Senators Worry USAF’s Spending Decisions Will Hurt Future Force

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), speaks with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford before a hearing on the fiscal 2020 defense budget request on May 8, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Defense Department photo by Lisa Ferdinando.

Senate appropriators are scolding the Air Force for what lawmakers see as misguided spending decisions that are now carrying into the service’s five-year funding plan, despite ever-growing Pentagon budgets.

For fiscal 2020, the Senate Appropriations Committee is offering the Air Force $53 billion for Total Force operations and maintenance; $37.4 billion for Total Force military personnel and an end strength of 332,800 Active-Duty members, 70,100 Reservists, and 107,700 Guardsmen; $17.3 billion for aircraft procurement; $2.6 billion for missile procurement, $2.5 billion for space procurement, $1.5 billion for ammunition procurement; $21.1 billion for “other” procurement, which is largely classified; and $45.4 billion for research and development.

The committee also fully funded $72.4 million to stand up a Space Force.

Under the separate overseas contingency operations account, appropriators recommended $11.1 billion for Total Force operations and maintenance, $1.7 billion for Total Force personnel, about $1 billion for aircraft procurement, $201.7 million for missile procurement, $934.8 million for ammunition, $3.5 billion for “other” procurement, and $128.2 million for research and development.

But in the report accompanying the committee’s 2020 defense spending bill, made public Sept. 13, lawmakers wrote that in the past three years, the Air Force had the “opportunity to make responsible and deliberate strategic budgeting decisions as well as plan for the prospect of a topline leveling or downturn.”

“Instead, the Air Force has reversed acquisition strategies on key investment programs, divested or insufficiently funded key capabilities in the out-years, and failed to transition some critical technologies to programs of record,” senators wrote. The report doesn’t cite specific grievances.

Appropriators say that the Air Force has had enough money to avoid making difficult choices about what to keep or pursue, despite potential financial roadblocks like spending caps and mandatory caps.

“The committee fears that the lack of strategic budgeting decisions, which can be delayed in the current budget environment, could have a detrimental impact on the effectiveness of the Air Force in the future budget environment,” according to the report.

Lawmakers want Air Force leaders like the deputy chief of staff for plans and programs to brief the congressional defense committees within a month of the Trump administration’s fiscal 2021 budget release. The service should speak to its strategic budgeting decisions, key program changes, divestments, and its spending plan through 2026.

Earlier in September, Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan indicated some drastic investment changes are coming. Without getting into specifics, he said on Sept. 4 that “the Air Force is leading the way with bold and likely controversial changes to our future budgets.”

“We need to shift funding and allegiance from legacy programs we can no longer afford due to their incompatibility with future battlefields," Donovan said.

The service is considering how to grow its force while also relying more heavily on data-driven technology and updated communications, spreading its capabilities across multiple platforms instead of having mission-specific airframes, and leveraging cheaper, attritable assets.