows the final topline number for 2016, including Congress, the White House and the Pentagon. So everything is up in the air."
She guessed that based on previous agreements, the Air Force could project to get an extra $4 billion to $5 billion over BCA levels in a "Ryan-Murray lite" agreement. That's significant money, but not nearly enough to fund everything requested.in the PB request.
If BCA funding levels are not raised, in 2016 the service is threatening to cut F-35A procurement by 14 jets, drop the number of space launch procurements by one, in that same year, cut nine MRQ-9 Reaper buys, and potentially cut whole fleets of aircraft like the KC-10 tanker, U-2 spy plane or RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 40.
One system already on the cutting block is the A-10 Warthog, the close air support plane much beloved by soldiers on the ground. The service says it will save $4.2 billion over the future years defense plan FYDP if it can retire the jet starting in fiscal 2016, but Congress has resisted stood in its way in the past and some, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., are already promising to protect the plane this year.
One source with knowledge of Congress said the A-10 decision is already generating blowback, but noted that was expected. Aside from the A-10, however, "there isn't really much that was controversial in this budget."
In fact, The budget works in managed to work in the service's major recapitalization programs, getting second-tier priorities like the JSTARS recapitalization of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and T-X trainer replacement included alongside the three biggest priorities: of the F-35 joint strike fighter, Long Range Strike-Bomber and KC-46A tanker.
It also restored the U-2 to the base budget, a flip from last year when the service intended to start early retirement on the high-altitude spy plane.
The real challenge is going to be what happens when, barring a miracle, BCA levels are not raised to what the Air Force wants to see. When that happens, the source warned, expect the cuts to start at the same place they always do.
"Realistically, the flying hours will take a hit again. Readiness accounts, things like that," the source said, adding that the science and technology accounts could also be vulnerable as technologies like the new ADVENT engine for future aircraft "don't have clear constituencies and isn't a game changer today. It's out in the future."
Eaglen agreed that the most likely cuts are "a combination of readiness reduction in the near term and procurement cuts, stretching out of buys and slowing down procurement rates in the long term."
"There is nothing new in how the Pentagon will manage what they do when the budgets are decided," she added.
The source familiar with Congress added that the service simply doesn't have the horsepower on the Hill to muscle through whole fleet cuts, despite their threats to do so.
"I think the Air Force will make an attempt against a small fleet asset, like the KC-10 or something in that zone, but I don't think they have the weight to make a retirement really happen. That's why I think it will default back to readiness."
A former top US Air Force official expressed frustration that the service's hands are tied in terms of what can and cannot be touched.
"We would love to retire the A-10, and that's a multibillion dollar decision, but because of politics we're not allowed to do that," he said. "We would love to retire the Global Hawk and keep the U-2, but now we're going to end up keeping both."
At the end of the day, he said, "you have so much force structure you have to retain, where do you go for the savings? That's the problem we're facing particularly under a sequestered budget."
ISR and Weapons
While the budget may alter dramatically, it is worth looking at what the service prioritized in its ideal budget request.
Analysts and officials who talked with Defense News all noted that the fiscal 2016 budget request hews closely to what the service sought with in the 2015 request. That is no accident, as the service emphasized analysis of various programs and personnel figures before 2015. Abandoning those findings so quickly would be a mistake, the analysts agreed.
That doesn't mean the budget hasn't been impacted by real world events. Remember thatThe last budget was formulated at a time when the Pentagon was withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan and pivoting toward the Pacific, with potential drawdowns in Europe on the table. as well.
Between Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, also known as ISIS, the service has found itself flying significantly more operations than it had anticipated. In 2014, the Air Force flew 20,000 close air support and more than 35,000 ISR missions, according to service figures.
The budget reflects that in two main ways: an increase in munitions and an emphasis on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.
Ammunition procurement funds grew from $635 million to just under $1.7 billion in the 2016 request, a jump of more than 1250 percent. That is driven largely by the need to procure more air-to-ground munitions, such as the joint direct-attack munition, which are being used regularly in Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS.
That trend continues in the overseas contingency operations (OCO) request. The "blue" OCO funding request comes in at $10.6 billion, down from $12.1 billion in fiscal 2015 enacted. That includes a huge jump in missile procurement, going from $136 million in the 2015 enacted budget to $289 million for the 2016 request.
Weapons, of course, are no good if you don't know where to put them. When combat operations against ISIS kicked off, experts both inside and outside the Pentagon said this would be a fight that was won or lost based on ISR.
In addition to procuring 29 M
Q-9 Reaper units, the service included funding for both the U-2 and Global Hawk, pushing the retirement of the manned U-2 out to 2019 to make sure upgrades to the unmanned Global Hawk are complete.
Keeping both the U-2 and Global Hawk fleets, but spending significantly to upgrade the Global Hawk Block 30 sensor packages, is a big step toward maintaining a high-end ISR fleet, Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said.
"Their decision to maintain and upgrade Global Hawks will pay dividends in the future," he said. "While some services are still debating what they would like their UAS to do, the Air Force is putting real money behind unmanned systems."
James Poss, a retired major general and deputy chief of staff for ISR with the US Air Force, supported the focus on ISR,
expressed happiness that the service was focusing on ISR,
although he cautioned against reading the budget as an unmitigated success for ISR proponents.
"The budget isn't plussing-up ISR. It's more just not cutting it as heavily" as other sectors, Poss said.
He, too, praised the decision to keep the U-2, even if just for a few more years.
"Pushing the retirement date of the U-22 to 2019 gives us a good chance to make sure we have all the risk bought out of the [Global Hawk] system, because those high-altitude aircraft are absolutely vital when going against an adversary which can shoot back, when you need that standoff range to find his defenses," Poss said.
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.