By AARON MEHTA
WASHINGTON — When the US Air Force unveiled its budget in early March, it presented an unusual two-tier projection. The first was the normal five-year defense program. The second was a list of items that would be endangered if sequestration funding levels were not raised for 2016.
The hope for the service was that members of Congress would see future cuts coming and act to raise funding levels to prevent them. But two months later, Air Force officials seem to be coming to grips that a congressional rescue isn’t coming.
At an April 30 event, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said, “I am not seeing any indication” that Congress plans to change the 2016 budget plan.
Days later, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James echoed his comments.
“The conversations that I have had in Congress, with both congressmen, senators and staff members, overwhelmingly suggests that it’s less than a 50-50 chance,” James said. “But I also hear great appreciation for the situation that we’re facing, and I hear the willingness of key senators and congressmen and staff to continue to push. I’m an optimist, so I’m going to continue to push. I’m not going to give up. But realistically we have to think through that if we return to sequestration, how do we manage it?”
How the service will manage sequestration has been a specter hanging over the fiscal 2015 budget discussions. In late April, the Office of the Secretary of Defense issued a memo listing what, exactly, those cuts would look like.
The KC-10 tanker fleet would face retirement in its entirety, continuing the service’s theme that only the removal of whole platforms can achieve the major savings required under sequestration. The much ballyhooed adaptive engine program to help develop a next-gen engine for the service, worth over $1 billion over the next five years, also would be cut.
Procurement on the KC-46A tanker replacement program would be cut by three in fiscal 2017 and two in fiscal 2018, while planned procurement of 39 MQ-9 Reaper unmanned systems would be cut between fiscal 2018 and 2019. Ten MC-130J special operations platforms would also not be procured over the length of the Future Years Defense Program.
Another notable impact would come on the F-35A joint strike fighter. The Air Force would reduce fiscal 2016 procurement by 16 and 2017 procurement by one. Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of the F-35 joint program office, has talked repeatedly in recent months about how increasing quantity is the only real way to drive costs down on the program.
It’s a painful list of cuts, but one Russell Rumbaugh of the Stimson Center views as the outcome of a serious, in-depth look at how the service performs its mission.
“I’m sure the Air Force would prefer to keep all these things, but if that’s not tenable, this looks like things they really could do without and still project airpower globally,” Rumbaugh said. “The Air Force is continuing its quality over quantity idea. This is as corporate a decision as you can get.
“This really detailed planning,” he added. “This is a serious alternative, and the priorities don’t actually change at different levels, it’s just how it’s executed. This looks plausible. It’s certainly not the preferred outcome but if push comes to shove they can still operate.”
Whether the service can retire anything is up in the air. The House Armed Services Committee included language in its 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that prevents the Air Force from spending any funds to retire, or begin to retire, the A-10 close-air support platform, the U-2 spy plane, and, pre-emptively, the KC-10.
That KC-10 language has little-to-no real world impact on the Air Force’s 2015 plans, according to Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute. Instead, she believes it’s a signal that the House may put up a fight for the tanker come 2016.
“It’s good signaling of where the committee intends to go next year, and that’s something the Air Force leadership will have to consider when they build [plans for fiscal 2016],” Eaglen said. “It’s signaling at this point, but it’s an important signal. Of course, the Air Force may choose to roll the dice anyway with a new chairman” following the retirement of Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif.
One attention-grabbing notice in the Pentagon’s announcement of planned 2016 cuts was that the start of the Combat Rescue Helicopter program would be pushed out until fiscal 2019. The CRH program has been a popular one on the Hill, to the point where it was not included in the 2015 budget request until members of Congress directed Pentagon leadership to include it.
Asked about setting that 2019 date, James called it “illustrative” of the fiscal choices the service would have to make.
“There are many things that would have to be relooked, including the combat rescue helicopter, “James said. “The 2019 date, I think, is not a solid date.”